Some exceptional short stories came out in February and March. Of the stories reviewed below, I would particularly call out Robert Reed's A Plague of Life, Pat Murphy's Inappropriate Behavior, and Pervert by Charles Coleman Finlay as being stories to note down for award lists or years best categories.
Missing this month: I saw no copies of Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, or The Third Alternative and did not get into the April issues of the digests. Next month I hope to cover both April and May issues of Analog, Asimov's, and F&SF. I also have a couple of interesting anthologies that bear mentioning.
- Analog (March)
- Babel by Steven Utley
- Asimov's (March)
- F&SF (March)
- Realms of Fantasy (April)
- SciFiction (Feb)
- Strange Horizons (Feb)
- Genderbending at the Madhattered by Kameron Hurley
- Talebones (#27)
- Asleep in the Arms of Ambience by Mark Rich
The March Analog was generally unsurprising. A time travel story (with, it must be admitted, surprisingly explicit sex for Analog), a story about efforts to communicate with aliens, a new Draco's tavern short, and a tale of romance across relativistic effects of space travel, among others. Some were more entertaining than others (and which is which no doubt depends on taste, of course), but only one inspired further consideration.
"Babel" by Steven Utley
"Babel" is framed as a conservative-radio (or maybe television) talk-show, in which a scientist who adheres to a creationist world-view fields questions about a recently discovered space-time anomaly that appears to be a gateway to another universe, or perhaps to another time in our own universe. There's actually no story here, no plot, no narrative motion: just an overview of some of the ways creationists argue with mainstream science.
The editors introduce the story like so: "The scariest part of this is how little is fiction!" I couldn't have put it better myself. A few months ago there was a show on public radio that included about three quarters of the material Utley presents here. (The space time anomaly was not in the show I listened to!) The participants included a traditional biologist or two, and one representative of a Seattle-based institute that promulgates theories of 'intelligent design' -- which is the current buzzword among scientists who dispute natural selection but don't want to be immediately discounted as legitimate scientists by accepting 'faith-based science.'
Upon re-encountering these arguments in Utley's story, I tried to figure out what Utley's point was here. If his point was to acquaint Analog readers with the peculiar science that the religious right is trying to legitimize, it seems as though a better approach would have been a non-fiction piece. The presence of the space-time anomaly rather muddies the waters when it comes to the kinds of arguments that creationists are really espousing. Moreover, Utley does not do justice to the theory of intelligent design. Many would argue that such is impossible, but actually, despite the intellectual dishonesty at the core of faith-based science, they do make some interesting arguments against current evolutionary biology, and expose some hypocrisies in mainstream science -- faith-based science may be bad science, or even no science at all, but not all adherents are stupid people. The creationists in "Babel" are never anything other than dogmatic nitwits. Utley further lumps them in with other kinds of scientific crackpots. Anti-relativists, and whatnot.
Neither does the story really work as satire. Utley doesn't use the tools of satire to expose the absurdity of his target. His choice of putting an obvious crackpot on a sympathetic talk show results in presenting a set of arguments that merely seem pathetic. But since they are obvious straw-men, Utley never provokes the reader to any deeper consideration of, or rejection of, faith-based science. He merely gives us some clowns to laugh at.
For me, the story doesn't even work as entertainment. The absence of story here makes for very flat reading. There's no tension, except for the knots in my shoulders that inevitably follow from listening to the blather of idiots. For my part I find the world sufficiently populated with these people that to encounter them in my entertainment is a bit like finding a cockroach in my pie.
Nonetheless, this is a hugely important topic: significant portions of the United States are succumbing to this pseudo-science; talk shows do take it seriously; some States are making headway mandating it's inclusion in school curricula. Sometimes it seems as though parts of America are falling into the hands of our own Taliban, and the question of what to do about it is critical. Simply ignoring them the way one ignores Flat Earthers does not seem to be enough to marginalize them.
Although Utley's piece didn't address this issue in a way that worked for me, I salute him for the effort, and hope that other readers got more out of it.
