Since things are changing at IROSF I thought I would try something new in the short fiction column as well. They're moving to a new schedule, I'm moving to a new format. They're experimenting with subscription schemes, I'm experimenting with, well, a new format. Let me know what you think. Also, my apologies for not including Strange Horizons or SciFiction in this column... I promise a marathon of internet fiction next month.
In his WorldCon Guest of Honor speech, George R. R. Martin commented that "novels have been the heart of SF and fantasy for many years now." (Asimov's, Oct/Nov, 2004.)
This is a tough truth for those who love short stories. Everyone knows that there's no money in writing short stories. Most people also know that there's no money in publishing short stories. Gradually declining circulation numbers in the professional markets seem to encourage the perception that the form is dying.
Although I believe there is ample evidence to suggest that the form is actually thriving, that is the subject for another occasion. If you look at what people are reading, at what people are buying, and at what people—outside a fairly small subculture of short story writers and readers—are talking about, the short story seems scarcely relevant at all.
Some people see genre short fiction going the way of literary short fiction: an insider's game, where the readers are all writers themselves. It is a business undertaken not to entertain or enlighten readers, but to prove your chops to those influential in the field in order to maximize your chances of a good novel deal when the time comes. Cynical, but I'm not sure it's so far off the mark.
Others see it as proving ground. A training area in which young writers can publish and get feedback without the kind of monumental effort that a full novel requires. In fact, I started reading—and reviewing—short fiction a couple of years ago because I wanted to start writing short fiction. And I wanted to start writing short fiction because, eventually, I wanted to start writing—and publishing—novels. For me, novels were the heart of the genre. Short fiction was the career path.
But I don't feel that way anymore.
So, if novels are the heart, what are short stories?
At the end of his speech, Martin referenced Robert Bloch: "He said that he had the heart of a small boy. He kept it in a jar on his desk... I have the heart of a small boy as well... but mine's still here, for good or ill."
If novels are the heart, short fiction is the laboratory where a cackling mad scientist is brewing up whole jars full of hearts. Some may go into bodies, some my go into souls, some may just bubble away in their jars. They are the hearts of small boys, small girls, alien monsters, digitally enhanced post humans.
Some people may not like short fiction simply because they don't know how to read it (topic for another occasion). Many are probably not interested in the laboratory itself. They don't want to see the experiments, they want the results. You might think that in the fast food age, the short story would be thriving. But if you think again you'll realize that the bloated, super-sized novels of today have a lot more in common with a big mac than does a sweet, sharp, short story. Novels are typically easy to digest. They hook you in; they carry you through some tasty adventure; they leave you feeling full of some other world, although not necessarily nourished by it.
But for those who do enjoy the experimentation, the exploration; for those of us happy to explore ten new worlds a week, even if a few are uncomfortable or even unpleasant, the short form is a great way to read. It is not only exhilarating to be given the run of this secret laboratory, there's some cool stuff in here.
This is a double issue, and although it didn't feel too hefty in my hand, there was a lot between the covers.
Consider The Word that Sings the Scythe by Michael Swanwick. This is a lot, right here. Although a fantasy novel complete with Centaurs and all sorts of magic, it also has intelligent fighter jets. Will was already on the run when word of impending war reached him. He was happy to join in with the refugees, but a young girl in trouble complicates matters—as does the fact that she's not just a young girl, and trouble is the least of her worries. Swanwick also takes a jab at current events:
"They could of saved themselves a shitload of expense by not destroying our homes in the first place," a dwarf growled. "What's the point?"
"It's their policy. Rather than leaving enemies at their borders, they absorb us into themselves. By the time we've found our feet through pluck and hard work, our loyalties have shifted and we become good, obedient citizens."
"Does this work?" Will asked dubiously.
"Not so far." The kobold got up, unbuttoned the corner flaps of the tent, and took a long piss into the weeds out back. "So far, all it's done is made them the most contentious and least governable society in existence. Which surely has something to do with their sending their armies here to solve all our problems for us, but fuck if I know what."
Swanwick is almost always a joy to read, his work multidimensional. Problems of war, politics, personal choice, and emotion all intertwine in this pleasantly challenging story.
