Karen Russell offers a brilliant piece of SF (or fantasy, or, really, a beautiful example of how a purely fantastical insertion can illuminate an essentially SFnal premise) in the October 11th issue of The New Yorker. “The Ghost Birds” is set a few decades in the future, a future ravaged by climate change and the resulting Great Western Fires. Most notably, birds are extinct. It’s told by a man who is a “paranormal birder”: he tracks down flocks of ghosts of birds, hoping to see their spectral presence or hear their song. He is divorced, and this is his first post-divorce trip with his daughter. They venture into abandoned, uninhabitable Oregon, to an old school where a flock of Vaux’s swifts has been rumored. The story marries the man’s personal story – his fraught relationship with his wife, his uncertain bond with his daughter – with hints of a strange dark future: “Surveillers” policing trespassers into abandoned territory; an apparent move by many people (rich people it seems) into the sky, perhaps to space; and of course the aftermath of an ecological disaster, leaving still beautiful wild lands. There’s the beauty of the ghost bird, even though it’s never clear if they are “real” or a figment of the paranormal birders’ collective imagination.
I recently ran across a delightful story collection from an author I didn’t know. This is Jen Fawkes’ Tales the Devil Told Me, and it comprises a set of reimaginations of fairy tales and other classic literature: there are radical takes on “Rumpelstiltskin”, the Odyssey, Moby-Dick, Peter Pan, and more. In most cases they take a sympathetic view of the villain of the tale, and they are by turns witty and dark, extravagant, and savage. There are two original pieces. “The Tragedie of Claudius, Prince of Denmark”, is, of course, a telling of the events of Hamlet, particularly those preceding the play, through Claudius’s eyes. It is lightly fantastical (as with Shakespeare’s version, and including additional ghosts and poultry). This one isn’t funny, but quite powerful, and Claudius’s fate truly is a tragedy: a basically good man, brought down by an early sin, his later love for his brother’s wife, and a sense that to be King of Denmark in that era could not but bring doom. “The Story Within” is more fully fantastical, telling the back story of the magic mirror from “Snow White”. The mirror, we learn, contains the spirit of a man from the Ottoman Empire, born as a result of his mother’s rape, and carrying a third eye in his chest, which can seek out beauty. This man joins the Sultan’s army, and has great success, but is tormented by his visions (via his third eye) of the Sultan’s daughter, who is sleeping due to a spell. You can see the precapitulations (if I may coin a word) of the story of Snow White, as our hero’s love for his ruler’s daughter – or her beauty – leads inevitably to his fate.
“The Story Within”, Jen Fawkes (Tales the Devil Told Me)
“The Ghost Birds”, Karen Russell (The New Yorker 10/11/21)
Rich Horton works for a major aerospace company in St. Louis MO. He has published over a dozen anthologies, including the yearly series The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy from Prime Books, and he is the Reprint Editor for Lightspeed Magazine. He contributes articles and reviews on SF and SF history to numerous publications.
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