You might be forgiven for thinking this was the newly instituted spring double issue, so full of stories is the March issue. However, that will be next month. Not only was the quantity high this month, but the quality also. In addition to the four I consider here, there is a new Coyote story from Allen Steele, and a bizarre story of hackers on the Indian subcontinent from Richard Flood, among others.
"A Plague of Life" by Robert Reed
I would have been tempted to title this story "Blood." Blood ties everything together in this intriguing alternate history, and Reed uses language with almost frightening control to construct something that is at once a complex and believable other-world, and also a work of particular artistic merit.
Hannah grew up in a farming family; her Grandfather is the Patriarch, presiding wisely over a large, extended family. Her father died tragically young -- even more tragic for in this world, people have life spans straight out of the Old Testament. From the outset, in which the blood of cattle is as important as their milk, it is clear that something is strange here, and Reed quietly introduces clues building toward the revelation that in this world, there is no death from old age.
The family farm itself offers the perfect metaphor for what is in part a traditional what-if story: Humans are more like perennials, living until accident or disease take them, than say corn, which dies every year on schedule.
And not just humans, all animals. Or mammals, at least. And thus the title.
Although crafted with artistic subtlety, and addressing an interesting philosophical question, this is also a rollicking good story of family intrigue and murderous revenge. Hannah wants to sell her share of the family farm to travel to a new world. She wants to escape the clutches of her grandfather, who is slowly revealed as a far more sinister figure than he seems at first. But Grandfather controls his family; he permits no deviation from his plan. Hannah, however, has more than just one quarter of the old man's DNA -- she is truly a blood relative.
Tying everything together is blood: the blood of cattle, the blood of the family, and the blood of the dead. And genetic sequencing and mitochondria and the desire for land. One of Reed's best.
"Pulp Cover" by Gene Wolfe
"My name does not matter. You have the name of the man I have gotten to tell my story. That's all you need to know." This unnamed narrator tells his story, beginning when he was a young man in the furniture business, in love with the boss' daughter. When this boss, Mr. Arthur H. East, decides to marry his daughter to the son of an old friend -- a wealthy and brilliant -- our narrator takes it quietly. But the future husband is just a little creepy, and our narrator suspects that things are not as they seem.
This is not Cryptic Wolfe, this is a creepy Twilight Zone episode of a story, concise and perfectly expressed. Harking back to an earlier era, the story captures the cold-war xenophobia, the dread of handsome, eastern European spies in our midst.
It's also a story about aliens, but a quiet counterbalance to the cthuluesque tales of monstrous aliens common in the fifties. Note the opening sentence, quoted above: Wolfe does love to play with his narrative frameworks. This is not original, but it's a nice way to set the tone for the whole.
"Tammy Pendant" by Chris Beckett
Here's the story that got Asimov's in so much trouble in Grand Rapids, MI.
Tammy Pendant, AKA Blows, AKA Delany is a tough kid, well on her way to self-destruction. She hates the phony system she is caught up in -- social workers, police, institutional administrators -- and their phony concern. She knows they'd be just as happy if she disappeared. Fortunately, she just might be able to: there are these people called shifters who seem to be able to jump between worlds. They're nothing too fancy: interdimensional vagrants as much as anything, fleeing a world when they've messed up too badly. Sounds like just the thing for Tammy Pendant.
In the Asimov's discussion board, Dozois described this as an "upbeat story" and about the ending he observes that Tammy Pendant has "learned the hard lesson that you CAN'T escape from your troubles; you have no choice but to face up to them and deal with them; maybe she'll succeed, maybe she won't, but the possibility that she will learn to deal with them now that her unrealistic escape option has been closed off is certainly as valid at the end as the possibility that she WON'T learn to cope."
Interestingly, this is exactly the opposite from what I took from the story. I thought this was an unremittingly bleak portrait of the hopelessness of escapism, and Tammy's complete subjection to its hold on her life.
Not that it wasn't a brilliantly written piece: Beckett who is himself a social worker, captured Tammy's anger and resentments with a delicate touch, and quite convincingly portrayed her natural teen rage at the hypocrisy of an adult world.