We Could Be Sisters by Chris Beckett is another combination of quiet character study and political observation. In a world even more polarized than our own the divide between the haves and the have nots is a physical barrier, patrolled by armed guards; war is conducted from 10,000 feet... Jessica is a somewhat empty soul, searching for something. Some meaning, some man, some purpose. What she finds, however, is Tamsin— a version of herself from another world, a "shifter". (Not magic, but a drug.) This is the same Tamsin from Tammy Pendant back in the March issue. Jessica and Tamsin help each other; but Beckett seems to leave the possibility of real change as an open question.
Difficult, complicated relationships also lie at the heart of Jack Skillingstead's return to Asimov's with Scatter, in which a man who has already been murdered by his wife is subjected to yet another assault. That is, his digital survivor is poisoned with corrupt data, and he's forced to go black and white to try to save himself from irreparable deterioration. This is an enjoyable story, both accessible and rewarding.
Speaking of politics... Speaking of challenging... Paul Di Filippo brings Albert Camus to life in a universe where France is the dominant power. Their discovery of N-Rays has subdued the world long before the Germans even hatched their first plot, and instead of angsty philosopher, Camus is an angsty diplomat. You don't need to be familiar with "The Myth of Sisyphus" or The Stranger in order to understand Sisyphus and the Stranger, but it helps.
Geoffrey A. Landis' Perfectible reads like a "Probability Zero" column from Analog: cute, clever, and just a single page in length. Unsurprisingly, it is a meditation on human imperfection. Another meditation is William Barton's Though I Sang in My Chains Like the Sea, although what it is a meditation on eluded me. This novelette began as an entertaining What If story. What if every day everyone in the world shrank by an order of magnitude? Today we are barbie dolls. Tomorrow we are the size of bugs. Barton approached this deadpan, pursuing the real difficulties of such a situation. But in the end it spiraled into something else, something that felt like an intensely personal symbolism. And that was the meditation I couldn't seem to follow.
A couple of months ago I wrote at length on Shady Grove, which is the preceding episode in Steele's Coyote series. This issue brings Liberation Day, which brings the sequence to a satisfying conclusion. If you were in any doubt as to whether the renegade colonists would ever get their freedom from the tyrannical Collectivist rulers, the title of this one may hint at the outcome. For those who have been reading from the start, this Novelette will be an entertaining conclusion to the series. Newcomers, however, may not get much out of it. In most episodes, Steele has been careful to slip the background and context in, but this one starts off running. Loose threads from previous stories are tied up with minimal explanation.
Overall, it has been an entertaining run, and the door is clearly open for further episodes, although whether they will be serialized, formally or otherwise, in Asimov's I don't know. I have the sense that Gardner is bringing things to a close in these final issues of his reign in order to give Sheila Williams as clean a slate as possible to work with.
Speaking of which, close on the heels of last month's Elector October brings another Stross story, Survivor. This does not appear to be the conclusion to The Accelerando, but it may very well be the penultimate story: much of it felt interstitial, as though it's primary function was to pave the way for the final revelations of the series.
Apparently, reactions may differ. After reading it, one friend wrote me of his ongoing awe at Stross' accomplishment. I however, thought it the weakest of the Accelerando to date. Almost the whole of the story takes the form of a single scene with various side conversations. The core cast of the last few episodes is gathered with some of the original characters, and Aineko is revealed to be a great deal more than the artificially intelligent cat we thought him to be. The most interesting element of this story is the adaptation of the slighted-fairy-godmother tale with Aineko in the role of the offended Power.
But the weaknesses of some recent episodes remain. There is very little concrete upon which to hang one's hat. In a world where everything is malleable, where mortality is but a technicality, where individuals can spawn copies of themselves at will and the universe is apparently an open-ended multitude of possibilities, it's very hard to feel that there's much at stake in any of the events described.
Another problem: the characters are all starting to sound the same. They're merging with the voice of the remote narrator. Conservative Sirhan, good old Manfred, vicious Pamela, even cryptic Aineko all seem to speak with a single voice. The story transitions from one Stross rant to the next, be it commentary on consciousness, human nature, or existential choice.
Most disappointing in this episode, the lack of action, the static nature of the events give Stross very little opportunity to wow us with his fertile imagination. Much of the family drama that is performed here is based on a non-issue—the dispatch of a cloned consciousness on a one way experiment to test the waters in what may be the final confrontation of the series. But "To be or not to be" isn't quite such a daunting question when one can spin off a new version of the self at will.
Fortunately, the hint towards a conclusion is quite tantalizing, and the strength of the whole series gives me hope that the destination will be worth the trip.
