It was a quiet month for short fiction, this month. At some point during last month's reading marathon I apparently got ahead of myself, so this month I have no F&SF on hand, and no Third Alternative showed up either. It's an off month for Realms of Fantasy and for Andromeda Spaceways. So, do I take this golden opportunity to look at some of the very fine web venues that all too often miss coverage?
I wish I could say that's what I have done, but I am afraid I did nothing of the sort. It's Summer in Seattle—an unseasonably beautiful June—and, well, let's chalk it up to vacation time.
Among the material I did read, however, I particularly want to call your attention to The Clapping Hands of God, an exceptionally fine story by Michael F. Flynn that appeared in Analog, and also to The Voluntary State, a weird, wild, wonderful something published at SciFiction. Things to keep in mind at nomination time.
Speaking of nomination time, people are starting to publish their recommendation lists for this year's Hugo voting. The first I have seen is by Nicholas Whyte. I was thinking about compiling my past reviews to form a similar recommendation list, but does anyone really vote based on recommendation lists? Probably not, and if you want to know what I said about those stories, Nicholas kindly links to my reviews, at least, when they weren't too insulting. I have to confess that a few of the nominees were stories I didn't think highly of. Based on past experience, those will probably turn out to be the winners, so maybe it's for the best that I don't go down this road any further. I will, however, note that there is a preponderance of stories from Analog, suggesting to me that the Analog readers are far more organized in their voting than, say, F&SF readers, which did not manage to propel any of their favorites onto the final voting. Tsk. Tsk.
- Asimov's (July)
- Analog (July-August)
- The Clapping Hands of God by Michael F. Flynn
- On Spec (Spring)
- SciFiction (May)
- The Voluntary State by Christopher Rowe
- Strange Horizons (May)
- Unfinished by Jason Stoddard
With fine work from Robert Reed ("Daily Reports"—a dark cautionary tale about child care), Kristine Kathryn Rusch ("Forest for the Trees"—contemporary witchcraft and young adult isolation that manages not to be Buffy), and Judith Berman ("The Fear Gun"—the alien overlords of Earth have been overthrown, but not entirely expunged), this is not an issue to miss. I am going to break from my usual pattern of covering the very best stuff, however, to take a look at the state of Allen M. Steele's Coyote series.
"Shady Grove" by Allen M. Steele
Steele is deep in his Coyote series now—a sequence of stories that have already spawned at least one novel, I believe—and which has provided intriguing entertainment from the start. It is becoming increasingly difficult for him to establish standalone stories as the larger conflicts are overshadowing the smaller, human stories. Although Steele is a master of the sly infodump, the background information required is rapidly growing in proportion to the story at hand.
But it seems he may be growing a trifle sloppy. For example, we are given to understand that Defiance is a town of a couple of hundred people at most—a tiny village by any measure. But Steele's portrayal of the interpersonal relationships feel more like a sprawling suburb than a community where every individual will know the intimate lives of every other. One glaring example of this was Wendy's explanation that she happened to know the names of all (few) children because she had helped out in the infirmary. Actually, she would know all the children because they are all growing up together in a town the size of four square blocks of suburbia, isolated from all other human contact by a continent of untamed alien landscape. But Steele never captures that here. He has done so in the past, which leads me to conclude this is just some careless writing.
One other indication that Steele is slipping is the character of Carlos. This is the legendary Rigil Kent himself, albeit on his home turf. As a character, he is disappointingly unimpressive. For no reason we can see, he withholds crucial information from his wife on multiple occasions. Some of this clearly fulfills the function of holding some of the mystery until the end of the story; on other occasions it holds the mystery through the end, presumably for the next installment. There's never a reason for this secrecy that the reader can see.
As a story, there's not much here. The Western Hemisphere Union and Rigil Kent's rebels are about to go at it hammer and tongs. This is proven by the fact that the Union has found the town of Defiance and made an initial assault. It is repelled, but at some cost. Before war can really get underway, rebel leader Robert E. Lee (groan, but it's not new) decides to send the children to safety so his soldiers can fight confident in the knowledge that they are not putting their progeny in harm's way. So Wendy and Carlos take the kids up to the hills, only to discover new and unexpected hazards that may overshadow the threat of war. And they turn around and go home.
