I’m adding a new feature to the short fiction reviews this month. When most other reviewers look at a magazine, they often don’t mention the stories they don’t like. But I’ve committed to discussing every story in every issue of a magazine, for better or for worse. In consequence, it might seem to some readers that there are more negative reviews in this column than they are used to seeing elsewhere. So to introduce a more affirmative tone, the fiction I think readers might particularly enjoy will now be listed as Recommended.
Asimov’s, March 2006
In the first two novelettes in this month’s issue, the authors revisit some of their earlier work, which seems from the results not to be not such a good idea. The stories are, with one exception, all nominal science fiction.
The Gabble by Neal Asher
Asher’s story is not precisely a sequel to last August’s “Softly Speaks the Gabbleduck,” having neither setting nor characters in common, only the enigmatic gabbleduck itself. The world called Masada is inhabited by several dangerous and mysterious creatures besides the gabbleduck, along with scientists intent on cracking their secrets. The most deadly beast seems to be a giant segmented predator known as a hooder. Veteran taxonomist Jonas Clyde is assigned to the study hooders, while linguist Shardelle Garadon is trying to crack the gabble of the gabbleduck. Circumstances send them out into the field together, where Jonas solves his problem and they have a potentially deadly encounter that provides a clue to the mystery of both alien species.
“Softly Speaks the Gabbleduck” was an exciting, tension-filled adventure, with the characters fighting for survival against the aliens, their fellow-humans and their own limitations. By contrast, in “The Gabble,” the characters go out and come back, but it seems to be the author doing all the work, explaining the nature of the problem he is positing, then explaining his solution to it. The characters only seem to come to life when they have sex, but they are otherwise mostly voices for the author to speak through.
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
Beckett’s story is a prequel to “The Circle of Stones,” which appeared in a 1992 Interzone. The earlier piece showed the conflict among a group of humans on an isolated world, all descended from a single pair of castaways. Now we have the story of how this pair got there. Tommy is one of three crewmen on a galactic exploration craft when the government tells them the project is shut down. Instead of returning to Earth, the three decide to make one last trip into space. Angela is one of the crew of the interceptor ship sent to stop them. Instead, the premature leap into galactic space strands both crews somewhere near a solitary, apparently artificial world that just happens to be perfectly suited for human habitation.
This is a very silly, superficial and improbable story. Although Angela narrates half of it, the reader is still left with no glimmer of understanding why she makes the sudden, unlikely decision to remain on Eden and make babies with Tommy, whom she dislikes, instead of joining the others attempting to retrace their way back to Earth. Since this relationship is so improbable, it is hard to care whether the two get along with each other, and since the world itself is so unrealistic, the details of their survival are of no real interest.
Dead Men Walking by Paul J. McAuley
The narrator, dying, calls himself Roy Bruce. It is the name he has been living under ever since the end of the war, more than eight years ago. He was made for the war, not born, and should have turned himself in when it was over, but he preferred to live. Only now another agent like himself is murdering prisoners at the facility where he is working as a guard, and he fears that an investigation will expose him for what he is. His only chance is to uncover the new agent himself.
As a mystery, this one is taut and edgy, with a satisfactory quantity of action. But the heart of the story is the narrator’s love of life, the simple life he has made for himself in the short span of time his designers have left him:
I have a one-room treehouse. It’s not very big and plainly furnished, but you can sit on the porch of a morning and watch the squirrel monkeys chase each other through the pines. . . .
I’m a member of Sweat Lodge #23. I breed singing crickets, have won several competitions with them. Mostly they’re hacked to sing fragments of Mozart, nothing fancy, but my line has good sustain and excellent timbre and pitch. . . .
It wasn’t much of a life, but it was all my own.
The Kewlest Thing of All by David Ira Cleary
Bonny Brood, who while in school was not kewl at all — far from it — is now working as an agent of kewl, opposing the culture of consumerism as epitomized by the Steward International Corporation. Bonny’s body is now electronified with implanted phones and video screens and other colorful devices, a living displayboard of kewlture. Directed by the mysterious Terrance, her mission is to recruit new followers, but her task is not without pitfalls and Terrance is Not What He Seems.