As if all that weren't enough, other stories in this issue included The Catch by Kage Baker, adding another wrinkle to her enormous Company tapestry. A Change of Mind, in which Robert Reed wonders what would happen if the control of memes was so well understood that the thoughts of millions could be influenced—even determined—by a single man. Also, Mary Rosenblum's Skin Deep explores what happens when a horribly disfigured burn victim is given a second chance at normalcy through the magic of cloned and regrown skin cells (but, of course, at some hidden cost). In The Defenders, Colin P. Davies puts humans on another world, in conflict with a race of "demons," but wonders who are truly the demonic, and who the true defenders.
Analog continues to devote much of its space to the serializations of Mary Turillo's Old Fashioned Girl which is, frankly, taking some bizarre and fetishistic turns.
As for short fiction, The Slow Train by Dori Sakers combines the bittersweet fading of romance with time travel (by train!).
In Midnight on Tabula, Catherine H. Shaffer imagines a colony that has decided to wipe the slate clean, to start society over in a paradise where racism is unknown. All human phenotypes are to be affirmed and enjoyed. Naturally, it's not that easy.
Nyssa, a girl who is different not because of any particulars of her genetic ancestry, but because she has a prosthetic leg may be the only one who can avert disaster. This is clearly a story for younger readers; although I found it to be a rather heavy handed and obvious morality play, stuff like this can be good for teens. By explaining everything right before or right after she shows it, Shaffer makes sure that no nuance of her message (and it is nuanced) is lost on her readers.
The most interesting story of the three was Rajnar Vajra's Layna's Mirror. Vajra takes us deep into the Himalayas (and I do mean in) where Lord Marq has just made another exquisite work of art for the lovely Layna, whom he worships. But although it pleases her, as all his creations have, something is missing. Vajra slips the creepy music in from the start as we ponder the nature of this unsettling relationship: Layna and Lord Marq live in a luxurious hideaway, the beneficiaries of an ancient and alien technology, served by intelligent yetis, and guarding a degenerate enemy of all mankind. But when Layna asks Lord Marq to rescue some mountain climbers in trouble, their slowly decaying idyll is put at risk.
This is a delightful blend of science fiction and fantasy. It is the kind of novella that manages to pack a novel's worth of intrigue, reversals, and revelations into a mere 33 pages!
The worldbuilding is exciting and enjoyable to read; the characters are diverse and intriguing, from the cryptic Lord Marq, to the intruding mountain climbers, to the frighteningly efficient yetis.
Moreover, Vajra toys with our expectations by clever use of genre tropes. His setup for the vampire motif, and the ways he twists the story around that setup, is all good fun.
The ending, however, does not manage to live up to the expectations the story inspires. (Click here for spoilers)
F&SF (October/November, 2004)
Another massive double issue this month... F&SF celebrates its 55th anniversary with this issue.
As is sometimes the case with F&SF, not all stories have a strong genre feel to them. Flat Diane by Daniel Abraham is some kind of magical realism in which the magic is more narrative device than essential ingredient. Although there is a mystical connection between a girl and a paper cutout of herself that travels the world being photographed, the heart of the story is primarily about divorce and the emotional connection between father and daughter. Similarly, Finding Beauty by Lisa Goldstein is something of a non-fairy tale. Goldstein strips the mythic structure from the Sleeping Beauty tale and asks the question, "What if Beauty continued aging while she slept those hundred years?"
Another fairy tale with a major change of slant is The Little Stranger by Gene Wolfe. An old woman off in the woods solicits some gypsies to help her build a gingerbread house. No, silly, not out of real gingerbread.
This has all the hallmarks of classic Gene Wolfe. First, a strong narrative framework—in this case, the story is structured as a series of letters from an isolated old woman to her deceased cousin. Second, a quirky cast of somewhat surreal people doing somewhat surreal things; and yet with the strong sense that there is a very concrete reality behind these bizarre appearances. Third, the careful layering by which setting, character, and world evolve along with events.
The payoff in this particular story is a bit disappointing, however. What builds as a somewhat alarming disparity between fact and perception resolves into a happy-face version of Hansel & Gretel. Looming conflicts disperse with less than the wave of a wand.
Another traditional structure, but with more of a traditional feel, is John Morressy's The Courtship of Kate O'Farrissey. Mind you, the fairy godmother is nothing but a meddling wedding planner, and that appears to be about as good as fairies get in this world. Kate doesn't particularly want to get married, but she gives the wedding planner three chances to bring her a worthy specimen, even as her mentor Conhoon looks on in disgust—and a little fear of losing his useful apprentice. (She happens to cook and clean as well as study.) Although the expected three rejections follow, my worst fears were not realized: the young, beautiful maid did not choose grumpy old Conhoon. Whew!
