Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-November
A couple of print anthologies and a standalone novella, all from sources less frequently seen.
- Postscripts 22/23: The Company He Keeps , edited by Peter Crowther and Nick Gevers
- Godlike Machines, edited by Jonathan Strahan
- Kentauros , by Gregory Feeley
Postscripts 22/23: The Company He Keeps, edited by Peter Crowther and Nick Gevers
Some time ago, PS Publishing changed its magazine Postscripts to a semiannual hardcover anthology series. The current volume is almost 400 pages, containing 31 stories, and entirely fiction; there is no general introduction or other editorial matter except for a brief introductory blurb about each author, most of whom seem to be previously connected in some way with the publisher. There are several b&w interior illustrations. The production values, unfortunately, are appalling and inexcusable.
Most of these stories are mundane fantasy, set in our own world, with a darkish tone predominating, but there is also some mystery, some SF, and some outright mundane fiction, including the title story by Lucius Shepard. The stories are all relatively short and the quality is pretty even; just about every story has something that makes it worth reading, but it’s hard for a story to really stand out with so many pieces of this length in a single volume.
“The Company He Keeps” by Lucius Shepard
Hollywood. Danny Centers is one of the flunkies in the entourage of movie star Kevin Snow, resentful at being put down by the senior flunkies who seem to have something on the star, and suffering a certain amount of unrequited lust for the star’s current bedmate, Nedra Hawes. They are camped out near a Guatemalan volcano when Kevin nervously summons Centers; he has accidentally killed Nedra in an erotic asphyxiation game and now wants Centers to cover it up. Centers suspects he is being set up to take the fall, and the scene becomes a power struggle among the flunkies to determine who will remain in control of the star.
There is no fantastic element here, despite the presence of a supposedly mystic volcano. There is a certain amount of ambiguity. It is not clear what exactly has happened to Nedra and who is really betraying whom. The story takes Centers’ point of view as he tries to determine exactly how far he wants to sink into the depravity of the Hollywood lifestyle. I find this an odd choice to open the volume of a fantasy anthology, and to give it a title.
“The Hollow Framework for the Cotton Man” by Catherine J Gardner
Horror. Ronnie is driving with her sister Lulu through a sinister landscape where she can’t find the right turning; there is a scent of death in the air. When a straw-stuffed scarecrow begins to chase the car, she turns down the wrong road. It is definitely the wrong road.
“What if it’s a dead end?” Lulu’s voice shot up several octaves. “It didn’t move. It can’t have moved. Oh god, where are there no birds?”
Because the scarecrow scared them off.
At one point, Ronnie feels that she has driven into a dream, and this is certainly the most plausible explanation for these events. It has the surreal quality of a nightmare, of falling deeper into a series of traps from which there is no escape, no return, no awaking. While nothing is supposed to make any sense in a scenario such as this, the author keeps dropping in some unconnected bits of backstory that make for unnecessary confusion, as if there are prior events we are supposed to recognize. They distract from the overall oppressiveness of the nightmare.
“The Fishes Speak” by Michaela Roessner
The religious impulse. Around the world, the fish begin to speak, to prophesy. The messages differ, but they are always religious.
A butterfly fish floats over to a group of snorkeling tourists in Hawaii. It sidles up and whispers to each in turn that they must follow the Eight-Fold Path.
People become obsessed at deciphering the messages of the fish. The point of view character steals her lover’s goldfish, hoping to communicate with it.
The scenario, the author reveals, was inspired by reports in the news, which gives a sharp edge to this absurdist satire on the apparently universal human impulse to find religious messages in improbable circumstances. It is a striking notion, given an additional tone of craziness by the second-person narrative, as we see the character and her lover duel over the goldfish. What weakens the story is the inconsistency of the human reaction to the prophetic fish. At one point, people rush to eat all the fish they can; at another, they release the captives of their aquaria into the oceans, which I find more in keeping with the scenario.
“Only One Ghost” by John Grant
Richard suddenly finds that all his books have his own signature written in them, in faded ink that is older than he is. The discovery seriously unnerves him. His wife Lynda minimizes the situation until she sees that her books now have her own signature in them as well.
Only old dip pens and fountain pens had those bifurcated nibs. Perhaps lawyers still used them. No ordinary human beings ever did — we used rollerballs and ballpoints and gels. Pens that had not been in widespread used, if invented at all, when Lynda’s books were signed, to judge by the fading of the ink…
Here is a bit of strangeness that remains unexplained, although the narrator proposes a number of possible theories. Seemingly a small thing, yet it shakes their sense of self and threatens to undermine their relationship with each other. It is a bibliophile’s story, and a large part of the enjoyment is in going through the bookshelves, full of nineteenth-century novels, that mean so much to these characters. Very nicely done.
“The Human Element” by Eric Brown
Murder mystery. Derek is a successful mystery novelist who learns that his old collaborator has just committed suicide. Frankie was always convinced that Derek ruined his career by breaking off their partnership. Now Derek feels guilty as he reflects on their relationship. But after the funeral, he learns that Frankie has left him a legacy — with a twist. But Frankie was always good at plot twists.
This one is a writer’s story, and a mystery fan’s. It succeeds as an example of the genre, but it also serves as a pointed illustration of the differences in auctorial approaches to the genre.
“Adam in Amber” by Gary Fry
Horror — sort of. Alice and James have switched roles after he was laid off after funding was cut to the English Department. Now she is on the road, working, while he stays home with their young son, but Alice can’t reconcile herself to the situation; her sex life with her husband has suffered. On a business trip, she visits a public garden where a figure stands in a glass enclosure, so realistic that it seems to be an actual body rather than a sculpture. Alice finds herself aroused by the figure, but at the same time horrified by the sound of buzzing, as if she were in the presence of a hive of angry bees.
And it suddenly charged though Alice’s mind like a dose of guilt, stinging her scalp, making her whole body cringe and then quiver. The noise had now filled her, as if she stood in the presence of some deafening machine.
This central image informs the entire story with — I know not what. It obviously is meant by the author to have great significance, or as strong an impact on the readers as it does on the character. But it doesn’t, at least not for this reader… Whatever sinister symbolization or implication the author is expecting bees to carry just doesn’t come through.