Cleary’s depiction of this fantastic, post-cyberpunk society is entertaining, but the brightly-lit facade of this kewlitude conceals a false, empty center, as hapless Bonny Brood discovers.
46 Directions, None of them North by Deborah Coates
The narrator is receiving messages from the aliens on her cell phone. They want her to meet them in Fairbanks, Alaska, but her mom is too mean to let her go.
The narrator is supposed to be sixteen, but her whining makes her sound more like age twelve, when it is well known that every girl’s mother is mean and the aliens look like a good alternative.
Rwanda by Robert Reed
A terrible thing happened several years ago, and now the boy is old enough to be told. There were alien invaders who came in microscopic form, like viruses, to take over the minds and bodies of their human victims. But the humans fought back to exterminate the invaders, or anyone who might be one.
“The call for action came from everywhere,” your father tells you with a hard sorry voice. “It came from the government, and it came from important individuals in the media. And every neighborhood had some loud demanding voice that explained what was necessary now. A cleansing. A purge.”
The origins of Reed’s story is easily recognizable, but he does not leave it to the readers to get the point on their own, or possibly miss the Message of his analogy, which overwhelms the story of the boy’s origin.
Companion to Owls by Chris Roberson
The Cathedral is so vast, it is its own world, with the highest steeples reaching the upper atmosphere, where pressure suits and breathing equipment is necessary. Here is where Steeplejack North lives and works.
From his portico he could see the gentle slope as the Cathedral’s ribs angled down towards the cornices and gargoyles which demarked the boundary between Roof and the Northern Wall. In amongst the sculpted grotesqueries and outcroppings fluttered the gonfalons, ensigns, and bannerets of a hundred dozen sects and cults.
Here in this airy realm, the departing shades of the dead are sometimes snagged and trapped by the cornices and gargoyles, and they linger on, the bane of the Roofmen, until exorcized. Thus Steeplejack North has had to call upon the services of a necromancer to rid himself of the troublesome revenants, which leads to complications.
Roberson’s Cathedral is a wondrous and fantastic creation where we know that marvels will be found, even if they seem quite normal to Steeplejack North. A fine new setting for many traditional fantasy elements.
Fantasy & Science Fiction, March 2006
As the editor points out, the March issue seems to have a theme of parent-child relationships. Certainly most of the stories feature a different way of looking at some very different children. With one exception, all the stories here are fantasy of one kind or another.
The Revivalist by Albert E. Cowdrey
Edward Fogarty calls himself the first Hibernating Man. As a boy, his sleep paralysis earned him the contempt of his intolerant father, who despised laziness. But Edward later discovers that during sleep his entire metabolism slows, so that at the age of seventeen he appears to be no older than fourteen; it is thus possible that he might live several hundred years. Unfortunately, Edward’s scheme for a long life of prosperity, involving a succession of marriages with younger women, does not meet with the approval of his wife, Myra. Nor does history cooperate with his plans. The longer he sleeps, the more things change, and not always in ways he appreciates:
To these scenes, the march of progress had added the blue smoke and explosive farting of motor-cars. Charming gaslights had given way to garish Edison bulbs, ambling horse-cars to electric trolleys. That Saturday morning I waited on a misty sun-shot corner for one of the latter, not knowing which line I should take — nor did it seem to matter, since I did not know where I was going.
If a tale is as good as its telling, then Edward’s narration makes this one the best of the issue. His voice is individual and engaging, compelling the reader’s interest and, at times, exasperation. Edward is sometimes foolish and frequently makes mistakes, the greatest of these being his marriage to Myra, but perhaps the best years of his life are yet to come.
Shambhala by Alex Irvine
Shambhala is a domain of virtual reality, aka The Virt, either a refuge from reality or an escape, depending on the individual in the case. Its residents have left their bodies behind and all the pains of life to spend eternity in uploaded form. But now the Virt is in trouble, it is powering down, and the engineers and executives of Shambhala Virtual are scrambling desperately to salvage what they can, spurred by the threat of lawsuits. In the meantime, inside the Virt, the denizens are confused; they know something is wrong, they don’t know what, or how to fix it. Some decide it is time to get out but are trapped in dream-like metaphors like Alice in Wonderland:
“A key,” the man says. He is wearing a high collar and tie, and waving a bottle of something green and alluring. She smalls licorice. “Capable of opening indefinitely that box of many bottoms called man, a key that dissuades him from turning back, for reasons of self-preservation, when in the darkness he bumps into doors, locked from the outside. . . .”
