Our first issue of the year explores human–or nonhuman–connection.
Our first story this month, J.D. Brames’s “Borborygmi,” is a grimly hilarious portrait of disconnection in a late-night convenience store. Michaela Kahn’s “Blight, Under the Microscope,” explores the lines between individual and force of nature, social and personal responsibility, while Steven Mohan, Jr.’s “The Promise of Touch” shows a very different and very personal end of the world.
Our poets this month are J.C. Runolfson, Mike Allen, and Amal El-Mohtar, with their respective poems, “Lifestory,” “Cosmic Secrets,” and “The Night Sisters,” which explore the idea of connection in archetypical, astronomical, and sometimes violent ways.
Putting together this first issue in the publisher’s hot seat has been a bit of an adventure for all of us as we adjust to different roles and new routines. We’re excited to enter Year Eight of Ideomancer, and hope you enjoy the ride!
March 2009 Review by Sean Melican
Duchamp, L. Timmel. Blood in the Fruit, Book 4 of the Marq’ssan Cycle. Aqueduct Press: 2007.
Duchamp, L. Timmel. Stretto, Book 5 of the Marq’ssan Cycle. Aqueduct Press: 2007.
Buckell, Tobias S. Sly Mongoose. Tor: 2008,
Cornish, D.M. Lamplighter, Monster Blood Tattoo, Book Two. G.P. Putnam’s Sons: 2008.
Just before sitting to write this, I read these words from a special issue of The Economist, The World in 2009, p. 16:
The financial crisis coupled with the shredding of America’s reputation over the past eight years has given weight to those people in the [Chinese] regime who argue that Western capitalism and democracy are old, flawed models.
L. Timmel Duchamp is not Chinese, but she is firmly on the side of those who argue that capitalism and democracy are not only old and flawed, but empty of sentiment or value beyond remaining status quo. It is difficult to argue as we watch the new Democratic regime appoint individuals with the same flaws as the old, largely in terms of abusing tax, employment, and immigration laws.
L. Timmel Duchamp argues that governmental structures exist solely for the purpose of existing, however noble their origin; that voting is a means of keeping the populace in line; that only style (how politicians speak and dress) matters; that substance (what they say) is entirely irrelevant.
In the last two novels of the five book Marq’ssan Cycle, Duchamp continues to develop the arguments begun in the first three, attacking the notion of government as fundamentally flawed; starkly arguing that sex is, or can be, a tool of manipulation, control, and torture. The brilliance is that, unlike most utopian visons, Duchamp is aware that not everyone is waiting to greet their liberators—in this case, the Marq’ssan. It is natural that those in power—most notably Elizabeth Weatherall—would continue to maintain power, and even increase theirs. Curiously, Weatherall recreates uses the change brought about by the Marq’ssan to alter the male-dominated Executive government to a more female-oriented government. In earlier utopias, feminist governments are utopia; but Duchamp argues that governmental structure, regardless of who holds power, cannot be anything other than dehumanizing.
Yet contrasting with Weatherall is Celia Espin, a socially active lawyer who endures rape and torture at the hands of the government, the loss of her right to practice the law, and the loss of nearly everything she owns including her dignity and humanity, continues to insist that government must exist—that the rule of law is inherently necessary.
It is this awareness of the varying reactions (and not just a simplistic dichotomy) to such radical change—from government to anarchy (keeping in mind this is not synonymous with chaos, but merely the complete lack of government agency and agencies) that imbues the series with such power. Characters are not merely mouthpieces, but are fully fleshed out and more importantly, their arguments are fully fleshed out. Duchamp does not use straw men and women. She challenges her own thoughts and assumptions. Her novels are the strongest utopias written to date.
While the Marq’ssan cycle follows the structure of political or utopian novels (featuring large chunks of dialogue, for example) Tobias S. Buckell continues to challenge the traditional structure of monolithic space opera, such as the Culture and the Federation. In his previous two books and numerous short stories, he has colored in and out of the lines (along with Samuel R. Delaney, Nalo Hopkinson, Vandana Singh, and others) a whitewashed genre.
What is perhaps his greatest strength is his hyperawareness of the frailties of human society. Sly Mongoose features a hierarchical city, including children who sacrifice their bodies through rigorous exercise and bulimia so that their city can survive and their parents can enjoy the privilege of relative wealth. Yet the city itself is lowest on a hierarchal scale, largely forgotten by what might be considered post-humans. Added to the very messy, very realistic mix are other groups of space-going humans—the League and the Raga—who are at odds with each other despite the threat of alien invasion which should, in an ideal fiction, unite the human race. One need only think of the numerous fragments of our world who have conflicting ideas on how to manage the twin threats of evangelical Christianity and Islamism, or travel between an urban city and suburbia to get a sense of how realistic Mr. Buckell’s fiction is.