“Bully” by Jack Ketchum
After years keeping it all bottled up, Jeff finally reveals the tragic secret of his family, the story of his brutal and abusive father. It is a frighteningly real portrait of a sociopath, and as such it might be counted as horror, but it’s a story that is all too true.
“Ne Cadant in Obscurum” by David Honig
Time travel. Anna’s parents were killed in a car wreck when she was a child, and some time later she discovered she had the power to move back to earlier times. But she can’t judge the moment accurately, and she can’t clearly remember who she is or was, or why she has come. She has failed to prevent the accident and now keeps moving back, trying in vain to prevent other great crimes or tragedies, sure that her ability must have a purpose, a reason, despite the warnings from her previous selves.
Anna, you cannot know, I remember telling her, but it doesn’t stop her from trying. It doesn’t stop me. It never has.
An original and thought-provoking look at time travel and causality, destiny and fate. It’s a nice addition to the small subgenre about lives lived backwards, memories that recall the future, while the past is a blank.
“Moving Day” by Robert Edric
Science fiction. A dystopian world in which the atmosphere has become toxic, so that the surviving humans are trapped inside vast, decaying towers that the author evokes with memorable imagery:
It was why the flies had moved indoors, why they lived, bred, multiplied and died there. Miller swept them into drifts along the bottom of the glass. They were the new dust. There was still the old dust, of course, old dust, old dirt, old stains and detritus, but now there was this other layer, something else to clear away, this stratum of corpses.
The story is minimal: two officials come to tell Miller he has to move out of his apartment into a smaller one because his wife and child were killed. I was three. Now I’m one. One of the officials is an old boyhood friend of Miller’s; they can both recall the past that the younger official can not; they can remember the clouds — a shared moment of loss in defiance of a world in denial.
It is a poignant, dismal and hopeless scene, but I believe it would have been even stronger if more minimal, with less flashbacking, less explanation of how the current situation had come to pass.
“Never Always Comes” by Joel Lane
Steven’s childhood in a dysfunctional family ruined him, scarred him, and he continued the process with drink and self-mutilation until it finally came to the natural end. But he was not his only victim.
He saw himself as an innocent, but his past was a scoured and corroded pit that drew in others and bled them dry.
He drew his lover into this pit, and even after death the pull continues; his lover realizes with horror that his own happy childhood memories have been effaced and replaced by Steven’s, whose ghost lingers on in the ruins. Even his photos have been altered, the faces corroded away as if by acid.
This is a powerful story of a blighted, toxic life, told in a manner that might at first confuse readers, in two different first-person voices, those of Steven and his lover. It also raises provocative questions about the reliability of memory. If the lover can not clearly remember his own childhood, how can he be sure how Steven has altered it? Could the two voices really be one? [I don’t think they are, but this possibility was certainly suggested at the beginning, and a faint ghost of doubt remains.]
“The Man Who Scared Lovecraft” by Don Webb
Horror. John Reynman is a collector of old pulp fiction, with a particular interest in Lovecraftiana. He is excited to discover that an obscure author, Amos Carter, once wrote a tale that Lovecraft rejected as “too devastating to the average reader and might cause damage to his facilities.” Despite the sort of ominous dreams that every horror reader will recognize as a warning, and the suspiciously sudden death of his informant, Reynman pursues this interest to the point of going to visit Carter, still alive at age 107, the inmate of a nursing home. What he discovers is a horror of Lovecraftian scope.
Fans of pulp horror should love this one, the way the author evokes the old magazines and authors, and the plot should make them hear ghostly ominous organ music. Happily, Webb has avoided the sort of pastiche that involves recreating the purple Lovecraftian prose.
“The Men at the Mound” by Jonathan Thomas
Historical. King Raedwald of East Anglia is disturbed by a recurring vision: ghostly figures who seem to be robbing a grave mound. Worse, the spectral robbers seem to be stealing his own precious possessions. He is sure that the ghosts are meant to be sending him a message, but he is at a loss to understand what it might be, although he clearly suspects, yet does not say, that he is seeing his own future burial place.
Readers familiar with this history, with the rumors that the Sutton Hoo site is haunted, or generally with SF, will undoubtedly realize from the beginning what the mystery is. But the author makes us feel Raedwald’s distress and confusion, and how he might have interpreted his vision to resolve one of the most pressing issues of his reign, the conflict between the old religion and the foreign Christian one. Well-done if not surprising.
“Harvesting the Moon” by Ursula Pflug
As a young woman, the narrator gathers valuable healing moonberries at the top of the sea cliffs, hoarding the proceeds of her sales to pay for tuition at a teacher’s college. She knows she should give a few to her mirror spirit, who lives in the rainbarrel at the front door, but she selfishly neglects her spirit friend, which is totally dependent on her.
Both her [mother’s] spirit and my brother’s were round and jolly, but mine was shriveling and pale, barely yellow at all anymore.
One stormy night with a full moon that ripens the berries, her mother asks her brother to go with her to the cliffs, although he is not as agile as his sister. She eats a few moonberries to restore her strength against the storm, but neglects to share them with her brother, with tragic consequences. All her remorse won’t bring him back.
An odd story, with interesting details that don’t all quite make sense. The setting, with its mirror spirits and moonberries, seems to be some secondary world, but there are references to Santa Claus and to electrical generators. The moonberries are apparently so valuable because of their rarity, largely because the other villagers won’t go up to the cliffs to gather them these days, but I am dubious; where a valuable commodity exists, people will seek to exploit it by any possible means.
Primarily, it is the character of the narrator that I find lacking. She does not seem to be an evil person, only a selfish one, and thus her deliberate neglect of her mirror spirit is inexplicable; if she wouldn’t give it even a single moonberry, she could feed it something else. Tragedy arises out of character; actions and inactions have far-reaching consequences. The narrator precipitates a tragedy that blights her entire family, but the story doesn’t really tell us why.
“One Hundred Sentences About the City of the Future: A Jeremiad” by Alex Irvine
Science Fiction. The regulations concerning feedback to the Central Civil Authority limit a writer’s complaint to one hundred sentences. The writer is taking full legitimate advantage of this privilege in this official request for information regarding the civic and criminal consequences of filing a formal Notice of Intent not to vote in the upcoming mayoral elections. It seems that the City of the Future is not the utopia it is supposed to be, and certain officials may be using their power for personal advantage; the writer suspects his family is being singled out for retribution for taking a stand against this politicization.
