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July, 2004 : Review:

Short Fiction Reviews, July 2004

I see a fair bit of short fiction each month. Reading for The Internet Review of Science Fiction I take two passes. First I read all the stories in an issue for pleasure. After each story I jot down a few notes. General impressions. A week later I'll go back and re-read the story or two that seems to have the most staying power in my memory.

The only flaw in the plan is that, if for one reason or another, I am not enjoying the reading much, it's hard to slog through that first session with a magazine. The interesting question might be: "Is the problem in the fiction, or in the reader?"

I don't have an answer. Very little of the fiction this month got my blood moving, and while it seems honest enough to say that I thought there was an uneasy equilibrium between forgettably fluffy Summer fiction and ponderous literary efforts none of which stirred my pulse I should also confess to having started a new and fairly demanding day job. In the meantime, here's what I scrounged up.

The Reviews

Asimov's: August

Asimov's: August

Asimov's (August)

There were a great number of stories in the August issue, few of which found purchase in my memory. William Barton's story, "The Gods of a Lesser Creation" had some interesting, semi-cyborg characters, but the story meandered along and trickled off enigmatically. Jack Skillingstead's "Transplant" was another tale with both premise and promise, and yet the science fiction elements never seemed to connect with the actual story at hand. The other stories were both enjoyable and competent, but left me entirely unmoved. Except for:

"Moon Wolf" by Tanith Lee

No one should be able to write this story with a straight face and get away with it. Wolves? On the moon? Werewolves, even? Running free in the vacuum? C'mon.

Tanith Lee manages to blend a uniquely gritty, straight-up science fictional scenario with a cast of perfectly realistic characters with a gradual shift into magical realism that is both surprising, and moving.

The story: For Bayley, lunar work has lost its luster. Her peers are tiresome. The work, unexciting. The lunar compound is ugly. It's her twelfth trip, and she has come to the realization that all her dreams of space adventure have turned out as barren as the lunar landscape itself. But on one trip out into that empty world, she discovers something, perhaps dreams something, that changes everything.

For some readers, this may be a truly hopeless story: the fantastic elements don't have the kind of narrative resolution that I suspect many werewolf readers expect. Science fiction fans may be put off by the direction it takes. But the story is pure poetry. As far as I am concerned, Lee not only pulls this off, she is about the only living writer who could.

F&SF, August, 2004

F&SF: August, 2004

F&SF (August)

Due to the presence of a couple of longer stories, there are only five works of fiction in the August issue. None of these five stand out as works of major importance, yet all are perfectly enjoyable. Robert Reed continues with Raven sequence, and Albert E. Cowdrey turns his hand to old-fashioned science-fiction adventure story. Matthew Hughes brings back Henghis Hapthorn, but this one isn't quite as strong as "Mastermindless" was (see the March issue). Benjamin Rosenbaum dances along the fine line between surrealism and straightforward science fiction with "Start the Clock." Not necessarily the strongest story, but possibly the most thought-provoking Carol Emshwiller's "The Library"...

"The Library" by Carol Emshwiller

The burning of Alexandria is told in a fantasy-scape that includes contemporary weapons and suggests the conflict between Islamic extremists and Western values, yet also pits a very Western notion of function and value against universal notions of beauty. It's also an opposites-attract love story.

The first person narrator comes from a culture that believes in honesty. The sort of honesty that considers all representative art to be deception. Graven images. His militant culture detests the sybaritic ways of the Library: that the librarians bare one breast as they move about their little paradise is extremely offensive to them, as are all the other works of beauty. The narrator and his band have crept past enemy lines and have come to bomb the library.

The complex interplay of themes resonates strongly with current events, and yet Emshwiller never lets her material resolve into straightforward allegory. Unfortunately, Emshwiller doesn't bring the story itself to a convincing resolution. There are signs and suggestions that this clash of opposites is creating something new, even as it destroys something old, but the final paragraphs are simply too cryptic to allow any confidence in conclusions.