Instead, she solves the problem of her cooking and cleaning, which is all very well, but a courtship story that ends up without any spark of attraction between any of the characters at any time does end up feeling like something is missing.
There is quite a bit science fiction in this one though such as Opal Ball, in which Robert Reed fictionalizes the futures market concept that the Pentagon has toyed around with, and which can be found on the internet even today: but, naturally, he shows why sometimes you might not want to know which way the futures markets are gambling.
Also, Time to Go by Michael Kandel, which is a reasonably cute take on the ennui of the unlimited life span. The most amusing element is a recurring motif about how complicated the genealogical structure might get to be as people have dozens of marriages over the centuries. The story shifts from light to absurd to merely silly as it progresses.
I was excited to discover that the Saurs are back! In Tibor's Cardboard Castle by Richard Chwedyk returns to a world I first encountered a couple of years ago in which miniature designer dinosaurs carry on in their refuge from the humanity that has discarded them. In this one, Tibor and Geraldine argue over who owns the universe, with potentially disastrous results. Somehow, though, this story does not live up to the standards of its predecessor.
The Saurs are as charming as before, but the story is less compelling. Moreover, the cast of characters is large, confusing, and many of them have no clear role in the story itself. There is a lot of coming and going, a number of asides that distract from the main story, and muddy the waters. Chwedyk tells us there are "a hundred-odd Saurs" in the house, and we certainly seem to meet a great number of them.
Page after page rolls by, each with its own entertaining reactions, but the cast keeps growing, the background keeps expanding.
Eventually the story resolves into one of super science. One or two of the Saurs appear to be inventing things like teleportation, levitation, and the creation of pocket universes. I mean, if you are going to start out with small, super-intelligent dinosaurs, I guess you might as well throw in super science as well, but despite the diversity of personalities in this story, the text itself seems to lack the character of Bronte's Egg.
Another light-hearted piece of science fiction was Steven Utley's A Paleozoic Palimpsest. Archaeologists in the Silurian age (time travel or universe hopping, take your pick) must treat every stretch of land with reverence, every rock like a sacred relic. All except for one. One out-of-the-way rock has been designated a free-speach zone, and over the years it has been ornamented with everything from toilet-stall graffiti to philosophical treatises. Despite the scorn of both the hard scientist civilians and the military commanders, one sociologist goes back to study this strange indicator of the human imperative to make marks on things. Unfortunately, she makes her mark as well—not just on the rock, but on the phenomenon she had hoped to study.
Utley's Silurian stories have occasionally been hit or miss for my tastes, but this one's a hit.
Framed as a semi-academic account of semi-academic debate, liberally sprinkled with footnotes, and gracefully following the current of this imaginary history (including excursions around some of the more amusing eddies), this story emerges as a fun and fascinating study of human behavior.
Actual inscriptions on the rock in question constitute a substantial portion of the text, but this is just as enjoyable as finding that stall at the university where the most entertaining and literate minds happen to be carrying on that anonymous public/private discourse that marks the very best of bathroom graffiti.
I'm sure Utley had fun researching this one!
Also light in tone, The Angst of God by Michael Bishop is science fiction not quite so light in nature. The Ztun travel from world to world. At each planet they render the sentient population unconscious, for a term that varies individual to individual based on the personal propensity to violence. The very most brutal specimens they collect for further study—and group therapy.
This is a tongue in cheek observation on human brutality, with something of the same "meta" characteristics as Bailey's story immediately preceding it in this issue of F&SF. (See below.)
As so often happens in the genre, humanity prevails, even over the enlightened good intentions of a superior race (see also Charles Coleman Finlay's The Ill-Fated Crusade in Paradox #5).
Bishop manages to be both somewhat silly and something approaching profound as he explores the function of good and evil. The reference to God in the title does become a significant plot point, but for all that, God makes no more than a theoretical appearance; ultimately this is a story about a universe in which both good and evil are real, and important, and have a role to play, despite the absence of any creator, any purpose, any judge, any absolute. (It's just too bad it couldn't have been paired with Sisyphus and the Stranger, from Asimov's.)