1. It rained yesterday, only in my precinct, far in excess of the scheduled and published amount, as a result of which some of my more delicate houseplants, which are flowering, were severely damaged.
The format, enhancing the artificially formal narrative voice, is amusing, but this piece also provokes some more serious thoughts about utopias, politics, and human nature. Would an AI administration really provide a more honest administration?
“Marco the Magnificent” by P D Cacek
Bobby is a very sick child [the symptoms suggest cystic fibrosis] confined to his bed, where he can watch the old man next door. Sometimes the old man appears feeble, spending hours just staring at the sunset — when someone might be watching him — but at other times he performs amazing feats.
He thought he saw the old man pull the tarp off the car that sat in his driveway and lift the car up! One-handed.
Bobby always thought he couldn’t see him watching, until the day the old man spoke in Bobby’s head. The two of them have something in common: they are both dying.
This is a pretty typical heartwarming sick kid miracle story, and I quite like the last line. I would have been more impressed if the author hadn’t gone overboard with the old man, making him older than god and more powerful, with a clichéd list of heroes whose names he carried in the course of his long career.
“Dreamspace” by Quentin S Crisp
Lester takes his young daughter Clara to visit a rather mysterious attraction that has suddenly and inexplicably been erected on the fairgrounds. It is not a children’s attraction, although it resembles a children’s bouncy castle:
It was a large, multi-coloured, inflatable structure, bearing a passable resemblance to a castle, or a pavilion, but also with something about it of the squashed, rounded shape of a flying saucer.
Inside, however, it seems to be larger than it appears from the exterior, with nothing but a series of rooms full of sound and color. People leaving the exhibit can not articulate what they have experienced. Clara adores the place, but Lester begins to have symptoms of a panic attack.
From the beginning there is a faintly sinister aspect to the scene, and the mention of a flying saucer suggests the possible reason. The author subtly creates a foreboding atmosphere, until we share Lester’s panic when Clara wanders out of sight inside Dreamspace; we know something bad is going to happen. The story is horror, but in a low key, a story of human beings rather than alien monsters; its heart is in Lester’s strong bond with his daughter.
“Alice Bleeding” by Rio Youers
Post apocalypse. An asteroid has hit central Australia, obliterating Alice Springs and devastating much of the surrounding area. The government had evacuated most of the population before impact, but a few idiots decided to stay; now they are sorry they did. In the town of Yulara, Sally is angry at her stubborn husband Luke, who convinced her to stay with their baby, Caleb. Now the remaining townspeople are waiting for evacuation, which may never come. What does come is an murderous army on a mission to take back their land. As sole survivor of the attack, Sally looks to the ancient, sacred rock Uluru to save herself and her son.
The ground bellowed under the force of impact. The trees whipped their furious arms and the town cowered. But Uluru held. It was like a single giant rivet keeping the world intact, and Sally looked at it through the swirling flowers of dust, trying to take inspiration from it, like the Aboriginal peoples to whom the Rock was sacred. We are the Rock, she thought as she held her family.
And therein lies the problem. We see this story almost entirely from Sally’s point of view, but Sally is not one of the Aboriginal peoples. The vengeful army trying to kill her are — or so it seems, but this is not clear. The story suggests at one point that they are or are being led by supernatural beings, possibly gods, as they are coming from the direction of the impact, where everyone presumably has been killed. In either case, it would seem that the Rock ought to be on their side, not Sally’s. The story appears to be attempting to graft a supernatural event to a natural apocalypse, and the graft union isn’t strong enough to give it coherence.
“Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters” by N K Jemisin
New Orleans during Katrina. Tookie is riding out the storm instead of evacuating. He thinks he’s prepared, but this storm will bring more than he has anticipated, in several different ways.
There’s plenty here to like. The prose is fine:
If a person held still enough he would feel the slow, unreal descent as all the air for miles around scraped-slip-slid downhill into the whirlpool maw of the approaching storm.
There’s a lot of tension in Tookie’s struggle to survive and to save his elderly neighbor, Miss Mary, from the rising waters; Miss Mary is an interesting character in her own right. And best of all are the dragons, the storm-bringers, that Tookie sees as winged lizards. The one that befriends Tookie is a convivial, chatty character. “Levee gon’ break,” said the lizard after awhile. “You shoulda got out, man.”
Less to like is the dark, menacing shape in the waters that manifests itself as the Hate, although its actual nature is not clear. By personifying hate as a supernatural entity, the author reduces human responsibility and robs people of agency. Evil isn’t the creation of some shadowy monster, it arises from the human soul with no need for an unnatural amplifier. Nor is it something that can be destroyed with gunfire. Moreover, the contest between the lizards and the monster is misplaced: the lizards control a natural phenomenon, the storms, and their function is to bring them and carry them away. They don’t bring the monster and aren’t responsible for destroying it. The monster is a creature of another sort altogether; it belongs not to the storm but to the city that spawns it, and if it is anyone’s duty to confront it, that duty rightly belongs to the humans on whose hate it grows. There’s plenty of material available in these events to make a story, but this extraneous and frankly hokey element only detracts.
“Osmotic Pressure” by Jack Deighton
Science Fiction. Fertility has declined drastically, and in response science has developed the Woom, an artificial gestation chamber. But for reasons unclear, the fetus’s mother has to spend several sessions a day connected to the Woom. Sandor is obsessed with his developing offspring, but his wife Lora is displaying resentment. She is constantly late for her sessions with the Woom, and this leads to marital strife on other fronts, like sex and the perversion thereof.
The premise here is quite weak. It rejects all the benefits normally associated with the concept of an artificial womb. There is no plausible rationale for the need of the Woom to be connected to the mother’s body. When Lora complains that she wants her freedom, wants her body back, it’s impossible not to think that this is what an artificial womb is supposed to free us from. Nor should Sandor’s yearning to take on this role himself be excluded; if contact with a parent were supposedly necessary, there’s no plausible reason it shouldn’t be him as well as her. And the conclusion — really improbable.