Realms of Fantasy, August, 2004

Realms of Fantasy: August, 2004

Realms of Fantasy (August)

I have never actually seen two stories by the same author in the same issue of a magazine, before, with the exception of the Barry Malzberg special issue in F&SF last year. I guess Jay Lake has just overwhelmed Realms with his prolific stuff. Before we get to Lake, a few words on some of the other fiction: there was charming stuff in this issue including "The Smell of Magic" in which Mike Lewis manages a small surprise in an otherwise stock fantasy story; "Words & Music" which will please all those who have fantasies about magical bookstores; "The Right God" by Richard Parks, an amusing story about household gods and arranged marriages; "Elfrithe's Ghost" by Kij Johnson, which is a little too short to come to fruition, but has some intriguing images; and "The Laily Worm" by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, an evil stepmother story firmly in the tradition of same. The two stories I cover in more depth are by fellow Wordos Jay Lake and Devon Monk (and just so you don't miss the point, Nina Kiriki Hoffman is also a Wordo), while the story by Jay Lake I'll just mention in passing is the perfectly pleasant "The Angel's Daughter."

"The Water Castle" by Jay Lake

Although both of Lake's stories in this issue are fantasy, they could hardly be less similar. "The Water Castle" is good old fashioned High Fantasy -- with all the infodumps cut out.

The story: Through the use of trepanning, Arcadia restores civility and generosity to a land torn by strange magic. She has by her heart a blue stone, the heart of her deceased father. One day she will know what it is for. Meanwhile, her Poison Twin is on the warpath, gathering all the Poison People together, apparently to destroy their originals.

Lake leaves the reader to figure out the nature of the world, the history of the war, and the complex relationships between powers, gods, and magics with very little in the way of guideposts. Fortunately, there are just enough touches along the way to keep the reader afloat, and the character of Arcadia has just enough real life in her to keep the reader connected, if not to the larger events, at least to her problems.

With the focus on character of his protagonist (a girl who finds that generosity combined with justice makes her a leader in a world ravaged by revolution and dark magic) Lake manages to manufacture a story out of a smattering of scenes that could have been pulled from an 80,000 word novel. The story works, but ultimately, it still feels as though something is missing here. The ending doesn't quite resolve for me, and Arcadia herself seems to float through the story on a cloud: the emotional heartbeat of her situation keeps a slow, steady beat from start to finish. The death of her father, her desperate poverty, embattled by an evil twin -- nothing seems to touch her.

"Falling With Wings" by Devon Monk

Ever since Icarus, flying is so strongly in the terrain of allegory, it's hard not to look for it.

That feeling is given additional support by the fact that the people of this story seem perfectly human in all respects other than the fact that they are dropped from the skies as infants and grow wings at adolescence. We learn that Dawn's wings are coming in a little late, but Setham's aren't coming in at all. As the two care for the babies, Dawn prepares for her life in the skies, knowing that Setham will spend his life on the ground. Dawn has always been fond of him, but will she forgo her life in the sky? Does she even have a choice?

Monk offers an intriguing glimpse at an original world. In addition to the peculiar nature of the inhabitants, the setting is also evocative: it seems like a far-future ruin of Earth than something totally alien or fantastical.

In any case, although Monk is basically telling a love story here, it doesn't quite have the structure of a traditional love story, and there is an added edge that arises from the hint that Dawn's love is neither choice nor fate, but rather the result of Setham's careful planning.

A question I ask in a story like this: to what degree is Monk exploring something particular? Is she exploring the metaphorical implications of giving up flight for love crossed against the sneaking suspicion that she has actually been manipulated into this choice. Or did she just dream a bunch of weird imagery, throw in some plot twists that don't quite resolve, and leave the reader with the impression that she is doing something deeply clever? I guess only Monk knows, but regardless, it is more fun to read something intriguing and believe the author intends something by it than to read something dull and stupid and know exactly what the author meant. Monk's story definitely doesn't fall into the latter camp.