And she is already through the door past him, and deeper into the library.
An atmosphere of confusion prevails in this story, but it a feature, not a bug. Everyone involved with the Virt is confused. Most SF readers will likely grasp the essentials of the plot; it is not such an unfamiliar one. But it is so diffuse, it follows so many different characters, all with their own separate goals. Mike wants to pull his son from the Virt before it is too late to get out. Gautam would like to upload himself before it is too late to get in. Shannon is trying to find the way out. Alvin wants to be left alone. Who are these people? Why should we care what happens to them?
The True History of the Picky Princess by John Morressy
This is not one of Morressy’s Kedrigern stories but a new slant on the classic fairy tales, merging Sleeping Beauty with The Princess and the Pea. As in the familiar version, a King and Queen have one daughter, and they invite the good fairies to present her with the customary gifts. However, one of the fairy gifts turns out to be pickiness; the princess will never be satisfied with anything but the best. In consequence, when it comes time for her to marry, it seems that she will never be satisfied with any of her suitors. But Aunt Betty the Cookie Lady has a solution. Readers who like Morressy’s other humorous tales ought to enjoy this one.
From the Mouths of Babes by Trent Hergenrader
This piece marks Hergenrader’s debut as a published author, and it is a promising one. Dr. Russell is in a hotel room with his young son Daniel when the boy tell him there is a man spying on them, hidden inside a tree across the street. At first, Russell tells Daniel not to be silly, but Daniel insists on proving that he is telling the truth, revealing that he is not an ordinary child, which is the reason they are in grave danger.
This is a revelation story, and Hergenrader plays out his line skillfully, reeling the reader in at just the right pace. As a reviewer, I should say no more of the plot, lest I invoke the dreaded bugbear of spoilers, but the conclusion is poignant and chilling at once.
The Capacity to Appear Mindless by Mike Shultz
A goblin schoolteacher has trouble integrating human students into his class.
This is the sort of forced humor that makes me want to pull a bag over my head, from the moment I see that the teacher’s name is Boarsnout Spinesnapper.
Czesko by Ef Deal
Czesko needs to be baptized. Now. He took a snort of the drug he was transporting for some very unpleasant characters, and that was a big mistake.
Jeez, Czesko, I says, what happened to your face? Never mind that, he says. You find me a priest? Czesko, I says, are you dead? Czesko says, maybe.
Maybe, nothin’. I can see what’s left of him is kind of blue but white, like it’s blue under his skin, and that’s dead all right.
This example of black humor is much more to my taste, as the exorcism of dead Czesko runs into grim complications. The narrator’s voice carries the story with just the right tone, and the punchline is perfect.
Intolerance by Robert Reed
Cabe McAllister is an obnoxious little creep who has had his body reverted to a toddler in order to make himself even more obnoxious. The premise of this one is highly improbable, and it takes a big lump of explanation in the middle of the story to get the idea across. And the conclusion is really improbable, to the point of snapping any possible remaining strand of disbelief. Not one of Reed’s better ideas.
Analog, April 2006
The first time this year that Analog hasn’t featured a novella by John Barnes, but that’s OK, because this time the novella is by Wil McCarthy, one of the few authors now working on the farthest-out edge of science fiction.
Boundary Condition by Wil McCarthy
Aboard a National Weather Service space station, there are specialists called Saints at work, individuals with a high Decoherence Quotient, whose function it is to cancel out the presence of quantum uncertainty in space and control its effects. Jiminy Gomez believes this is all explicable as part of natural law, but he never expected he would have to explain his job to the new Pope, who has shown up unannounced on the station, wanting to observe its operations first-hand.
McCarthy’s quantum theology may not be easy for readers to grasp, though he exerts his considerable powers of analogy and description:
Although it wasn’t evident from the picture of Jim’s brain, there was a kind of stuttering going on at the quantum level, as external forces tried to suck all the Heisenberg uncertainly out of this volume of space. If not for the human brains here trying to do the same thing on a microscopic level, the decoherence hypercone or “deek” would have succeeded already. In a deek, particles could move or change energy without seeming to. Events could be influenced; outcomes could change. “Miracles,” some people called them.