“Signs Along the Road” by Richard Parks
The convergence of hobo signs and crop circles, a concept that actually makes sense if you look at it the way Jason does. Jason is an aging hobo who’s picked up a young companion and gives him a few lessons on the ways of the road, including the signs that tell other ‘bos if there is danger nearby or a kind person who might provide a meal. Both Jason and young Kevin have a secret, and each can guess the other’s. Readers will probably guess Kevin’s secret pretty readily, especially when Jason offers his explanation of the crop circles. But it’s not the sort of secret that the author means to be a secret from readers. This is a warm story about people going home to people who want them, and the friends they make on the way. Nice.
“The Desiccated Man” by Chris Beckett
Science fiction. Jacob Stone is the nominal captain and sole crew member of an interstellar cargo ship that is so totally automated his job is mainly to sit alone and wait for emergencies that never happen. The job pays well because few people can tolerate the prolonged isolation, but Jacob is a misanthrope and a miser who lives only to accumulate wealth. On one stopover he encounters another solitary ship captain, a young man with a brighter future than his own. Jacob is jealous and brags about the passengers he is carrying in his cargo hold, a group of aliens on a religious pilgrimage who travel in a kind of “dry sleep” from which they are rehydrated at the end of the journey.
They were transparent too, and hard and fragile. But these were little people nearly half a metre tall, people that resembled human beings, with hands and feet and little faces. And they weren’t really empty shells either, even if they looked that way.
Jacob continues on his journey, but now he has become obsessed with the little aliens, helpless in their dehydrated stasis; he comes to hate them just because of the way the other man admired them.
The title refers to Jacob and the shriveled state of his heart, a man who cares for nothing but himself and not even himself very much. It is the banal and casual nature of his evil that makes this one effective horror.
“The Figure in Motion” by Steve Rasnic Tem
The narrator is a man whose life has lost all meaning with the loss of his wife.
During her last few months on the planet he’d attempted to fill himself only with good memories of their life together, a cushion against the crushing loss to come, but he was quickly overpowered by events, and instead was forced to retain a final series of images: her head bowed in burdensome fatigue, sitting shakily upright for a long stare out the window, her face too sad for tears, and then that final full day when she insisted on walking by herself across the field of powdered snow.
One day he visits the art museum to view an exhibit about the presence and absence of the human figure in the art of different periods. He is struck by his emotional reaction to the traces of figures in the paintings, how a few lines can evoke the presence of bodies, of persons. It occurs to him that he can bring his wife back to life, not just for himself but for others to see her in the traces she has left in photos, documents, books. He develops a kind of performance art, making his wife come alive again for the audience that gathers to watch him, but in the process, he effaces himself.
A surreal and haunting work of fabulism, a powerfully sad tale of loss and remembrance.
“Are You Sannata 3159?” by Vandana Singh
Dystopian horror. The sort of society in which the towers of the privileged block all the sun and light from the underclass far below, who subsist on processed kibble and on rare occasions the meat of rats and unfortunate humans. In this milieu Jhingur is an idealist and a dreamer, prone to imagine himself the lover of a probably deranged and suicidal Citizen who rashly opens the window of her tower apartment to look down. The neighborhood receives a boost from the opening of a new slaughterhouse that employs much of the population and improves their diet by supplying meat to the workers. But they are all drugged so as not to be able to recognize the horrors of their job, or the fact that the creatures they are slaughtering sometimes include their own relatives. When Jhingur begins to suspect the truth, he decides to act for the first time in his life; he enters the slaughterhouse to try to document the conditions there, to expose them to the world.
A cow, mouth open in terror, on a conveyor belt. A goat, legs hacked off, half-drowning in its own blood, its eyes white and terrified. And a human hand in a bin. Not attached to a body, as far as he could see. And a rack of sheep hanging from a series of hooks, bleeding, their intestines spilling out. Their eyes were full of a terrible awareness.
Here is strong stuff, and the story offers no relief for it. This is a depressing and pessimistic work, an indictment of human nature in which Jhingur stands out as a doomed exception. Even in extremis he tries to reach out to help some other creature, but the readers will recognize that his action, like his sacrifice, is futile, self-delusion with which he may comfort himself but change nothing.
The problem is, it doesn’t make sense. As Temple Grandin notably demonstrated, a modern slaughterhouse works most efficiently, most cost-effectively, when the creatures it kills are kept calm and unafraid. In reality, when creatures are slaughtered alive or tormented, it is usually either by accident or the action of brutalized workers — not by design. The slaughterhouse management here spends a lot to keep the workers unaware of the horrors they are perpetrating, which appear to be routine, part of the system as designed. The vivisection and torture in this slaughterhouse is gratuitous, a device used by the author to heighten the sense of horror without providing any reason for it, and thus much less effective.
“The Time Traveller’s Breakdown” by Gregory Norminton
A man invents a time machine, or so it seems, and travels back ninety years, where he is irrevocably stranded. He fears the potential consequences of interference, either on general principles or because he might disrupt the future that gives birth to him. So he waits.
It is a story with almost no action, all narrative in a distinctive second-person voice that speaks in the more formal sentences of the past, not the time from which the character came:
Vagrancy was your only option. For fear of warping history, you fled the places where people lived, reducing to a minimum your interactions, making the open road your home. To preserve your funds, which had to last, you skulked along hedgerows, slept under bridges, took shelter from the rain in the ruins of upland farms.
One thing that comes through quite strongly from the descriptions is love of the countryside that the character knew as a boy, to which he keeps returning as it evolves to its former, future condition. Otherwise, it is essentially a tragic story, as the character turns his back on life and other people in his fear of disrupting events. He wastes it all, waiting for a future in which he can never have a part. Strongly moving.
“Pillar of Salt” by Robert Swartwood
The employees in the post office of a small Pennsylvania town all know about the mysterious letters addressed to a Jonas Cotton that just appear in a letter carrier’s bag. And any carrier who opens one soon drops dead. Now Raymond, an aging, failed postal worker newly arrived in that town, is given the accursed route and, of course, finds one of the letters.
