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.
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.
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)
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 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.