Yet more solid science fiction, but considerably more bleak, is another contemplation of death from Dale Bailey. In The End of the World as We Know It, Wyndham wakes up to find that his wife is dead. And his daughter. And everyone else, too. Wasn't it just last year Bailey wrote a story in which the dead all rose from the grave? Here's one in which the living all cease to be.
Although Wyndham's story threads through the text, this is more a meditation on apocalyptic literature in general. Bailey pauses in numerous asides to catalog the variations in end of the world stories, referencing The Postman, Road Warrior, and many others (never by title; some I recognized, some I did not).
He also pauses to inventory a sampling of real-world disasters, beginning with the meteor impact that ended the reign of the dinosaurs, up through the black death, the Holocaust, and 9/11. It's not comprehensive, but it's a convincing sample.
The story—as story—ultimately failed for me because I lost touch with Wyndham along the way. From the start, Bailey works hard to maintain a particular style, a tone of horrified detachment. The author acknowledges himself, his presence as journalist in a world that has not yet ended even as he recounts Wyndham's solitary existence: a post-modern observer that is at once part of the text and separate from the story. Although I enjoyed this element of the piece, Bailey took pains to match the story to the style— as if to say, unlike the heroes and anti-heroes of literature, unlike the Adam & Eve fantasies, this is what the end of the world would really be. Unfortunately, despite the conscientious efforts to build verisimilitude, Wyndham's ultimate interaction with the ended world fell flat. Perhaps this is also intentional, a sort of backwards argument in favor of the power of post apocalyptic literature. Perhaps Bailey is saying: "See, it's not necessarily that the end of the world will be the way the genre keeps imagining it; it's that we need it to be that way." It's this kind of story that makes the secret laboratory of short fiction such a fascinating place—even when not every story works.
I'll conclude with a brief mention of M. Rickert's Cold Fires, which is not science fiction, but which lies somewhere between bleak and melancholy.
A couple is frozen in on a long, bitter winter. Each tells the other a story, and each story characterizes the necessary incompleteness and impermanence of their love. These are tales more in the dry, disassociated style of Italo Calvino than genre fantasy, but it's an effect supremely well suited to the subject matter.
The narrative framework suggests barren rather than cozy; and the stories themselves, while quite gripping, are each rather depressing. Rickert does a wonderful job creating fiction that conveys truth without ever speaking directly, but it's not particularly cheerful stuff.
A few technical notes: the text could have benefited by removing the extra outer quotation marks during the long stories. This quite cluttered the page. Second: although Rickert did a magnificent job with the voice of each teller, one story had a long internal conversation that did not feel at all like a "told" thing.
Still Rickert's work is almost always justification for the price of a magazine—as if a massive double issue such as this actually needed justification!
Realms of Fantasy (October, 2004)
Realms of Fantasy surpasses their usual standards for cheesy covers with this month's absurdity. When I check out at the local bookstore I feel like I ought to tell the woman behind the counter: "No, really, I buy it for the fiction."
Ahem. About the fiction.
Realms usually has some retellings of myth, and this issue is no exception with Ruth Nestvold recasting Orpheus to the Celtic era in King Orfeigh.
Not exactly a retelling, but imbued with the sense of the traditional folk-tale is The Old Woman and the Moon by Steven Popkes.
The funniest thing about this story is the introductory blurb: "Sometimes a sacrifice requires you to dig deep into yourself, but sometimes you have to dig deep into another..."
I mean, that's funny after you read the story.
The second funniest thing is this sentence from the first page: "Middles are often confused, weak, and too long, but this one is easily told." This tempts the reader into thinking that the following few paragraphs comprise the 'middle'—particularly when three paragraphs later we come across:"The end of every tale is about a person or it isn't worth a damn." This however, signals not the end but only the end of the narrative framework. The rest, not to put too fine a point on it is "confused, weak, and too long."
Actually, it's an enjoyable enough story, but "confused, weak, and too long" haunts the author at every ponderous new twist and turn right down to the inevitable ending.
Bruce Holland Rogers also makes his customary appearance, this time with The Beast, another in his series of genre koans. This one, however, hints at an insight we are all too familiar with. Selfishness is the law of the world; no good deed goes unpunished, sentimentality is no virtue. Unless I misunderstood it.
Far more light-hearted is Almost (But Not Quite) Heaven by Tom Gerencer. The narrator has a visitor—the God of Hors d'Oerves. First one, then another, like the dwarves dropping in on Bilbo, these small Gods show up. Some are beneficent Gods, such as Ida, the goddess of taking out the trash. Others are more problematic. (The god of persistent nighttime coughs, for example.)