This is a difficult, distasteful story to read because the characters are such dismal, hopeless people. The story is told from the point of view of Raymond’s wife, who doesn’t particularly love or respect him — and we see no reason she should. It is so obvious from the beginning that Raymond is doomed, and that we will not care what happens to him, nor will anyone else including his wife. The only question is what she will then do, what will happen to her, but it is unlikely that anyone will care about her fate, no more than her husband’s. A pointless tale.
“The Forever Forest” by Rhys Hughes
Robots have taken over the Earth, except for one small remnant of woods where the last human still lives. The robots are determined to eradicate this last scrap of oxygen-producing ground in order to end the plague of rust forever, but Wildewood has proved impervious to all the weapons deployed against it. Now D-350 has been given the assignment, and D-350 takes a very different approach.
This one is clever, but the description of the robots and their thoughts is rather labored and clunky. Why would a robot need a bunk? Or a mate of a different sex? Why would a robot describe industrial fumes, beautiful to it, as “noxious?”
“The Farmer’s Wife” by James Cooper
After his father dies, Tom feels the need for closure in his life and visits the farm where his boyhood best friend used to live. Tom bears the burden of a heavy secret, the knowledge that it was Jed’s father who accidentally killed him in one of his frequent rages. Mr Gudicci was a brutal man whose most frequent target was his wife, who still remains with him in their old age. The great joy of her life was her son, and she is happy to see Jed’s old friend again. Tom pretends that he has come, as his father always did, to buy a fresh turkey from Mr Gudicci, but he has another purpose.
I sipped at the coffee and took a bite from the panettone. It tasted as exquisite as I remembered and I closed my eyes for a moment. I wanted to see Jed very much. When I opened by eyes I saw myself as a child starting through the kitchen window as Mr Gudicci smashed his wife’s face against the sink, her mouth popping with blood…
An emotionally forceful story in which moral clarity is broken and distorted by the passage of events and time. Tom has held the image of Mr Gudicci’s violence in his mind for years, as he has kept his memories of Jed and of the farmhouse, but now he sees that things are different; either they have changed, or his memories were imperfect. He has come to right a wrong, but now he can’t be certain that he hasn’t done a greater wrong himself. The description of Mr Gudicci butchering a turkey is particularly vivid and revealing, making us see Tom’s assumptions shifting beneath his feet. There is no fantastic element here, only a strongly disturbing story.
“Pages From An Invisible Book” by Darrell Schweitzer
Genuine secondary-world fantasy. According to the book:
Thus decreed and written in the invisible book, that whenever the old emperor dies, all the lords of Tsangan-Hai return to the Castle of 10,000 Signs so that Chaku-Ga himself, who lies beneath, might hand his sword to the most appropriate successor.
Thus the ghost of Lord Yandos, The Lord Who Dips his Sword In the Distant Sea [which he never did], must obey the summons and join the other princes at the banquet table to hear the dead emperor speak. Unless his voice is just the wind. Unless it is all an illusion. Unless everyone in the assembly is only a ghost. Unless the words in the book are meaningless.
Schweitzer — and who better? — piles on the high sword and sorcery trappings, subverting them at the same time, creating grandiose and glorious dreams while puncturing them with muddy and barefoot reality. Neatly done.
“Of Hearts and Monkeys” by Nick Wood
Post apocalypse. A plague has wiped out the human population except for a few who were immune, the “do not dies,” as the ghosts call them. The ghosts follow the Noluthando Ngobo Bhele, an old woman, as she treks through an African landscape full of perils. She is caught between a yearning to join the ghosts of her family and lover and the drive to live, needing to find someone to live for. “We are only human through sharing our being with others.”
The narrator has a clear and unique voice, and the landscape is full of interest, although I wonder if other primates would have survived this plague.
“Drive-In” by Peter Hardy
A nice young man begins to date a nice young woman, and they decide to go to the drive-in. For Julie, this brings enjoyable memories from her childhood, but for James, the place unearths disturbing flashbacks. It’s full of children running loose — wild, screaming children, the sort of children that parents might want to lose in the dark woods [Hansel and Gretel led into the forest to die] that surrounds the theater. And James begins to remember what he was meant to forget.
The drive-in is a classic horror setting, and this one is particularly ominous in the midst of its dark forest, so that I was uneasy when I started reading, because this was such a nice young couple who don’t seem to deserve the sort of fate that usually befalls the victims of horror stories. But the bad thing has already happened, it happened long ago, and the horror for James is in the recovery of it, and in wondering,
Maybe they’re the ones who got away.
Maybe I’m the one that got left behind.
From just a few hints, the author evokes an entire childhood and a dysfunctional marriage, a single recollection that changes a man’s entire life in a moment. Which makes me sad, because they were such a nice young couple.
“The Rescue” by Holly Phillips
A woman wakes up from a drugged stupor to find herself in a hospital that seems to be [partly] deserted except for [possibly] ghosts. We gradually learn that she lives in a totalitarian state reminiscent of the Soviet Union, where she has been kept for four years in a prison/hospital for the insane.
They had not often asked her any questions at all, but they had told her, endlessly, about her rebellious nature, and how disloyalty was really a kind of disease. But they had not cared about that either. She was a hostage for her family’s good behavior — she had always known that — and they had only tormented her because she was there, and that was what they did there.
She gradually learns that the officer who signed the order for her execution had rescued her and hidden her in this place. But it is not clear what will happen to her next; her rescuer does not seem to know, himself.
This is an deliberately enigmatic story, in which readers have to work out most of the details for themselves from fragmentary hints. The rescued prisoner knows so little, except what her rescuer tells her, and he is reluctant to tell her the truth. The real story, we gradually realize, is the rescuer’s, the man whose conscience [we assume] impelled him to betray his position, to murder, to risk so much in order to try to free this prisoner — which he may not really have accomplished. And we don’t know his reason, because the prisoner doesn’t know. She wonders, as we do, who this man really is, what drove him to act. She wonders, and we wonder, but we will never be told. And behind it all we sense the sinister presence of the state against which he finally decided to take a stand. This is a horror story in which all the characters are trapped, and from which they may not escape, and it is so much more strongly done because the author has told us so little. A fine choice for wrapping up the volume.