It is clearly an important intersection point of several subplots that Steele has running, but on its own this pretty much translates to: woman evacuates children, has a strange and unresolved encounter, and decides to take the children back where she started. The promise, at the outset, that there are worse things than war does not convincingly materialize. The so-called spiritual slavery that is revealed would need considerably more backstory to have actual emotional impact. In fact, the discovery that there is native intelligent life on Coyote should be the discovery that transforms the role of humanity on the planet. Instead, nobody seems to blink twice about it. (And Rigil Kent's role in this is peculiar at best.)
Don't get me wrong: for followers of the Coyote series, this one will entertain. It advances the larger plot; it brings in some very interesting developments; and it is clearly leading towards momentous events. But it makes for a mediocre story on its own, and lacks the vivid and evocative depictions of another world that have characterized Steele at his best. My hope is that this is an aberration and the conclusion of the Coyote series will show Steele returning to form.
"Gwendolyn is Happy to Serve You" by Eliot Fintushel
I would be remiss if I didn't call special attention to Fintushel's fabulously strange story. I am sure this is love-it-or-leave-it fiction. When it comes to a contemporary, surreal fantasy about a waitress who is in love with a moose, you're simply not going to have much middle ground.
Actually, Gwendolyn leaves the waitress job early on, although she goes back to her catty (or, perhaps, wolfy) friends for advice. She goes off to marry a professor, who, shall we say, doesn't show his affection very well. Why does he marry this strange, simple waitress? Is there some money involved? Some incomprehensible wager? There's some mystery, for sure.
In her loneliness, and in her uncertainty, Gwendolyn befriends a moose who hangs out underneath the willow tree in her back yard, and with the moose, she feels at peace.
The crisis that this builds to is not at all what one expects—even if one is familiar with Fintushel's devil-may-care attitude towards intelligible stories.
I suppose this could be an allegory for some sort of totemic religion; or perhaps it is richly archetypal writing about exposing the inner, honest self to one's partner. Whatever Fintushel intends, comes across zany, amusing, and moving.
For a double issue, this magazine has only a handful of stories. One for each finger, in fact, plus the first part of a serialized novel. (I guess that would constitute the palm.) Reviewing serializations is outside the scope of this column, but I certainly did enjoy the first part of Mary A. Turzillo's An Old-Fashioned Martian Girl.
There are so few stories, because they're mostly long. For novelettes, there is Flynn's story, reviewed below, and yet another story this month by Allen M. Steele, demonstrates the rare ability to get past both Dozois and Dr. Schmidt. The story: "Moreau2," something of a retelling of The Island of Dr. Moreau set on the moon. Also, two novellas: "Clay's Pride" by Bud Sparhawk, a space opera filled with political intrigue, betrayal, and sexy double agents. Then there is "To Emily on the Ecliptic"—a tale about writer's block. In the lone short story in this issue, Bob Buckley tries his hand at humor with "Fool Efficient."
"The Clapping Hands of God" by Michael F. Flynn
Just across the way, in the wrong direction, there are other worlds. Multinational, multicultural teams of investigators travel cautiously in the wrong direction to explore and investigate these other worlds. Some are brutal, most are barren, but this one... this one seems to be paradise. A Shangri-La. Hassan Maklouf has been on seventeen expeditions, seven as leader, and he has scars for every one. Despite the enthusiasm of his team for this beautiful land, he approaches it cautiously. To their astonishment, they find the greatest rarity on such expeditions: local sapient species, frolicking and playing in an exquisite landscape, enjoying life in a state of technological innocence at about the level of Renaissance Europe. But when the delightful, graceful, and charmingly fernlike locals suddenly begin to prepare for war, Hassan's team finds itself in a quandary. Their mission is to observe only, but as the mysteries of the alien world begin to resolve in some exceptionally surprising, but fairly intelligible ways, they must decide whether to intervene or not.