Ultimately, this is a cute little vessel for some amusing conceptual "small gods." The idea of small gods is apparently a popular one at Realms, given Richard Parks' The Right God in the previous issue. I wonder if Realms was considering a "Gods" issue, but at some point decided against it.
The ending of should come with it's own little rim-shot. It's more a punchline than an ending. As a student of philosophy, I can't quite figure out whether Gerencer is intending some deep paradox with the introduction of the "minor deity of total agnosticism," or whether he's just playing on the common parlance meaning of "I don't believe in anything." (Correctly used, agnosticism refers to the positive belief that the existence of a God cannot be known, rather than the negative belief that one does not know. As for the connotations of "I don't care," "I'm apathetic," and "I haven't made up my mind yet," those are right out. It is entirely possible, for example, to be an agnostic Christian. It would be absurd, on the other hand, to call oneself an atheistic Christian.)
Always a pleasure to see Tim Pratt back in Realms. This month he gives us In a Glass Casket: A boy finds a girl in a glass coffin. He doesn't know what to do: she's not moving. She might not even be alive. Or, maybe she is supposed to be in there. Opening the casket might kill her. What this casket is doing behind a burned out Safeway he doesn't know.
He goes home to get his mom, but finds that she is under the spell of a strange and menacing man. A man looking for someone. He offers to bring back Billy's dad if he helps. (Before you get ahead of yourself, Billy's dad is not dead—he's just a derelict dad.)
Billy doesn't like the man and doesn't offer to help. He keeps his counsel and, in the dead of night, returns to the girl. He helps her escape his glass coffin.
This is a none-too-subtle story about growing up, about leaving home, about becoming independent of parental control. The glass coffin should clue you in to the heavy handedness of the symbolism here. The style, however, suggests that Pratt intends this story more for the pre-teen reader than the jaded thirty-something, and for that audience I suspect this would be an excellent and enjoyable adventure.
And for the slightly older teen reader, there's They Are Girls, Green Girls by Ian McDowell. This is contemporary fantasy in the Charles de Lint mode. Ordinary person (teen girl) in an ordinary place (some small, remote town in the South) is confronted by faerie magic (in the form of a newcomer to town, new best friend, and descendant of the Forest Grandmother).
I have been told by a few women that men just can't write from a female perspective. It's never believable, they say. The characters aren't right. The voice isn't right. Well, you'll have to get a woman's perspective on this one, because I found Rachel and Lily to be very plausible girls.
Some of the descriptions are just beautiful, such as this moment of sitting around a fire smoking pot and drinking PBR: "I stroked the back of Lily's head, and then did the same to Jeremy where he squatted beside me and noticed the different ways their hair felt good." (Okay, some parents might not like the direction this is going.)
The ending, however, disappointed me. For much of the story, Lily's nature and circumstances seemed to telegraph a kind of 'easy out' solution to the text. As McDowell unfolded one skillfully drawn scene after another, I became increasingly convinced that the obvious end couldn't possible be the actual end. When exactly that solution ended up taking place, it came as quite a let-down. I was hoping for something more interesting, more challenging, more enlightening than what McDowell delivered.
My personal favorite of the issue was Embers by Rudi Dornemann. Dornemann concocts a very evocative fragmentary universe: in a town of canal dwellers, a mechanical man forged in the fires of ancient dragons arrives as advance evangelist for the railroads. The locals are curious about a mechanical man—an oddity, theological and otherwise—but they are not at all friendly to the railroads. They're canal people, after all!
Sophie, however, finds something in him that is more than mere oddity or enemy. And, although he is destroyed one night by the hostile mob, and although she marries a local boy as she ought, she never forgets the mechanical man.
A prime example of how novels can be used as source material for short stories. The smoothness of this text, and the richness of detail is obviously the outcome of considerable, careful thought and I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that there's a thoroughly worked-out history, economy, theology, & political tapestry behind this tale. However, Dornemann gets the balance of worldbuilding vs. actual story exactly right in the text. Our small glimpses beyond the immediate situation hint at an enormous and persuasive world without ever stepping away from the story. If there's a novel behind this, I look forward to finding it.
Talebones (Summer, 2004)
Talebones is often one of the more adventurous of the smaller magazines, and it's just too bad that they've had to scale back to two issues per year.