"Under the Flag of Night" by Ian McDowell
Ex-pirate Anne Bonny is at loose ends in Jamaica when she rescues Tobias Constantine--that's right, I said Constantine--from the hands of ruffians. With a name like that, the adventures that follow are no surprise at all: pirates are returned from the dead, only to be unkillable, and McDowell delves deeply into the usual sorts of occult tales that always surround the Constantines, including a surprise appearance by the Cauldron of Annwn, last seen in Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series.
I presume this story was written prior to the release of Pirates of the Caribbean and the several unfortunate similarities to that film are but signs of a common zeitgeist. The similarities to John Constantine and co. of comic book fame are less likely to be coincidence, particularly since McDowell has been spotted posting in various forums around the web on all topics Constantine, and has other contacts in the UK comic book scene (he credits Neil Gaiman as a mentor for this story).
Toby is not John, however. He lacks the same streetwise cool, he is truly no more than a dabbler in the occult, and nor does he have the Liverpudlian accents. His mission in this story is evocative of last year's Lady Constantine four parter which leads me to the conclusion that Toby is intended as another of John's ancestors, and if I were a little better read in the field, I could probably point you to the proper location on the genealogical charts.
Despite the derivative nature of many of the elements, this is an immensely fun story. I don't know if McDowell is part of the writing team at Vertigo comics, but he clearly shows much of the genius at plotting that makes the Hellblazer comics work so well.
Also a strong issue of F&SF. In addition to the two stories mentioned here, a very amusing story of a man robbed of his genius in "Mastermindless" by Matthew Hughes, and another very strong story from Alex Irvine.
"Many Voices" by M. Rickert
A reviewer is just a reader, like any other, and every reader will develop favorites. It seems that no M. Rickert story can happen my way without knocking my socks off. Here's another.
M. Rickert continues to deliver emotionally charged short fiction that is at once confident, bold, and subtle. She tackles complexity in ways that make it seem simple, and leave questions lingering in your mind long past the day of reading.
In "Many Voices" Rickert works with some of her favorite themes: rape, imprisonment, and murder, but tempered with hope and given texture by her trademark ambiguity.
Her narrator is being tried for murder; her lawyer's defense is insanity. Clearly, the narrator is a candidate for that defense, but even as we witness her doomed trial and learn her troubled history, we also realize that the opening words are only too true: "There are many kinds of prisons, and mine is not the worst one." In fact, it is all the other characters who seem imprisoned by their isolation from the greater world Rickert's narrator is part of, the world that has led to her run in with the law.
In any basic treatment of the concept of 'free will' philosophy students run into the ongoing confusion of what freedom actually means. Imprisonment is an abrogation of freedom, of course, and yet it only restricts the degree to which an individual can act on his or her free will. Rickert here contrasts the limitations on action with limitations in mystical vision and to powerful and profound effect.
"Pervert" by Charles Coleman Finlay
"There are two kinds of people in the world: homosexuals and hydrosexuals." So begins this challenging storylet: the unnamed narrator, you see, is neither of the two kinds of people in the world. He is a pervert, and he is terrified of being discovered. He loves a woman, and soon, he fears, his perversion will be plain for all to see, for soon he will be off to marry.
Finlay constructs a world in which heterosexuality is not just a perversion, it is nearly unthinkable. Men and women have almost no contact at all. The concept of 'marrying' is several orders removed from any contemporary notion -- indeed it involves no actual contact between men and women, but rather a froglike fertilization of a vat of eggs. (Thus the 'hydrosexuals.')
Finlay works this story with enormous delicacy: the terror of discovery, the constant presence of panic, the instinctive expectation for even simple statements to be the precursor to a complete unmasking -- Finlay writes these moments like one who has been there. And who hasn't? By casting this story of perversion as simple heterosexuality, Finlay makes exquisite use of the science fiction form to pry open a human truth: the incredible tension and terror that result when own terror of natural instincts are suppressed by arbitrary social norms. And most suburban teenagers of any sexual persuasion at all know these terrors.