Despite the fact that there is very little original here, this is, in some ways, a masterpiece of science fiction. Flynn gets every detail just right, and it is an ambitious project from the start: the inter-dimensional exploration team is led by Muslims from the Middle East, but also includes American, German, and Chinese members. Alien contact stories are common as grass, particularly in the pages of Analog, but Flynn makes the strangeness of a totally new world come alive in the particular puzzles the team strives to comprehend. What are their sensory organs? How do they communicate? And, of course, what kind of war are they preparing for? When a sailing vessel appears over the horizon, their speculations are put to the test, and found wanting. When an alien spacecraft appears in the skies, however, all their speculations are out the window.
Flynn tells the story in a Victorian voice, which at first seems a puzzling choice for a future Earth; yet it resonates beautifully with the nature of the local culture, and effectively conveys the sensibilities and character of the Muslim team leaders.
Most impressive is his handling of the dynamic of the story. The interplay between the team members slowly builds a clear picture of some of the members, while all of them seem perfectly real, if lightly sketched. Hassan's caution seems ominous; we are inclined to trust his experience over the impulsive instincts of some of his team members. As things get more complicated, Hassan's experience and steady guidance toward reasonable choices in confrontation with high passion mask the depth of misunderstanding possible in the situation. When the story concludes—with a somewhat melodramatic flourish—we see how even Hassan had been caught up in the appearance of understanding, despite all his best efforts and worst premonitions.
On Spec (Spring)
Someone slipped me this copy of On Spec, a magazine that normally doesn't make its way into my hands. I think it might have been author Jack Skillingstead, who advised me not to review his story if I didn't like it. I can't be sure of any of that, though: once we started in on the bourbon, the whole evening started to get very hazy. All I know is somehow I managed to make it home, and woke up clutching a copy of On Spec.
"Jumpstart Heart" by Michael Brockington
This reads like Steve Aylett imagining William S. Burroughs writing Henry Miller as spoken by Steven Wright. In short, some very fun, imaginative, witty, stuff. Every now and then I run into a writer, and my only reaction is more! More! Where can I get more Brockington?
The story begins on the kind of day on which nothing happens. A grey day at the Ennui Cafe. Jeremy's going with the flow, until his buddy Dexter suggests that this "nothing happens" business is just a little too close to the Second Law of Thermodynamics and they're going to make something happen, damn it. They're going to save the world from Heat Death, and maybe get Jeremy a replacement heart for the one Myrna stole.
It's wild, gonzo stuff with Doctor Benway played by a charlatan named Kwok. "The college of physicians has it in for me. They feel my work is malpractice by definition, even if the operation is a perfect success."
About Myrna? "Myrna was an airheart, the way some people are airheads".... if "Myrna had a heart of gold, she'd slice it out of herself with a razor and trot it down to the pawnbroker. And you know what? Next day she'd be walking around healthy as a pit-bull. There's some people, you gotta realize, their heart just aint a vital organ."
And you may not have known that the Second Law of Thermodynamics applies to social dynamics as well. It looks something like this: "My watch wasn't working this morning, but I put it on anyway. I'm not even human anymore, I'm a habit machine."
As romps go, this one is pure genius and all fun.
"Reunion" by Jack Skillingstead
Skillingstead's writing is compelling, even if, such as in this story, it literalizes that tired old saw of therapy: "Finding the child within."
Lawrence Darby is drawn out of his corporate executive life as if in a dream, as though against his will, as though fate had stepped in and taken the driver's seat. He returns, by first class flight, by limousine, to the town of his youth, and to the forest that defined the end of his childhood.
The cryptic, surreal style drives this story; and the portent of dark revelation.
Skillingstead's portrayal of a ruthless corporate executive doesn't feel like a fully realized character, although in a piece with this style, that may well be the intention. Skillingstead could be demonstrating that such a man is not whole. The dreamlike character of the story itself does not require hyper-realistic flesh and blood people to speak to the reader.