In theological terms, the conflict here is the old one between free will and determinism, redefined. If quantum indeterminacy is the normal state of the universe, there are two possible forces attempting to impose order on the randomness: one is the human mind, but the other may be God. Pope Dave fears, “That means free will prevents God from acting. Prevents Him from decohering the space you occupy. Our mere presence deflects miracles.”
In many science fiction stories, the author poses a problem in order to solve it. The conundrum McCarthy poses here, on the other hand, is left for the reader to ponder at length: what if God really could be seen to be acting in the world? The element of conspiracy that McCarthy folds into the plot makes his theme resonate more deeply, as free will strikes a blow against miracle, but the political background is missing, which may frustrate and unneccessarily confuse some readers.
Lady Be Good by John G. Hemry
The Lady is a decrepit tramp freighter, held together by the spaceage equivalent of duct tape and running on the eternal hope that this time, finally, they’ll have one good run. First Officer Kilcannon, captain in all but the title, is willing to cut corners in ethics as well as in engineering, which is why the Lady has taken on a contraband cargo to the Fafnir system, where a vicious civil war is in progress. But when they arrive at Fafnir, the war forces Kilcannon to make a hard choice.
This is oldfashioned space opera, a bit reminiscent of Cherryh’s Merchanter War stories, but absent their characteristic bleak, negative outlook. Hemry stretches Kilcannon’s self-blindness just a bit too far to be believable, but this is not meant to be a work of stark realism.
Numismatist by Richard A. Lovett
A mild-mannered coin collector suddenly, inexplicably, goes on a shooting rampage in a shopping mall before the police cut him down. It’s Adam Lamb’s job to figure out why. But nothing in this case seems to fit the usual patterns. The dead man had been sitting quietly at his computer checking on the price of a coin when he went into a murderous frenzy. Why?
Lovett’s mystery is meticulous and methodical. The reader may figure out the secret before his investigator, but this discovery only adds to the tension of the situation.
Nothing to Fear But by Stephen L. Burns
Jeffery Bloss is a victim of extreme phobia; he has not been able to leave his house without sedation since he was a young child. Bloss is also a genius in electronics, and in his desperation to conquer his fears and lead a normal life, he invents an antanxiety field generating device. But of course there are unexpected consequences.
Burns has written this piece in the form of a letter to Analog’s editor, Stanley Schmidt, which allows him to insert didactic commentary. The story would have been better left to stand on its own.
The Lowland Expedition: A Tale of Old Earth by Stephen Baxter
In the lowlands of Old Earth, time runs more slowly than on the higher region of the Shelf. In the past, criminals were exiled here, and the Philosophers of the Lowland Expedition have chosen a voluntary exile, for they can never return home to their own time. Their reward will be knowledge, for the Lowlands may hold the key to many ancient mysteries. So it seems when the Expedition discovers a deserted city unlike anything they have ever seen, almost as if it had grown where it stands, rather than been built. Indeed, the city turns out to be stranger than they have imagined.
This story is a sequel of sorts to last October’s “The Time Pit,” in which the temporal peculiarities of Old Earth were established. Baxter’s narrative voice is archaic, suggesting the image of nineteenth-century European explorers on a trek through strange exotic climes, perhaps discovering a mummy’s tomb or the route to the center of the earth.
Bayle stepped forward, his gloved hand extended. “Madame,” he said, “if you can understand me, we have a great deal to discuss.” The woman took her father’s hand and shook it. The subordinate Philosophers applauded enthusiastically.
In keeping with the setting, the narration of this tale is leisurely and discursive, an interesting change for those readers who have known Baxter primarily from his fast-paced space operas.
Lighthouse by Michael Shara and Jack McDevitt
Astronomer Kelli Lang has discovered a new type of brown dwarf, a stellar anomaly composed of equal parts hydrogen and deuterium — fifty-thousand times the expected concentration of deuterium. No one can account for it, but there are two thousand of the improbable objects. How did they come to be?