SciFiction, June 2004

SciFiction: June, 2004

SciFiction (June)

SciFiction was dominated by the Dozois/Martin/Abraham story I discuss below, which occupied three of the new fiction slots. The other slot was another story by Carol Emshwiller with another take on her world of Eagle people (last seen in "On Display Among the Lesser"). We learn that these are definitely not stories about terrestrial animals.

"Shadow Twin" by Gardner Dozois, George R.R. Martin, and Daniel Abraham

This story began slow, and if I hadn't been reading it for review, I might not have made it as far as the good stuff. It begins with a dull section in which the narrator wakes up with amnesia only to find himself immobile. He ponders his sorry plight for paragraph after paragraph. Awkward paragraphs attempt to relate his struggle to move, to remember, and so forth. Eventually he succeeds, only to find that he is also not breathing. Is he dead?

The second section is another sluggish sequence in which he remembers his last hours before "dying." Here he is also alone. Again, we dwell only in his mind, and, unfortunately, it's just not a very interesting place. By this time we know he is a prospector on another planet, a perennial loser, maybe with a heart of gold, but more probably not. Finally, he meets some aliens that aren't supposed to be there, and things pick up.

Fortunately, they pick a lot up. The subsequent encounters between alien and human have much of the usual appeal of such contact when handled by imaginative, thoughtful authors. Misunderstandings, humor, weird imagery, strange cultural norms (although more than just a little Borgish hive mentality stuff). But that's not all.

The Ramon who wakes up dead discovers something about himself, something that takes this story to a new level. He discovers that he's actually an alien-made facsimile of Ramon: assembled in a matter of days when the original escaped, and intended to be used to track himself.

The complexities of a man forced to hunt himself are both psychologically fascinating, and also make for a very exciting story. As the new Ramon discovers what he is, he also discovers that he is free to loathe himself: the loser, the loner, the violent, hate-filled being that he is being forced to track. On the other hand, both Ramons detest the aliens even more. The conclusion has what so many stories this month lack: a gripping and satisfying ending.

Strange Horizons (June)

The four stories in Strange Horizons struck me more as experimental fiction than science fiction. A couple had some hint of SF themes: Eliot Fintushel's "Women Are Ugly" has some beautiful imagery of far-flung space exploration. But ultimately (perhaps pointedly) this is shown to be the effort of a troubled boy to escape from his troubled reality. Of course, with Fintushel, it's hard to be clear about what's really going on, and unlike some of his stories, it becomes less clear as the story progresses rather than moreso. In "Straw," Sarah Monette depicts the aftermath of some difficult encounter between what might be aliens and what is definitely Earth. Despite this backstory, the most speculative element seems to be what story these two damaged heros actually have to tell. "Once Upon a Time at the Learning Annex" certainly has an amusing title, but once the gunslinger out of the old west makes it past the security guard of the Learning Annex, I am afraid the rest lies somewhere between heavy-handed allegory and perplexing experimental storytelling. Speaking of perplexing storytelling, there's also "Borne Away" depicts the Irish saint/goddess trinity of Brigit, Brid, and Biddie in the style of a literary journal. It's all very elegant, but, to these reader, regrettably dull.

Copyright © 2004, Bluejack. All Rights Reserved.

About Bluejack

Bluejack resides in Seattle. In addition to publishing the Internet Review of Science Fiction, he herds cats for an Internet startup, designs and develops distributed software applications, and dabbles in a broad range of less useful endeavors.


Jul 29, 16:46 by John Frost
Comments on Bluejack's short fiction column
Aug 1, 09:42 by Mike Bailey
My review of "Moon Wolf" is available on my Tangent Online review of the whole Asimov's issue here.