Given this publication schedule, I wonder whether the opening story, Ten Sigmas by Paul Melko was written before or after The Bistro of Alternate Realities from the June Analog. Although the details, and in many ways even the thematic essence of the two stories are similar, the characters are quite different; it is of interest to observe how two different authors, with very different characters in mind, tackle thematically similar material.
In this one, although the narrator has a special, magical ability (he is in contact with all the versions of himself that exist across the uncountable planes of the multiverse), he doesn't stop terrorism. He doesn't apprehend evildoers. Instead, he plagiarizes songs and stories from one plane to the next. (You probably knew, deep in your heart, that a song like Muskrat Love had to come from some other planet.)
But one day the narrator sees something he can't turn his back on, and he uses his power in a new way.
Melko's story is a trifle upbeat for Talebones, so it's no surprise they followed it up with Devon Monk's Fishing the Edge of the World. This is dark, somewhat melodramatic stuff that raises more questions than it answers.
George and Sadie are, well, dead. Dead, or something like it, and they hold between them some magic over life and death, over tides and waters, over the others who cross over. Including their son, Troy. Troy has a will of his own, however, although what he intends is not entirely clear.
Ultimately, I would have to say, I didn't quite follow everything about Fishing, but I understood enough to get chills from the ending.
Speaking of free will, The Ethics of Non-Linearity by Steven Mohan, Jr. explores what happens when one man tries to do good even though the consequences of his actions are unpredictable. The main character is a priest, and I wonder if this was intended to evoke that old maxim: "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions."
Another story with a moral was Bluebeard by the Sea by Sandra McDonald. Bluebeard is a seaside attraction, with his castle full of mysteries, and mazes. Few can hear him, but Bluebeard wishes for the sea. Until one day, it seems as though his wish may come true...
The strength of this story is the atmosphere of the seaside resort; the people, their games, their passions, the gulls, the rats, the seasons. The storms. There is something haunting and lingering about all of this. As for Bluebeard himself, he is an entertaining character for a wooden statue, especially as he has about as much intelligence as a wooden statue might be expected to have.
In finally getting his wish, and tasting the sea, we find that the theme of the story was summed up previously by a seagull: "Be happy with what you are." The other possible moral, of course, would be: "Be careful what you wish for."
A couple of other stories in this vein: in The Gods at Rest, Jeffrey Turner goes for irony by casting the ancient pantheons as the causal agents behind contemporary disasters. The King of Memphis by David J. Schwartz is a bittersweet What-If: What if Elvis was an avatar of the creator, given a true and powerful gift but only for a short time. His efforts to recapture the gift in later life explore the spiritual dimension of creativity, the responsibilities of creator.
Most of the stories in this issue have their grim twist or dark style, but To Crown a Sand Castle Just Right by T.J. Berg was downright devastating.
Benny is dying. There are no treatments left, and the doctors in the cancer ward release him to his mother with enough drugs that he may enjoy a few of his last days. They go to the beach. On the way they meet a "bounty hunter"—someone who finds a little luck for people when they really need. Benny and his mom can't afford his services, but apparently he does a little pro bono work now and then.
Luck is often seen as a tangible thing, a currency that can be traded, a quality that can be possessed. In this case, however, serendipity is a sea creature, tangible to those it touches.
The question for Benny and his mother is, are they strong enough to take advantage of this Serendipity, and what are the implications of having luck delivered into their hands?
Serendipity, you see, does not reproduce. As it is consumed—if it is consumed—then there is less luck in the world. Benny knows he is dying, but he does not have the will to destroy and devour the Serendipity that has befriended him. His mother shows no compunction.
Finally, David D. Levine offers a story that is altogether different in tone & texture: Where is the Line. The narrator is down on his luck. He's been out of work for too long, his bills are piling up, and what good is the work anyway? He heads up to the mountain to walk off his stress, but while passing a house ornamented with bricolage he is beckoned and welcomed into a strange new twist of his life.
In the editorial introduction to this piece, Levine intriguingly suggests that the fantastical element is not as speculative as one might expect. Perhaps the autobiographical essence here is what lends this story such strength.
Levine's portrait of an out-of-work dot-commer is compelling enough, but the events that transpire within the house are told with a fine degree of skill. Sex magic takes a careful touch to come across as magic, rather than mere erotica. Levine gets this just right, and the story takes several surprising turns along the way and brings the short fiction in this issue to a not-so-dark conclusion.