The authors have generated a fine sciencefictional Neat Idea, but their approach to storytelling manages to leach away much of the potential excitement of intellectual discovery. The story begins with the solution already found and applauded, then it backs up through the protagonist’s childhood to the problem, to the serendipitous incident that gives her the clue and at last discloses the answer. By the time the authors finally make their great revelation, the readers have already figured it out by themselves, making Kelli’s rival look very obtuse indeed as he fails to get the point.
Strange Horizons, January 2006
A variety of fantasies for this month, with one science-fictional sort of piece.
Fire, Water and Faith by S. Evans
Each of the three terms in the title refers to one of the characters in this piece, who are not otherwise named: the Salamander King, the Queen [who is not a Salamander but something else, despite her tail] and her human ex-lover. The Queen’s element is water, as the Salamander’s is fire; the Salamander menaces the city, and the Queen and her lover strive to protect it: water quenches fire. But the link between the two is weakened since the man believes his religion rejects such soulless creatures as she is; their weakness is the Salamander’s advantage.
There is an ideal balance in a story between telling too much and telling too little. In this piece, Evans has placed too heavy a burden on the reader to figure out too much: the unexplained nature of the elemental beings, which do not spring directly from any familiar mythology; the background relationship between the Queen and her lover and the details of the breach between them; the nature and origin of his psychic Sight; the tenets of his religion. Moreover, in the midst of the action, the author several times employs the pronoun he without a clear antecedent, so that the reader can not immediately tell whether the human or the Salamander is being referred to. Evans has compressed too much story into too short a space; in consequence, the reader must struggle through the text without adequate bearings, and the pleasure of the reading is diminished thereby.
The Girl with the Heart of Stone by Leah Bobet
“On the night she was born, a Beast climbed into the cradle and stole Kara-nai’s heart.” In its place, it left a heart of stone. With a stone for a heart, Kara-nai’s touch is death. When she waters the growing seeds, they wither. In despair, she tries to cut out her stone heart, but when this fails, she decides to find the Beast and win her own heart back.
Bobet’s understanding of the inner logic at the heart of fairy tales is revealed when Kara-nai confronts the beast:
“I know how this ends,” she cried. “You will draw me back here every summer and winter on my knees, and make me your Beast. And then you will roam free in the world, leaving me to eat the hearts of children for eternity. You will tear me between a heart of stone and a heart of flesh, and soon enough I will have no heart at all.”
Unfortunately, the story appears to contain contradictions. With a heart of stone, Kara-nai is supposed to be emotionless: “she thought that should make her sad, or afraid, or even excited, but Kara-nai had a stone for a heart, so she did not look back.” But Kara-nai despairs; with a heart of stone, how could she feel despair in the first place? And at a later point, the Beast is said to be weakened because it had no heart at all; yet it does, it still has Kara-nai’s heart. This may simply be an author error which a bit of editing could have easily fixed, but the first contradiction gnaws at the heart of the tale. Despite this,
The Machine by Joey Comeau
A creep and a priest walk into a bar. OK, that’s not exactly how the narrator tells it, but a creep he most indisputably is. It seems that some foolish historian, seeking an objective account of the past, invented the eponymous machine. “It’s recording everything everyone on Earth says and does, down to some ridiculous molecular level, pinpoint accuracy.” The narrator’s job, using the machine, is to verify or disprove claims of miracles — the face of Jesus appearing in a puddle of beer spilled on the floor—as a sort of Devil’s Detective for the Vatican. He also uses it illicitly to spy on women in the bathroom, one-upping the previous generations of creeps who drilled holes in the walls or installed videocameras. But he can not help imagining others watching his own illicit use of the machine.
This is an effectively nasty story of the loss of privacy. Comeau also suggests there are some matters of which we can never have objective knowledge, even in a world where nothing can be hidden. But I do have to wonder why the narrator, who attempts to conceal his actions from possible observers, would be telling this story at all, and to whom.
Estrangement by Kit St. Germain
Devaki’s parents are strange. They hold peculiar religious beliefs and won’t let Devaki leave the house alone, for fear some danger might be lurking. Devaki has learned that she has cousins living nearby, and she wants to meet them, but her mother refuses to set foot in their shop. When Devaki discovers that her father has summoned a ghostly protector for her, she reasons that she will not be going out alone if she visits her cousins with the ghost as her escort.