Here is an excerpt:
Tanith Lee writes some very pretty lines in her short story, "Moon Wolf." Lines like: "For awhile, they did not speak at all. Beyond the seethrough, liquid black, a shark's carapace, space rushed like a sea." Another great section is, "What had it been, that luminously slender apparition--almost like a floating stone, yet light and weightless--borne transparently along by legs of finest glass--and with embers-of-opal eyes?" It is that kind of imagery that lifts this slow story, for me at least, from a listless read to an enjoyable one. In my opinion Lee had to write this story so that it comes across quietly, ploddingly, for her to create the dreamlike effects that complement the fragile imagery. The notion of disconnection, of alienation, of not belonging to the human race is not new. The recent film Lost in Translation has a feel similar to this story. But I feel that Lee added some lovely touches to this story that set it apart from similarly themed attempts. Read it twice. It gets much better the second time, when you can slowly enjoy the images and appreciate the use of foreshadowing.

I think that bluejack hits the nail on the head when he says that nobody should be able to pull this off. But I agree with bluejack that Lee did it.
Aug 1, 09:56 by Mike Bailey
My reviews of "The Water Castle" and "Falling With Wings" are available on my Tangent Online review of the whole RoF issue here.

Here are the applicable portions for "The Water Castle":
Jay Lake's second story in this month's RoF is much longer than the first, and much more intense. War, slavery, murder, and suicide are featured prominently in "The Water Castle," perhaps in order to highlight a message of peace and hope. Atrocities committed by both sides of the conflict in this tale make it difficult to cheer for either, but the sickening head worms and murderous actions of the Poison People tended to turn me against them. Lake wrote a dark story here, one that snuck up on me at odd moments, like here: "Maizie whimpered and cursed, but let herself be seated on a stool and shaved with an eerie gentleness by an old man and a small boy who never spoke to her or each other, yet worked with near-perfect coordination." I found that passage creepy, and a great tension builder, and Lake has several other good ones in "The Water Castle." I would have liked to see this story much longer, and with a less abrupt ending. I was not satisfied with Arcadia's fate. But Robert's swim in the last sentence was poetic, and that helped make up for the odd finish.

I agree with bluejack that the story seems to be missing a lot of information that might have helped flesh it out, and that Arcadia's seeming lack of emotion is disconcerting, but I also feel that Lake's nice touches of imagery manage to save the story.

Here are my thoughts on "Falling With Wings":
In an ugly world of brown clouds, fields of garbage, rotted hills, waist-deep oil, sewage, and burning chemicals, Devon Monk tells a story of tenderness and love. In "Falling With Wings," Dawn and Setham, not much more than children themselves, struggle to survive and raise babies discarded from the skyworld above. "Dead things, broken things, rust and filth, bob in the muck and sewage, stare with tumored eyes, cut, sting, bite." From that muck Setham digs the babies, and his ragtag band of orphans raises them. While Monk's setting and plot seemed unlikely to me (children do not seem to care for each other in real life the way Monk imagines here), I was still touched by the story. The imagery of the toxic world that mutated the children, presumably granting them their wings, seemed both a rant against pollution and a prayer that something uplifting might come from it in the end. The story of deep caring, acceptance, and affection between Setham, Dawn, and most of the other children seemed hopeful, wistful, and was made even more so by the contrasting post-apocalyptic wasteland setting. Overall, in my opinion, this is an excellent story.

Unlike bluejack, I did not notice any hints that Setham had manipulated Dawn into loving him, thereby securing himself a mate who would sacrifice the sky for him. I felt the horrific environment of the muck nursery was dark side enough for this tale, and did not notice overtones of darkness in the relationship.
Aug 1, 10:05 by Mike Bailey
My review of "Shadow Twin" is available on Ellen's BB here.

"Shadow Twin" by Gardner Dozois, George RR Martin and Daniel Abraham

"Shadow Twin" had several nice touches. One of my favorites: the cultural references that gave the story an extra dimension for me. The culture on the planet of Săo Paulo was a nice change, as the "colonists were mostly from the Brazilian Commonwealth, Mexico, Jamaica, and Hispaniola." The authors did a good job, in my opinion, of making cultural references in dialog, food, and even mind-set. The feeling was authentic; Ramon was not just the same old protagonist with a different ethnic name, but a legitimate "tough-ass bastard" ready to stomp some alien pendejo into the turf.