That said, this reader ultimately wanted more: more reason for this moment to be happening; more life intervening between boyhood and middle-aged crisis; more fear in the older Darby—and more reason for that fear. While reading this story, I continually felt as though something awful were just off-stage, waiting to pounce, manipulating events. By the end, I wanted at least a glimpse of the monster.
I don't know if Ellen Datlow set about to making May the weird month or not, but that's more or less how it ended up. There's "Family Bed" by Kit Reed, which appears to be some sort of take on or extrapolation of reality television, but into thoroughly bizarre—and disturbing—realms. Jim Kelly imagines "The Best Christmas Ever" and it's not a pretty sight: "It's about Christmas, Al... It's about getting out of the god-damned sleigh and going into the store." The gonzo juice is on, and the end of the world is nigh. A little less weird was "The First Commandment" by Gregory Benford, who goes back to the first passages of Genesis to find God's real first commandment. And then there's...
"The Voluntary State" by Christopher Rowe
Someone has done Soma an injury—or rather his car. The car is weeping, fearful of people. A window bashed in. Soma opens his own head and calls for the police.
Thus begins a remarkable adventure, as notable for its moving narrative as for the nearly unintelligible world in which it takes place. Although this appears to be a physical world, it has all the indications of some sort of virtual reality: the Gulf of Mexico, there, is actually the Tennessee River. When people bleed, they bleed real blood. When they die, they really die. But there is an interchangeability of identity, and a manufacturedness to things, interspersed with datacentric technology giving this remarkable world the organic feel of life fused to information.
Soma has been kidnapped by some sort of rebels. People from Kentucky; or creatures—humanity, animalkind, and mechanical objects all seem to share the same organic basis, and a certain common sentience, as well as all being part of the network. Well, except for the rebels. They appear to be on a mission to destroy the network, to unseat the Governor, to remake Tennessee.
Strange Horizons (May)
Quite a mixed bag for Strange Horizons: "Broken" by Rosamund Hodge is caught somewhere between the suburbs and High Fantasy; "Love of the Sea" is a missed-opportunity ghost story; "Tetrarchs" by Alan DeNiro is rather like an acid trip. In May, I was most impressed by...
"Unfinished" by Jason Stoddard
Gillam Anderson is taking on his first job as Editor. His subject is Mina Best, seventh oldest person on the planet. But he can't do it. She's too important; her work: too important; the stakes are too high. It should be someone with experience, he thinks. His supervisor, however, believes exactly the opposite.
Stoddard tackles one of the more fascinating problems of longevity: the ossification of mental faculties with age, and the tendency towards fixation on the distant past. Stoddard deals with this on both a scientific and spiritual level, without ever getting mired in religious scruples or biological minutiae. In fact, most of the story is kept on a strictly fantasy level: airscreens, trans-virtual-reality abstractions of the mind, and nanoscale tendrils infiltrating the brain are the technology here.
Editing involves pruning the unnecessary neural connections -- with a consequent loss of memories. There's no undo feature, however, a bad cut can slice away skills, talents, and dramatically alter the personality. The goal is to keep a brain young, alive, vibrant, open to new possibilities, able to make new connections—without destroying the person within.
Stoddard makes this a story about creativity and experience: Mina was an important artist, but is now locked into a tropistic brain-state. She has enormous experience, but no creative capacity left to put it to use. Gillam, however, has no experience at all, only talent. He doesn't trust himself to take on so difficult a project: he doesn't have the experience.
Thematically and structurally fascinating, but Stoddard ups the stakes: Does Gillam's supervisor have some hidden agenda? Is she forcing this task on him because he's really the only one who can succeed? Or does she want him to fail? She is old herself, and turns out to have some history with Mina.
Still, this is essentially a philosophical piece: questions of brain chemistry, neural networks, mind, spirit, and faith are the core material and drive this to its enigmatic conclusion.