Godlike Machines, edited by Jonathan Strahan
In contrast to the volume above, this original anthology from the Science Fiction Book Club, more than a hundred pages longer, contains only six stories: six novellas from prominent authors of science fiction, inspired by the theme of vast, powerful megastructures: planetary machines, world-sized spacecraft. These stories are unequivocally science fiction, most set in space or distant worlds — six heaping doses of SFnal Sensawunda.
“Troika” by Alastair Reynolds
Things have not gone well in the world; the Second Soviet appears to be repeating all the mistakes of the first, but it is the only power still capable of sustaining spaceflight when a vast presumably alien object suddenly appears, presumably through a wormhole. It is named the Matryoshka because it is surrounded by a number of protective shells. One astronomer, Nesha Petrova, advances a contrary theory: that the object is a timecraft, sent from the future; this would account for the fact that it seems to be emitting Russian music, specifically Prokofiev. But Petrova is silenced and discredited by the authorities, who operate on the old Soviet principles of determining truth by political correctness. [The depiction of this society is depressingly convincing, though it is not clear how the Russians have, once again, fallen into the same exact mistakes of the earlier regime. But this neo-Stalinism turns out to be an important element in the plot.]
After several earlier attempts, the Tereshkova is sent with a crew of three cosmonauts to try to penetrate the inner shells. Using a brave and intrepid maneuver, they succeed and discover wonders, learning in particular that Petrova was right; the Matryoshka is a message sent from the future to warn the Second Soviet that it is on the verge of making a terrible mistake. But this is a message the Soviet is not inclined to hear. On their return, the surviving cosmonauts are silenced and kept incommunicado in an insane asylum. As the story begins, we see the last cosmonaut, Dimitri Ivanov, escaping the asylum to find Nesha Petrova and bring her proof that she was right, all along. As the story ends, a twist of the plot throws everything he has revealed into doubt.
The narrative follows the Matryoshka pattern, with layers of past recollection nested inside present events. It is well-conceived in many respects. The Matryoshka is a Great Wonder, fitting the anthology’s theme, and the story of the cosmonaut’s expedition into its heart supplies neat SF Sensawunda. Unfortunately, this part comes only near the end of the novella, after a number of sections that, frankly, drag. In particular, Dimitri spends quite a long time, at risk of freezing to death, in his attempt to reach Petrova, but once he succeeds, he keeps putting off telling her the thing that is supposed to be so important – and in which she shows no real interest. At the end, readers realize these earlier scenes that might seem tedious at the time are introducing hints that will contribute to the credibility of the twist. The issues are significant: the reliability of memory, the reliability of perception, the political distortions of truth. The problem is, they are still tedious at the time, and by letting them drag on the story, the author is undermining its considerable virtues.
“Return to Titan” by Stephen Baxter
1600 years after the first probes reached Titan, no human has yet walked on the moon’s surface; the source of the methane from which its atmosphere is derived is still a mystery. The rapacious Poole family wants to exploit Titan, but the sentience laws stand in their way. In the interests of progress, i.e., profit, they have snatched bureaucrat Jovik Emry to get around the inconvenient regulations. Emry is not enthusiastic about returning to the Saturn system against his will; unfortunately for him, the Pooles have plenty of material for blackmail and of course they aren’t beyond kidnapping. Thus Emry, along with Michael Poole and a couple of associates, covertly becomes one of the first humans to set foot on Titan, their landing craft in the guise of an unmanned probe. And they discover Wonders.
The wonders of Baxter’s Titan are first-rate, and Baxter does a first-rate job of describing them.
A huge, distorted sun hung above us. Planetoids hung sprinkled before its face, showing phases from crescents to half-moons, and some were entirely black, fly-speck eclipses against the face of the monster. Beyond the limb of the sun more stars hung, but they were also swollen, pale beasts, their misshapen discs visible. And the space between the stars did not look entirely black to me, but a faint, deep crimson with a pattern, a network of threads and knots.
The discoveries alone are worth the trip; there is Sensawunda here in spades. But it would be even better if the author would restrain himself from describing and explaining everything. We do not need, when Baxter introduces a GUT engine, to be told that this stands for Grand Unified Theory, with a capsule history thrown in.
Even more problematic is the story logic, which is riddled with improbabilities. First, that with all these available wonders, no one has taken a glance in their direction over such a long time as 1600 years. Then that the Pooles would simply kidnap a government official, when a simple bribe would have been sufficient. Or that their evidence, if they found any, would have been accepted by the authorities when it resulted from an illicit expedition. But most unlikely is the notion that a single expedition lasting only a few days could somehow prove the negative proposition that there are no sentient organisms on Titan.
As a narrator, Emry is adequate, but his interest in these events is remote, except where it concerns his own survival. He has nothing to do on Titan, which only serves to remind readers how really superfluous his presence is. Where the story has the potential for interest, aside from the revelation of wonders, is in the moral dilemmas facing the other characters, primarily Michael Poole. It is rightly Michael’s story, and indeed in the end it belatedly becomes so.
“There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow/Now is the Best Time of Your Life” by Cory Doctorow
Post-civilization-as-we-knew-it. There don’t seem to be many people left, and the remnants are busy remaking the world according to their various different images, “because they can” with the available technology. Jimmy Yensid’s dad controls the toxic ruins of Detroit, where he collects neat old machines like Disney’s Carousel of Progress, and breeds a transhuman son. Jimmy is more or less immortal. The Treehuggers, like Jimmy’s friend Lacey, are trying to convert all machines and human construction to fertile ground with the aid of machines.
The wumpus had the classic look. It stood about eight feet tall, with a hundred mouths on the ends of whipping tentacles. Its metallic finish was smeared with oily rainbows that wobbled as the dust swirled around it. The mouths whipped back and forth against the corner of the factory, taking chunks out of it. The chunks went into the hopper on its back and were broken up into their constituent atoms, reassembled into handy, safe, rich soil, and then ejected in a vertical plume that was visible even from several blocks away.
Enemies attack Detroit. Jimmy escapes. He joins a wirehead commune, but he doesn’t age; puberty doesn’t happen; immortality has its drawbacks. People are trying to steal his genome and/or copy him. Things keep changing, without improving, at least as far as Jimmy sees it.