But this is no heavy-handed morality tale: Finlay works the narrative tension, escalating toward the climactic moment of revelation and his text reflects the sexuality his character is denied. This is a true brilliancy of short fiction, the kind of story the Tiptree Award was invented for.
Realms of Fantasy (April)
There were a couple of stories in this Realms that were absolutely brilliant, but which didn't seem to lend themselves to in-depth criticism: Eric M. Witchey's "The Tao of Flynn" which is a very amusing tale about a door to door salesman who excels all others because unlike them, he is a professional liar -- except that he always tells the truth. Another is "Calamity Warps" by Gene Wolfe, which should certainly go into a collection with last issue's Rattler, although this one is a completely charming (and just a little creepy) dog story.
"Israbel" by Tanith Lee
You would think that sensual tales of gothic vampires had been sufficiently covered by Anne Rice and her thousands of emulators. With several magazines totally devoted to sexy vampire stories of one sort or another, you'd think every permutation of the form should have been explored by now.
Not having read exhaustively in the field, I can't quite guarantee that this story is unique, but getting into it was certainly a pleasant surprise.
I wasn't surprised by the writing, of course. Tanith Lee's lush, skillful prose is always a pleasure to read. Just because everyone's wearing velvet doesn't diminish the pleasure of running your hands over a particularly fine new bolt of cloth. This story, which takes place in Paris, perhaps in the decadent 1890's, is a perfect venue for a richly sensual tale of mysterious beauty: Operas and artists, beautiful clothes... a great time to be an urban gothic vampire.
Plinta is a painter. When introduced to Israbel by an acquaintance who happens to be her lover of the moment, he sees her for what she is. In the following dominance game, Plinta proves his will is a match for hers, but when she asks him to paint her picture, he agrees. Her reason, you see, is unique.
One of the traditions of vampires is the whole mirror thing. In "Israbel" Lee improvises the variation that only vampires can't see themselves in mirrors -- other people can. While this makes it harder to detect vampires in your midst, it also means that a young, beautiful vampire can never see herself-- unless Plinta should paint her portrait.
This story certainly takes the current fad of gentling vampires to an almost absurd extreme. The pendulum certainly has not swung back towards vampires as monsters yet, but Lee's vampires don't even have fangs. The blood is taken mystically, through the caress of skin, the brush of hair. Israbel herself was made into a vampire by a big cuddly cat!
Nonetheless, Lee's twist on the mirror tradition has a darkness all its own, and the ending echoes sadly and lingers pleasantly.
"Portrait of an Unidentified Angel" by Wendy Shaffer
Although neither historically nor Biblically accurate, "Portrait of an Unidentified Angel" is a particularly compelling account of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's encounter with an angel. And I'm the sort who takes some extra convincing when it comes to angel stories.
I'll confess that I picked this one up hoping to like it: Wendy and I were in Clarion West together in 2002, and I have always found a lot of life and energy in her stories. This was not a Clarion story, however, and in fact, I had never seen any version of it before the April Realms showed up.
The story is: Michele (Caravaggio) is on the run from bounty hunters, and sick as well. He wakes, half delirious in the night to find an angel by his bed. The angel has a request. He -- it -- wants to be painted. Terms to be negotiated upon completion. What can Michele do, but accept? And there's a little puzzle as well: the angel won't name himself, but instead invites Michele to guess.
The choice of Caravaggio for the subject of this story is appropriate: Caravaggio's dark canvasses and bold, glowing compositions of religious scenes such as the crucifixion of Peter are powerful stuff. Shaffer's sharp, detailed prose quite inspire the vision of a painting that never was (or, at least, that the world has never seen): the delirium of Caravaggio's mind in the story, and Shaffer's depiction of the setting all work well together.
The illustration for this story is a mixed bag: it certainly shows one strength of Realms. The beautiful, full color painting has some absolutely exquisite elements (the folds of linen, Caravaggio's motion for the dagger), and yet it also reveals a weakness of illustration. The portrayal of the angel is just not as strong as the text, and upon completing the story, what I really wanted was to see the painting that the fictional Caravaggio had completed. I wished that something a little after the style of Caravaggio himself hadn't been attempted.