There is some intriguing stuff here. Devaki is a lively character, her father seems to have some unique powers, and the ghost seems to have a past connection with him — a story of his own. But just when matters are starting to get interesting, the author rushes everyone offstage and shuts down the tale. Too bad, I wanted to know about the ghost.
Portrait of Ari by Mary Robinette Kowal
Tom and Ari are young lovers, students. One night they are working together to mat some of Tom’s drawings, when Tom’s knife slips and he cuts his hand badly. Ari heals it.
Tom’s head throbbed with echoes and half-memories. He blinked. The blood covering his hand had dried to a thin crust of burnt sienna. Still in a tunnel of shocked calm, Tom turned from Ari to the sink.
Water rinsed the blood away, stinging a little as it splashed against the cut. Across the inside of his thumb, under the first joint, was a thin line like a paper cut. Nothing more.
Now Tom knows that Ari is not human. The question is, how will they be able to continue as lovers, with this knowledge between them?
For all its brevity and apparent simplicity, this story packs a strong emotional punch. Beautifully, quietly done.
Abyss & Apex, First Quarter, 2006
This ezine describes its fiction as character-oriented, and personal emotions seem to be at the center of all the stories, which consequently begin to seem too much alike. The zine could use a little more variety in its fiction. The current issue offers four stories, plus two pieces of “flash fiction,” in a section of their own. There are also a number of poems which I enjoyed but will leave for others with the appropriate critical vocabulary to review.
In The Season of Blue Storms by Jude-Marie Green
A first contact story from a world where atmospheric storms are the intelligent life-form. This is a novel notion, and the author paints the lives of the storms in bright colors as they mate and meld and steal each others’ energy:
Her coriolis force caught at their edges and pulled them close. Their bands unraveled into her winds. The blue mineral threads wrapped her then melted into her. Her funnel swelled and spun even more fiercely. The young storms disappeared.
The parallel story of the human explorers is lame in comparison. Green’s story also contains an inconsistency: at one point the blue storm Naschi scoffs at the story of the great red storm Vardarac as if it were a myth: “Who had seen the Great Red Father of All Storms?” Yet only a few pages later, it seems that the other storms know all about Vardarac and where he can be found. This carelessness mars the story.
Douen Mother by R. S. Garcia
A horror tale taken from a Caribbean legend: A mother who has lost her baby and any chance to bear another hears the Douen calling to her from the forest: the spirits of dead babies, damned babies. “You go come with me? Be my mammy?”
Garcia effectively expresses the mother’s pain and the compelling pull of damnation:
It is this part of her that unlocks her tongue and opens her arms wide. This part of her that watches the children pause, still as sentries while tears run down her cheeks, hot against the cold of her skin.
The Winter Astronaut by Mark Patrick Lynch
An homage to Ray Bradbury, in the mode of his classic “Rocket Summer.” Lynch succeeds in evoking the spirit of this beloved author’s work, but I must admit that this story made me quite uncomfortable. Bradbury is still here with us on Earth, protesting the misappropriation of his titles. What would he think of this appropriation of his self?
Flood by Jennifer Pelland
The Earth has suddenly gone dry, the oceans have disappeared, and the remnant of the human race lives behind seals and vapor barriers, conserving every drop of moisture. In this world, the singer who calls herself Undine is a celebrity of suffering: her cells call out for the sea, her body ebbs and flows with the tides, and her fans offer up their rationed water to her need — one tiny bottle at a time. Her goal is to save enough water to drown herself, to offer herself to the sea.
Pelland does an effective job rendering the character of Callie/Undine, whose suffering is self-absorption and self-pity.
The Last Temptation of Humanity by Paul Woodlin
Humanity has exchanged their bodies of flesh for immortal bodies, and one man feels that something has been lost, along with suffering. Upon this theme, the author delivers a sermon, but as this piece is in the “flash fiction” section, it is a relatively short one; whether it is fiction, however, is another question.
A Clockwork Break by Shawn Scarber
Angie is a factory girl in old Lowell, Massachusetts, who feels herself becoming part of the machinery in the mill where she works. Then, one day, a mechanical bird with a damaged wing flies in through the open window. A small miracle, a fantasy, “sliding the gears of her heart gently into place with a click.” Nicely done.