The theme here is change vs the myth of progress, linear and teleological, as represented by the Disney Carousel, where everything always gets better with the aid of technology, where the common good is always served. In Jimmy’s world, only the individual good is served, and it usually comes with undesired consequences, often for the individuals and usually for others. There are wonders here, like the wumpuses and the war mecha, but these machines are not particularly godlike. They are creations of mortals to serve mortal purposes, nor are they are very wonderful. This is a dystopia, a depressing vision.
“A Glimpse of the Marvellous Structure (and the Threat it Entails)” by Sean Williams
The reports of Donaldan Shea Lough, an agent of the Guild of the Great Ship, his mission to report on the mysteries of the vast Gevira mines, which the Guild suspects were built by aliens long before humans colonized the world. The miners are sometimes stalked by a deadly entity called the Director, that strikes unseen and at random. But Donaldan is more interested in the mystery of a woman named Cotton whose body is discovered, shifted backwards in time from her death.
If the body was genuine — as it appeared to be — and some twist in time had delivered it to her in advance of her actual demise, why was she unconcerned about the small amount of time remaining to her? The haste with which she had hurried off struck me as at odds with human nature — unless the body had already told her everything she needed to know, and set her off on errands unknown.
Donaldan follows her, and the Director seems to be following them, killing along the way. He learns that Cotton is also an agent from another organization seeking to understand the mines, tracking another mysterious figure named Trelayne. She has sent her own dead body back in time as a message to herself. But to Donaldan she reveals the true secret of the mines, which he can not at first bring himself to believe, as it strikes at the very heart of his being.
This is a Wonder that extends throughout the universe and time. The story is a mystery, but its solution only entails greater mysteries. It is the story of individuals both enlightened and disillusioned by what they discover, forced to abandon their original assumptions. This is particularly true of the naive Donaldan, whose mission becomes finding a way to transmit his reports, his warning to his master in the Guild, but also for Cotton, who reaches the end of her quest only to close the loop of her own life.
“Alone” by Robert Reed
The hull was gray and smooth, gray and empty, and in every direction it fell away gradually, vanishing where the cold black of the sky pretended to touch what was real. What was real was the Great Ship. Nothing else enjoyed substance or true value. Nothing else in Creation could be felt, much less understood. The Ship was a sphere of perfect hyperfiber, world-sized and enduring, while the sky was only a boundless vacuum punctuated with lost stars and the occasional swirls of distant galaxies. Radio whispers could be heard, too distorted and far too faint to resolve, and neutrino rains fell from above and rose from below, and there were ripples of gravity and furious nuclei generated by distant catastrophes — inconsequential powers washing across the unyielding, eternal hull.
Across the hull, across the millennia, the walker eternally walks, fearing discovery, invisible when necessary, exploring and admiring its endless perfection. Sometimes, he thinks he hears a voice. He watches the humans when he finds them at work on the hull, believing himself to be unseen. But he has been seen. He meets a human and is forced to think about himself as he has never done before, and name himself. He becomes more sentient. But he has been seen, and he is hunted.
The Great Ship is a wonder that the author has previously created for other stories, and it isn’t very clear to readers unfamiliar with the previous stories how this one fits into the sequence. It is essentially an Exploration, and the ending comes disappointingly ex machina.
“Hot Rock” by Greg Egan
Tallulah is a mystery planet, sundered long ago from its star but still warm and alive. To discover the secret, Azar volunteers to be one of the explorers from the Amalgam who travels to the planet in digital form. They find Wonders, of course, including the secret of its power source:
Tallulah’s crust was generating heat at a rate of about two petawatts, stabilizing the planet’s temperature by replacing the energy that leaked out of the greenhouse blanket. At 90 percent mass conversion, that would consume less than 800 tons of fuel each year, so in principle the process could continue for about ten-to-the-eighteenth years: a billion times longer than it had been running so far. Unlike fission or fusion, even if the starting point for the femtotech process had to be one particular kind of nucleus, it really didn’t matter how rare it was in nature, since the energy required to synthesize it from anything else would be trivial in comparison. If each ton of the Ground Heaters’ “gold” burned so fiercely that it could power the transmutation of a hundred tons of nickel or iron into yet more fuel, then Tallulah’s bonfire would easily outlive the stars.
They also discover that the world has been colonized more than once by very different types of lifeforms and that an intelligent species of lizards now lives in the ocean, making its own attempts to master the secrets of the ancient Builders. But the lizards are divided into factions, and the explorers happen to fall into the hands of the faction that believes another wave of invaders is coming to conquer Tallulah; they refuse to believe Azar and her companion when they insist they have no desire to colonize a sunless world.
There are wonders in plenty here, but the revelations tend to be dropped on the readers as large chunks of infodump, as above, dense with physics neep. Azar and her exploring partner are only digital copies of digital copies, which tends to reduce them to talking heads and keeps them from having a lot of their own skin in the game, thus reducing narrative tension. And they are equipped with nanotech at a level barely short of omnipotent, which makes their solutions to their problems too facile. I had a lot more sympathy for the lizards, who were facing the mysterious unknown with courage and intelligence, and taking a real risk to do so.
“Kentauros” by Gregory Feeley
This literary fantasy novella is one of the initial offerings from NHR Books, sibling of the New Haven Review. It is in length a novella, but in form a sort of hybrid or chimera, like its subject matter, the misbegotten Kentauros who himself misbegot the race we now call Centaurs. There are six chapters, alternating between fiction and essay, or meditation. The part that will seem most familiar to fantasy readers is told in the second and last: the tale of Kentauros after being cast out from Olympos, an outcast bearing the taint of his begetting that makes him repulsive to both man and beast.
There are usually several different and sometimes contradictory versions of the Greek myths as we know them. The source material for this work comes to us from an ode of Pindar, who claims that Ixion, king of the Lapiths, was invited by Zeus to his home on Olympos, where Ixion conceived a passion for his host’s wife Hera. Zeus formed a cloud into the likeness of Hera, and after Ixion copulated with it, the cloud produced a monstrous son that she named Kentauros. Driven out from the abode of the gods, Kentauros mated with the mares grazing on the mountains of Magnesia, who gave birth to the Centaurs. The more common version calls the centaurs the direct offspring of Ixion’s coupling with the cloud; the tension between these two forms of the myth runs though the current work.