The ending of the story will probably not surprise all readers, but there is sufficient narrative tension as well as stylistic beauty along the way to sustain the tension.
Every week SciFiction presents a new original story, free on their website. I don't quite know what the parent company (the group that owns the SciFi channel, among others) sees as the benefit, or if it is only some sort of karmic good will gesture toward literature, but we should all be grateful. A couple of zingers this month.
"Zora and the Zombie" by Andy Duncan
"Zora and the Zombie" may be more notable for the style than for the story. Although certainly an entertaining tale of anthropological research in Haiti, the mix of pulp traditions and more contemporary fascination with motifs from the trade cult do not bring anything particularly new to the table.
Duncan nods to this in his opening paragraphs.
Zora is a graduate student of anthropology on assignment in Haiti, studying folklore and the local religions. Unfortunately, there's not much new: all the rituals have already been studied, recorded, analyzed. At each new ceremony, Zora can only compare the reality with what has already been said about it. One can feel the writer's frustration with the fact that it's all been done already, witnessed, recorded, analyzed.
But when Zora meets a zombie, things begin to change. It's not the rotting-flesh monster of old movies, but a mindless husk of a woman, a tropistic animal in human form, but for the fact she scratches a mysterious message in the dirt, a message the insane asylum director quickly and casually obscures.
Soon Zora is entangled in a web of intrigue involving voodoo succubi, cannibal cults, and, of course, zombies.
"Zora and the Zombie" captures the spirit of strangeness that comes from jumping into another culture, the possibility that anything could happen, that anything could be true. Zora's evolution as a character is persuasive, and yet from what and toward what are murky. This is a more literary story than the title or the subject matter might make it seem; more magical realism than zombie pulp -- although Duncan clearly loves his zombie pulp as well.
Duncan shows particular skill in establishing the character of Zora herself, reluctant social scientist secretly interested in fiction. Duncan is masterful at picking out the details that make Zora, and Haiti, and the fantastical things that take place perfectly convincing, yet utterly weird as well.
"Inappropriate Behavior" by Pat Murphy
If you're like me, it seems like you can't pick up a magazine these days without half the stories being about autistic people. I don't know what it is. However, Murphy cranks the tension up to eleven in this nailbiting story about the struggle to communicate.
Annie is a three-foot mechanical cockroach, looking for rocks. Evan Collins is an anthropologist, sailing the south seas. Or was: now he is shipwrecked on Annie's island. Actually, Annie is an autistic girl participating in some weird sort of experimental study, while working a remote-control mining robot. In an absolutely agonizing series of miscommunications, Annie's autism makes it difficult to understand Evan's need; or to communicate it to her doctor when she is outside the virtual-reality immersion tank from where she manipulates the robot.
Murphy shifts POV throughout the story, and each is perfectly done: we see the hallucinatory mining robot from the perspective of Collins. He's dehydrated, has a broken leg and other injuries. He's half delirious. Yet his efforts to communicate with what he expects is a normal human on the other side of the remote control device are even more surreal than his deteriorating state warrant. In one priceless scene, the mechanical cockroach asks to be told a story, the story of Cinderella.
Annie's POV is equally persuasive. Although her thought processes are not 'normal' she's a perfectly bright and well-meaning child. I am no expert on autism myself, so Murphy's exploration of the mental state of an autistic girl, and I found explanations Annie constructs for why the world is the way it to be fascinating. And most of us can empathize with the predicament of being powerless in the face of fools.
Which is her doctor. Not interested in listening to Annie, he works from the assumption that anything she says is just some intricate part of her disorder. Her efforts to communicate Collins' predicament to him are a total, agonizing disaster -- and completely plausible.
I found the ending to be a little disappointingly tidy, but without question, this is a masterful and enjoyable piece of science fiction.