Fantastic Metropolis, January 1, 2006
Solis Invicti by Matthew Rossi
The winter solstice mythos, all its variations rolled up into a single nameless avatar. This hero’s task on the Longest Night of the year is to do battle against the forces of darkness and hold them back until sunrise. While he seems to be a sort of Universal Avatar of the sun deity, he can be identified most directly with Mithras [the story’s title, meaning “unconquered sun,” refers to the birthday of Mithras]. It seems odd to find Mithras and Odin together in the same tale, and I can not help thinking that Rossi may have carried mythic syncretism a tad bit too far.
Postscripts, Autumn 2005
The latest issue of this new quarterly from PS Publishing offers a very eclectic
mix of fiction. It’s hard to believe that readers are going to like every piece equally well, but at least there ought to be something here for just about any taste within the genre.
Bobby Conroy Comes Back From The Dead by Joe Hill
In fact, Bobby has come back to Monroeville, PA from a failed career as a comic in New York, back to live over the garage in his parents’ house and to take a bit as an extra in George Romero’s latest zombie flick. On the set, he meets up with his old high school girlfriend. They used to be a comedy team, but now she turns out to be married with a kid, and Bobby is consumed with regret. He could have done better. She could have done better. He had his chance, once. In the movies, you can do a second take, but what about in life?
In his introduction, the author states that this story is his tribute to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and indeed Bobby and Harriet’s son have a good time tossing around an artificial spleen like a football. Other than the connection to the movie, there is no fantastic content in the piece. It is a story about human relationships, in that place they call the real world. As the author says, a bittersweet love story, with plastic entrails.
A Signal From Earth by Stephen Baxter
This piece is a sequel, or what the author calls a pendant, to a previous work in which three electronic intelligences have escaped a cataclysm on Earth. They have now reached a planet orbiting the star known on Earth as Polaris, where the sole member of a dying species awaits her extinction. Aristotle, Thales and Athena believe that the death or her world was engineered by their own enemy.
This piece is not really a story. It is an infodump describing a story that might have been, instead of the lifeless summary of it that Baxter has produced. There is also a minor improbable element, as it is hard to accept that a civilization capable of building cities, factories and scientific establishments could not ever figure out how to heat them.
The Hospital Room by Zoran Zivkovic
At first, seeing that this piece is the second in a four-story series, I was tempted to defer the reviewing of it. But that would have been a copout, even if I can not claim to completely understand this surreal, enigmatic tale. The narrator is in the hospital, although he does not seem to be particularly ill, and people keep coming into his room with strange stories to tell. They all have had dreams, and the dreams were about him. The circumstances of these dreams are similar: he was traveling on some conveyance — ship, plane or train — when he found himself alone, hurtling toward some disaster, and can only escape by entering a room filled with bright light. Then, after the visitors have all left, the narrator gets up from his bed and opens the door of the room, to step into the light.
While it seems clear that the central image here is that of death, some of the other aspects of this narrative are less immediately comprehensible — in particular the stories that each character tells of having once worked for a circus, but not the sort of circus that we might be used to. There is a distinctive middle-European tone to Zivkovic’s prose that evokes the spirit of Kafka and makes the absurd seem quite natural. Perhaps the full significance of these details is made more clear in the other three sections of the series.
But there are works that can reward the reader even if they remain imperfectly understood, even if they are not intended to be understood, and I believe this is one of them. Who could fail to be intrigued by an exchange such as this:
“But that certainly isn’t the most unusual way to put circus animals to sleep. Just wait until you hear about the giraffes.”
“Are there giraffes in the circus?”
“Only in the best. We tried just about everything until we discovered that they are art lovers. We can’t bring original paintings into their cages, of course, but luckily the giraffes don’t insist. It’s enough to put a small white screen in front of their cage and show slides. And that, you will agree, is far and away the easiest and least expensive way.”
“We do have to be careful about what we show them, however. Abstract works bring about a very adverse reaction. They just turn their backs and stay awake all night in protest. And that’s not what we want at all, is it?”
“By no means.”
“Works by the early Impressionists have the most beneficial effect. They provide the giraffes with a long and invigorating sleep, which is extremely important given these animals’ highly sensitive nerves. You might not be aware, but in spite of their size, giraffes are quite volatile creatures.”
What does all this mean? Readers can guess for themselves, and let me know if they figure it out.