The fantasy story imagines the life of the exiled Kentauros, guiltless yet accursed by the sin of his conception. With the dissolution of the cloud who gave him life, he becomes friendless and unloved, in another way an innocent, naively ignorant of the mortal world into which he has been exiled. He is now an outlaw in a harsh world, truly a stranger in a strange land, reduced to scavenging and hunting rabbits with stones in order to survive. We can only have pity for Kentauros, as both men and animals turn against him, his sacrifices are rejected by the gods, and even the satyrs recognize him as tainted. It is a taint the story’s readers can not discern; we don’t know exactly what Kentauros looks like, and he himself has no idea why he is considered monstrous, yet he knows it must be so. In one of the most painful scenes, even his centaur sons attack him on sight. This makes for a tale poignant and tragic, in the modern sense, a fine example of myth retold as fantasy.
The prose is clear and vividly descriptive.
Snow covered the mountains until spring, but never rested. Northern gusts, howling as though Boreas had loosed his hounds, tore granules from exposed slopes and hurled them like gravel. A blanket of whiteness lifted itself from a field and came to rest bunched against an escarpment, blocking passage. Footprints filled and vanished, rock faces softened, then reappeared, like bone beneath flesh. The same flakes tormented one repeatedly like flies.
This passage strongly suggests that Kentauros in his exile has been sentenced to share the eternal punishment of his father Ixion. The ending hits a perfectly mythic note.
But the fantasy story is only one part of this composition. The centerpiece, and the longest chapter, is a fictional account of Mary Shelley, forced to confront the memory of her late husband’s infidelity. And here we need to be familiar with the Shelley mythos, with the fact that the poet, in the last years of his life, became enamored with an Italian girl to whom he wrote a love poem, exquisite in its passion, that filled Mary Shelley with bitterness and jealousy — not just because he loved another but because the poem described her as frigid, their marriage a “chaste cold bed.” Later, the disillusioned Shelley identified himself in this affair as an Ixion whose love had turned out to be a cloud, not a Juno.
In this fiction, Mary becomes defensive over Shelley’s understanding of the centaur myth, as he claimed that Ixion himself fathered the centaurs. Leigh Hunt, an inferior poet jealous of Shelley’s fame, challenges her privileged knowledge of her husband when he insists that Shelley had a private conversation with him in which he embraced the version with Kentauros. As proof, Hunt gives Mary a number of verses which he claims were written by Shelley on the subject of Kentauros, expressing sympathy for the innocent son of Ixion’s sin. Hypersensitive Mary, her wounds of loss still open and raw, instantly rejects the verses and what they might imply if they had actually been written by her husband. [Is that what I was: one of his mares?] Nor, as a feminist, can she countenance the notion that would absolve a rapist, a ravisher, of his crime. She destroys what she can not accept, blaming Hunt so as to be able to hold Shelley blameless.
This central story casts a different light on the myth of Kentauros. For example: with the loss of Ixion/Shelley, their sons become orphans who only have their mothers to protect them. It is impossible not to see the love and care that Mary has for her sole surviving child in the image of the nameless cloud who cherishes her monster-son. One thrust of the novella is to emphasize the role of mothers over the customary preoccupation with fatherhood in the Greek myths. It is a story of mother love. Mary Shelley’s discussions with the other poets also provide insights on the pains of exile and the way the myths tend to dismiss crimes committed upon women. In this concern, Mary is the true daughter of Mary Godwin, pioneer feminist.
But these fictions are only half the book. Three of the six chapters are essays that meditate on the themes of the myth and its implications. These insights not only illuminate the fictional story from multiple directions, they are fascinating in their own right to a reader with any interest in the myths. The author speculates, for example, about the origin of the name Kentauros, contrasting the more obvious interpretation [where the root kent, meaning to goad or prick, joins with tauros, a bull, to mean one who goads a bull, although Kentauros elevates it to Bullslayer] with a more intriguing one [where kent is combined with aura to suggest the pricking or fucking of a cloud.] In another instance, he compares the curse of Kentauros with that of Philoctetes, the Homeric hero whose wound emitted such a stench that everyone around him was repelled.
I must confess: I am probably the ideal reader for this work. I am delighted not only with Greek mythology, but also the kind of etymological speculation that the author engages in with the essays. But in these reviews I have to consider the genre readers who, I assume, are most of my audience here.
First, the fantasy story of Kentauros, if published as a whole in one of the genre zines, would certainly be quite at home. It requires none of the additional insights supplied by the rest of the material here; taken by itself it stands alone as a superior story with only, perhaps, a few too many Greek words.
The milieu of the Mary Shelley story is also one familiar to genre readers, although it is rather less accessible to those who would not recognize, say, Leigh Hunt or the poem with the dreadful title Epipsychidion. In particular, a reader better-read than I am in the Romantic poets might have more insight as to how well Mary Shelley, so perfectly familiar with her husband’s work, could have instantly detected spurious verses written under his name. This is a crucial point and should not be obscure. But the story in itself could also stand perfectly well alone as a strong, intimate portrait of a woman in pain.
Then there are the essays, at the idea of which I can imagine some genre readers crossing their eyes. But in fact they are perfectly accessible, not at all “hard,” and full of fascinating, insightful stuff. Initially, I took the first chapter as an introduction to the story, and readers might wonder whether all this material might have been better presented as such, or perhaps as an appendix to the fictional sections, where it could be skipped over or skimmed by readers intent on finding the story. Which is why, I am sure, the book has the form that it does. The author is insisting that the essays are not ancillary material, that they are of equal weight with the rest. Also, that each essay stands alone, that they are not a single thing, divided into parts. While I do believe that the fantasy story, though divided into parts, is a single thing, it is not the story, as genre readers might at first suppose.
Which brings me back to the concept of illumination. Every part of this work casts a light, provides a different insight. But these lights are all aimed in a single direction and not at the fantasy story told in the second and sixth chapters. They are aimed at illuminating the myth. A fantasy story is one way of doing this; a literary story is another, and the several essays cast separate lights of their own. Pindar’s ode, no more and no less, was doing the same thing, thousands of years ago [the Greek poets notoriously made stuff up as much as today’s fantasy authors]. This work is a set of floodlights, and it is the myth itself on the stage, wearing different costumes in each act.
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