Strange Horizons (February)
A somewhat light month at Strange Horizons, which is not a bad thing. A cute update on the old Nimitz time-storm-at-sea story from Liz Williams, an amusing tale of the latter-day Gods of Olympus from Jennifer de Guzman, and what happens when superheros get tired of the same old same old from Paul Melko who gives Tim Pratt's (X) of last year a run for the superhero tribute/parody category. However, the one I'd like to discuss today is...
"Genderbending at the Madhattered" by Kameron Hurley
Although this certainly seems like another play for the Tiptree Award, "Genderbending at the Madhattered" is about things more fundamental to being human than gender, although gender is part of the problem.
Hurley also creates a very interesting fantasy world (whether this is pure fantasy, other-world fiction, or far-future sci-fi I can't say for sure). Humans can change gender at will. At their favorite bar, the Madhattered, Hurley's main character, Cue, and his buddies are constantly shifting their roles.
One doesn't practice this genderbending forever, though. It is considered an adolescent pastime, and responsible people eventually settle down, select one gender or the other, marry, and become a part of history. Until a person settles, that is, his actions are not considered noteworthy, and go unremarked, unrecorded. Some people never settle down, and so live without ever becoming part of history.
Like all young rebels, Cue and her gang think their various role-reversals are clever; they are urban hipsters, just like you might find in any happening nightclub around Seattle.
Cue becomes infatuated with an artist named Sunshine from a less fashionable part of the land, an artist who is working on a statement far more revolutionary than the sexual games Cue and his friends play at. So, how does one create transgressive art in a society where homosexuality, heterosexuality, and personal gender are all fluid, and all acceptable? By suggesting that gender itself isn't important.
Here is the heart of Hurley's thinking, which she forms into both a moving story and a profound bit of thinking. Cue and her Madhattered crowd with their fascination with sexuality and experimentation are a counterpoint to the settled nuclear families of those who 'have joined history.' But each are two sides of a single coin, a single fascination with gender that occludes the human spirit. Hurley's artist Sunshine is painting about the true human, the human that has transcended gender as a definer of identity.
Through this character, and by virtue of some very nice descriptions of Sunshine's paintings, Hurley gets at an underlying conservatism within socially liberal communities. Hurley implies that the same motivations that impel the religious right to demand the sanctity of heterosexual marriage be included in the Constitution may also drive homosexual and other urban liberal communities. The motivation? The desire to find personal identity in the convenience of gender roles. What those roles actually are is immaterial.
In the end, Sunshine is too revolutionary for her lover, and for her world.
I didn't get my hands on the issue of Talebones that came out in the waning days of 2003, but I believe it is still available so it's not too late. As usual, Talebones is rich with strong, challenging stories. Among the notable fiction in this issue is Jack Cady's last story, a fascinating and creepy tale about a reclusive papier-mache artist by Catherine MacLeod, a grim update on Peter Pan from Martha J. Allard, a touching tale of extended longevity from Ilsa J. Bick, and "Gordy Taber was Afraid," a dark little piece about a serial killer that Diana Sherman wrote at Clarion West the same summer I attended. This is all great stuff, but the one I want to discuss here is...
"Asleep in the Arms of Ambience" by Mark Rich
Mark Rich presents a stylishly strange, and highly satirical virtual reality in the style of Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
Tandy Best is in love with a man who disappears. One day she told him that she loved him, and he vanished. Literally. And now the Inspector Particular is asking questions. Tandy Best lives in the City of Ambience, which appears to be a virtual reality art project composed by the artist Jacob Firth. But something is wrong: Jacob Firth has been seen with his head chopped off, or nearly so, and the man Tandy Best loves has come unmoored from reality.
In fact, this whole story is so unmoored from reality a single reading is insufficient to make heads or tails of it. For aficionados of strange style, however, that first reading will be a marvellous exercise, as well as a funny send-up of bland pop-art.
Symbolism and metaphor are thick on the ground here, but defy ready reduction to any paltry allegory. There are entertaining swipes at art, architecture, and the media, even as this outside-in black box of a tale uses the tropes of virtual reality and ghost-in-the-machine stuff to bite back at commonplace science fiction.