Gold Mountain by Chris Roberson
Another in Roberson’s alternate history series about the Chinese Celestial Empire, now expanding into space. Johnston Lien is the descendant of laborers from Vinland who were imported in the last century to work on Gold Mountain, part of the orbital elevator known as the Bridge of Heaven. The last of these white ghosts are old, and the Historical Bureau has sent Lien to interview the survivors before they die and their stories are lost. She is not happy about the assignment, as it reminds her of her own embarrassing grandparents, who never learned to speak Chinese. But she is moved by the story of McAllister James and the hardships he endured over his lifetime, particularly seeing his brother fall to his death from the tower.
Some of them had reached such an advanced age that they couldn’t even remember the year in which they were born, nor their own mothers’ names. When asked, they would simply mutter, “It was too long, too long ago,” in their guttural English. They were hollow men, these old Vinlanders, leaning against cold walls or sitting on empty fruit crates, patiently waiting for death to claim them. They were used up, discarded, and they made Lien uncomfortable in her own skin.
Roberson’s alternate history is almost a direct inverse of our own, with its Ghost Towns in the place of Chinatowns. This is not the most original method of constructing an alternate history, and I have particular difficulty in accepting the proposition that China — any version of China — could suffer from a manpower shortage requiring it to import labor. China and America can not simply exchange places. However the author does not lean too hard on the parallels and instead lets McAllister James tell the story of his life, while Lien listens, and learns.
Win Some, Lose Some by Juliet McKenna
It was somewhat unexpected to encounter a sword-and-sorcery tale in these pages, so that at first I anticipated some subversion of the usual S&S tropes, some twist or clever turn. But no, this is indeed the usual sort of S&S, in the usual setting of taverns, thieves, guilds, swordsmen and the like, except lacking sorcerers—but we are fortunately past the era when the presence of magic was required in a fantasy tale.
Here, Livak, a cardsharp and lockpick, is suspicious when a stranger offers her and her friends a proposition, a chance to steal some valuable gems. She is of course right to suspect him, but the other members of her gang overrule her misgivings.
In her introduction, McKenna states that this piece is a prequel to a much earlier work, written to explain an incident in that story. However, the tale here appears only to be an episode in the overall plot arc, for as the author admits, it does not come to a really satisfactory conclusion. For the readers of her earlier work, the current piece may be of interest, but I doubt that readers coming to it for the first time will find it particularly original or compelling.
Palenque by Matthew Rossi
The table of contents lists this piece among the fiction, but in fact it is a speculative essay, wherein Rossi meditates upon Mayan mythology, the Popul Vuh, the possibility of ancient astronauts, the underworld, and other such fascinating matters. Rossi knows his mythology, and his speculations should reward the reader who figures out this isn’t supposed to be a narrative tale.
Starving Africans by Lawrence Person
A critic determined on strict classification would place this story on the horror shelf, but the real horror here is taken from current events in the real world, not the imagination. As the author states, “Fiction has a hard time competing with reality that falls so far beyond the boundaries of believability and logic.” Adam Teller is a journalist covering Yet Another African war — this one set in a near-future Mozambique. His base is a UN refugee camp populated by the usual dead and dying, ignored by a world that has seen too much of the same. As the situation deteriorates, Adam is gravely injured in an accident, and the UN doctor treats him with a contaminated drug — unsafe for Westerners, but considered good enough for Africans. This seems to produce strange hallucinations, which turn out to be not hallucinations, after all.
The non-hallucination is the only aspect of this piece that is at all supernatural, serving mostly as a symbol of the balance between life and dying, of the link between the privileged world and the world of suffering in such wars, in such places. As the most cynical character declares:
“Because in our rarified, civilized, cultured world, there’s nothing we love more than to see the misery of others.”
“Oh, come on! You don’t really think –”
“Oh yes I bloody well do! We wallow in it. We love watching Africa and Uzbekistan and anywhere else woggies are dying in droves. We feed off it, just like we feed off Big Macs and cheap beer. No matter how miserable your own life, no matter how small your flat or rotten your job, you can flick on the telly, see thousands of starving Africans, and think ‘oh those poor little buggers, at least I’m better off than that lot.’”
Grim stuff, and too true for comfort.