I also liked the transformation in Ramon (although, technically, the real Ramon did not transform at all.) I fancied the idea that he had been somewhat purified by his creation in the vat, his punishment with the sahael, and his dream-merge with Maneck). Enough of the hard Ramon remained to do what needed to be done on the river, but he seemed wiser at the end, and kind enough to show some respect for the deceased, something I cannot imagine the original doing.
Somewhere in that flow—eaten by fish, his bones washed out to sea—the other Ramon had by now become part of the world in a way that could never be undone. Ramon touched his brow in a sign of respect for the dead.
The transformation of Ramon was what made the story deep enough for me to enjoy, although I also appreciated the fine writing (of which there was plenty). Some of Ramon's final thoughts again show how he had changed:
And it [exiting the mountain] would be a good thing for the aliens too, for whom he'd gradually come to feel a strange kind of sympathy; no one, not even alien monsters, should have to hide inside in the dark all the time when there was a world like this one to be out and around in.

Another note: The overtones of respect that even the original Ramon had for the pure environment and fauna of the mountainous north suggested to me that Ramon’s true love was never a woman, but the planet itself. I liked that romantic notion. The fact that even the “bad” Ramon loved the wilds kept him from being too one-dimensional.

While there is plenty of good stuff to like in “Shadow Twin,” I still think Ramon was a little too unsympathetic to leave behind the kind of lingering emotion that a reader will feel after reading some of the other SCIFICTION stories, like “At the Mouth of the River of Bees,” by Kij Johnson. That story lingered because of the painful and loving relationship between Linna and her dog, Sam, but the closest thing I can point to in “Shadow Twin” would be the odd dream-merge between Ramon and Maneck, and even then, I still didn’t sympathize much with Maneck, who fried Ramon for the heinous crime of laughing (great way to show a truly alien nature, by the way.) Still, “Shadow Twin” was a good read, and has a lot to offer.

Bluejack is right on target when he says:
As the new Ramon discovers what he is, he also discovers that he is free to loathe himself: the loser, the loner, the violent, hate-filled being that he is being forced to track.

That dynamic is another reason that this story is, in my opinion, a success.

Aug 2, 17:00 by Bluejack
Unlike bluejack, I did not notice any hints that Setham had manipulated Dawn into loving him, thereby securing himself a mate who would sacrifice the sky for him. I felt the horrific environment of the muck nursery was dark side enough for this tale, and did not notice overtones of darkness in the relationship.

The hint I took here were the first paragraphs: Sethem's account of finding her was his side of the story only; there were no witnesses. His actions surprised his peers -- "The raising girls thought it beyond thoughtful of him to bring me in clean and greased thick enough the flies wouldn't bite my tender skin." In other words, he performed the anointing rituals himself that the women usually performed. Why?

The narrator then writes: "Maybe that was how the difference inside of me started. The difference I couldn't push away, sing away, nor carry up Mount Discard and heave over the side to watch it fall into the heaps of junk below."

There are few other hints in the story; however, it remains ambiguous. The ending does not seem to have the darkly ironic twist one would expect if the whole show had been manipulated from the start, so I don't know.
Aug 3, 16:16 by Mike Bailey
Maybe Setham helped her because he was destined to fall in love with her. The fact that love endures or even exists in such a setting is hard to imagine. The notion that mere children could be selfless enough to care for each other in the way described in the nursery requires a very open mind. In fact, it seems to me that the only way love and caring could occur in such a place is if it was involuntary. Maybe you take care of the muck babies because you can't NOT take care of them. Maybe Setham loved Dawn because he had no other choice. Maybe Dawn doesn't really have the option to choose the sky because it is her destiny to love Setham. I'm not sure what the author intended, but I can see how it could be read many ways. The way I read it, I liked it. :-)

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