The story itself? An plague is about to be let loose on humanity, engineered by malevolent aliens intent on destroying humanity. I’ve mentioned before how refreshing that humans, rather than being the top of the galactic food chain are the universally despised by the much more powerful alien empires. Pepper comes to Chilo (in a neat, beautifully rendered scene) to warn humanity. Humanity, however, is (as we still are) much, much more concerned with its local politics; its pitiful, myopic struggles for power (what matters who is the local leader if the aliens are about to obliterate our race?); it’s defining of the Other as inferior in some way—even the lowest humans, the residents of Chilo, find ways to dehumanize the more powerful post-humans.
I continue to advocate that Tobias Buckell’s vision of the future is much more realistic than most science fiction and realistic fiction, as its concerns are not with the rich and powerful, but the poor and ordinary. He approaches the topic of human and political frailty from a different slant than L. Timmel Duchamp, but their points are very much the same:
Humanity needs to overcome its sectarian politics.
Lamplighter continues the Monster Blood Tattoo series. Much of what I said earlier still applies: this is a world loved and lovingly rendered by the author, complete with glossaries, diagrams, dialect, and so forth. Indeed it is the thoroughness of world-building that earns the book part of its honor. The other is that, while the hero is the orphan figure (see Les Miserables and Oliver Twist for just two of many antecedents) who has unusual gifts, it is not until the end that we learn of them (and the reactions of other characters is atypical of most cookie-cutter fantasies of the type I remember). He in fact is embarassed by his feminine name and his short stature, which makes his chosen profession difficult to master. Indeed, his equipment is shortened so that he can use it.
He is surrounded by various characters from whom he learns valuable lessons and skills, and is fast friends (of course) with the great heroes and the outcasts alike. Granting depth to this hoariness is that the heroes are somewhat unheroic in his eyes, hunting innocent monsters for economic, not spiritual, rewards.
Much of the story meanders, however, as he is sent to a distant outpost along a disused road. Why not simply let the weeds overtake the road and pull the lamplighters closer to cities and safety? I found the answer in an unusual place: The Great Wall by John Man, which argues that the Great Wall of China did not have a physical purpose—it was no more an impediment to the ‘barbarians’ than a few broken stones—but existed as a demarcation between ‘barbarian’ and ‘civilized’. The wall Rossamund and the lamplighters guard is such a demarcation. Importantly, the demarcation is the driving force behind the books: in a world sharply divided between humanity and monsters, is there a definitive break? (The answer is of course no, as some humans act monstrously and the monsters act compassionately, but that the point is an old one does not detract from the sharpness of the book’s focus.)
Lamplighter does suffer from a lack of focus as the story only really develops a thread a third of the way from the end, but the multi-dimensional world, the lovingly crafted structures, and the fully fleshed characters make Lamplighter an excellent series for children and adults alike.
Their clever fingers held the sheet
on three sides, gripped it like a secret
clutched close to the heart, like the stars
they dreamt of in the darkness. White
was the colour of difference, a sharp
hot teasing behind their eyes, that saw only sky
when the sky was dark, and darkness, the sky.
It wound about them like a sheet
made for binding wounds sliced sharp
as shards of obsidian, sharp as a secret
whispered splintering into the ear. White, white
as the moon-scratched snow, they dreamt the stars.
But stars will not stay in dreams. Stars,
with their many pin-points, long to prick the sky
to tearing, tearing, long to spindle their white
needle arms into the soft, sweet velvet sheet
and tease from it a secret
hot and sweet and sharp.
One sister wept. “Sharp
are my dreams, tonight, sisters; these stars
will not stay put, wriggle and prick my secret
thoughts ’till the wide dark sky
seems like nothing more than a sheet
of water that thirsts for white
to drink, white
to shine like darkness on hematite. O, sharp
are my dreams, sisters, so sharp that this sheet
we keep shall be chewed ragged by these moth-like stars
who hunger for the sweet black sky
that we grip like a solemn secret.”
They worked together in secret,
teased scissors from their dreams, white
and silver in handle and blade. They cut up the sky
to spare it pain, made each hole sharp
enough to fit the many-fingered stars,
sharp as a nightbird’s cry, or the cracks in a sheet
of ice. They worked ’till the sky was no longer one secret,
’till it was was a sheet of music reversed, white
on blueblack, and the scissored night
rang sharp with the singing of stars.
Jess asked me — or rather told me, as is her wicked wont — to “write a sestina for the sisters who cut the stars into the sky.” I picked the end words, started, and about midway through had to restart because I’d messed up the sestina order and was trying to be a purist about it. It was a bit heartbreaking, because I’d come to love the stanzas I’d written for that order, but this is what came of it. I can’t help but think of it as somewhat diminished from what it was, but hopefully only in the way of the poor scissored sky.
Inside Her hole-black heart, poisoned darkness drowns
bright secrets screaming for air, sunken in spells
which cannot unwind from around tangled stars doused there
to be squeezed and bled; they are provender,
spirits drawn like vein’s blood to flood Hers; stretched,
compressed into the sorcery that binds Him until time
spits the last droplets of its sacred light: His
unholy light stirs then, thrashes against the drowning
spell until celestial seams rend, bubbling bright into Her
black: His pale rages stains, hateglow drawn through
void. Are there new shades of grey then to be born,
starlight doused dull by apocalypse? Her voodoos cannot prevent
unions in repulsion, enemies blended: shared secrets seep
final darkness, dissolving suns once kindled by His fury.
Alas, no great emotional epiphany to report: this started as an exercise in puzzle-making. Quite a while back an editor put out a call for poems with acrostics. I thought I’d be ultra-clever and create one with two hidden sentences, one tracking up, one tracking down. But when I actually tried it I stalled on the runway … just recently I came across the draft again in a notebook during an office cleanup, looked it over and realized: I can do this! And voila.
So the god of love cozies up to me
at the bar
feeds me the sob story
how his wife broke faith
burned him with her
lack of trust
drove him away.
I know the tale
but I let him speak
talk himself into going back
defying his mother again
reclaiming the bride he tricked
letting her claim
what love should be.
I get up when he’s done
he never once looked at my face.
I step out into the night
the wind blows
snow and roses down the street
ahead of me walks a woman
in a mermaid dress
dripping blood and seawater
with every step.
I brush past her
hear her silence like a song
rising defiant between buildings
crying out her lover’s name
crying out her liquid courage
she knew when she saw him
what love should be.
I turn a corner while she walks on
never more than an echo to her heart.
There’s a limo driving slowly
its reflection a pumpkin
in the puddles
from this afternoon’s storm
the woman inside shines like a mirror
like cut glass
like tall white candles.
She looks out
with starry eyes
onto streets she’s used to seeing
grimier than this
but she cleans up pretty
she cleans up well
she’ll clean up thorough
what love should be.
I pause under a streetlamp
another shadow in her light.
Gold cascades down
the highrise beside me
green twines up from pavement
hair and beanstalk
a choice for the prince of fools
singing under his breath
as he struts his stuff.
He takes one in each hand
no way to climb
when they go to the same place
the same ending
not worth splitting himself in two
he’ll fall or he’ll learn
what love should be.
I watch him waver between bright choices
a distant darkness on the ground.
Far above a window opens
swans fly out
nightingales and doves
a nightful of feathers
and wild seductive cries
a girl in patchwork skins looks up
and flings wide her arms below.
She has fox-eyes and doe-ears
her hands are fine and white
and callused all at once
a horsehead speaks above her
geese scatter at her feet
three times her mother bled dry
what love should be.
I walk away from her mad purity
a skin she has yet to shed.
Thorns and wrought-iron mark a path
I take inward
to a garden overgrown
lilies and climbing roses
bluebells and forget-me-nots
golden apples strawberries
The ripe fruit is on the ground
in the ground
seeds like rubies glowing in the dark
spilled from the mouth of beauty
blessed or cursed to show
her nature with each word
that love should be.
The juice runs red under my feet
the fruit grows over and on.
At the heart of the garden
waits a toad
waits a frog
waits a bloated green beast
floating in the pond
the gold of ring and ball
glimmering in bulging eyes.
Beneath the water’s surface
gleam lovely faces
lost men and women
unchanged from when they fell
drowned or sleeping still
caught in the dream
that love should be.
I sit down at the water’s edge
the beast regards me expectantly.
Every promise and pledge between us
is paid in full
is forever due
We have both worn skin and ring
tasted water and fruit
’til we are ever green bound
wet and gorged.
It’s my time again for skin
and I lean toward him
the smell rich and rotten
sweet and heady
too much and too little
and too many things
that love should be.
I kiss him on the head
my breath full of tales.
The fairest bard rises up from me
in the dark
shakes out his finery
blows me a kiss
the most we have now
without breaking the spell
we took such care to weave.
He takes the ring and leaves me
diving for the ball
walks out of the garden past the fruit
he takes his turn to reflect
what love should be.
We know what love is well enough
we seek to taste the root.
The concept of this poem was storyteller become story become audience and back again, though not necessarily in that order.