Review: Six reviews by Sean Melican

Review: Six reviews by Sean Melican

Sherman, Delia and Theodora Goss, eds. Interfictions. Interstitial Arts Foundation: 2007; distributed by Small Beer Press ISBN: 978-1-931520-24-9

Eskridge, Kelley. Dangerous Space. Aqueduct Press: 2007 ISBN: 978-1-933500-13-3.

Hartwell, David G. and Kathryn Cramer, eds. Year’s Best Fantasy 7. Tachyon Publications: 2007. ISBN: 978-1-892391-50-6.

Lange, Sue. We, Robots. Aqueduct Press: 2007 ISBN: 978-1-933500-11-9.

Kenyon, Kay. Bright of the Sky. Pyr: 2007 ISBN: 978-1-59102-541-2

Robson, Justina. Keeping It Real. Pyr: 2007 ISBN: 978-1-59102-539-9

Apologies to L. Timmel Duchamp for not finishing Tsunami in time to make this issue, and apologies to the writers and editors. I wanted to be able to fit all of them in and so I had to be briefer than I prefer.

I’ve written in the past that various editors attempting to collect and define slipstream, or fabulist, fiction fall into the trap of simply clothing genre fiction (science fiction, fantasy, horror) with a new term, not for the sake of defining or inventing a new genre, but attempting to make genre palatable to mainstream readers, writers, and critics.

But the new anthology from the Interstitial Arts Foundation and distributed by Small Beer Press, Interfictions, is the most successful anthology thus far, both defining its terms and presenting stories that function on those terms. In the Introduction (a version can be found here) Heinz Insu Fenkel writes:

… if an interstitial novel is determined to be Fantasy by its publisher, a reader, having the parameters of the initial text predetermined, might experience it as Fantasy novel exhibiting odd dissonances or interesting novelties in relation to that genre. [italics mine]

It is those odd dissonances or interesting novelties that make a work interstitial, slipstream, or fabulist. Much of genre is derivative, sometimes to the point of approaching the authoritarian structures of Harlequin Romance: in chapter x, y, z, and a, b, c must happen. The evidence is all around: after Harry Potter, the young adult market exploded. Peter Crowther, in the May 2007 LOCUS:

My goodness, but there were some turkeys set free in the less-than-halcyon days that followed the publication of Carrie.

Frankly, to sell a novel, you must write a statement comparing your novel to a bestseller, follow with a but, and finish with a trivial difference from the bestseller.

For example, Christopher Barzak’s “What We Know About the Lost Families of ___ House” follows many of the standard conventions of haunted house stories: weird things happen; people die, disappear or go mad. But the narrator is external to the hauntings (unlike The Haunting of Hill House or The Shining) and thus has blind spots when it comes to the narration-we never learn exactly why the house is haunted, or even who is doing the haunting. It is the effect on the residents, and how they respond to one of their own being absorbed by the haunted house, that is of interest. The narrator (who is the town itself) is not interested in solving a mystery or placating the haunter. And Mr. Barzak is not interested in entertaining us with traditional passages: mindless running, mindless screaming, axes through doors, blood dripping down walls, or the final revelatory moment. The conventions of genre are there, but the perspective and lacunae confound expectations.

Jon Singer’s “Willow Pattern” (re)constructs a culture from a single plate found by an archaeologist. But is the (re)construction a legitimate representation of the dead peoples’ or is it merely the fanciful imagination of the archaeologist? In very few words, it questions both the legitimacy of archaeology (how much can we really know, or guess, from a few isolated pottery fragments and spearheads?) and the legitimacy of sociological or anthropological science fiction (Ursula LeGuin and her many imitators), which often insert sociologists into fanciful cultures with the explicit purpose of analyzing said culture (and through it, in theory, ours) but when the author holds all the cards (shards) the cards are already marked and the fix is on.

Vandana Singh’s excellent “Hunger” is superficially about a little girl’s overly elaborate birthday party, which is not in fact about her at all, but about her father’s efforts to increase his status within his company and community. But it is told by the mother, who despite being the viewpoint is not the central figure, but a nearly silent witness to the cultural machinations, dances, and rituals of both her daughter and husband. She is the alien(ated) sociologist studying two groups of people and attempting to impose some sense and order.

Not surprisingly, ahistorical texts provide the foundation for two stories. Rachel Pollack’s “Burning Beard: The Dreams and Visions of Joseph ben Jacob, Lord Viceroy of Egypt” is an imaginative telling of the Joseph of the famed technicolor robe. The Bible is often (too often) taken as a literal truth, and yet it is rife with inconsistency. If Joseph truly has the gift of prophecy, if he can truly see into the future, when he dreams of his people’s future, what disasters will reign down on the Hebrews and innocent Egyptians, all because he selfishly used his dreams to further his career and provide for his family? And was it worth it? It does not fall into the subset of alternative history – unlike some supposed fabulist, slipstream or interstitial stories – because the historical and archaeological record are in utter conflict with the Biblical record. (As an aside, it does not appear that the Hebrews were ever enslaved by the Egyptians and never fled in a massive exodus. There simply is no record of said exodus, or any record of a pharaoh drowning. They were probably a free working class, and the supposed exodus was a voluntary, unnoticed, unremarked upon trickle of Hebrews from Egypt to elsewhere.)

Catherynne M. Valente’s “A Dirge for Prester John” uses the fictional world found in the medieval manuscript The Letter of Prester John and examines how such a wildly unBiblical world would respond to a man of faith, and how the man of faith would respond to the impossible world. If the fantastic were true, how would the world be different? Again, it is not alternate history (Prester John’s world never existed) but it is not merely fantasy either, because it intersects, and (this is important) does not draw a narrative line anywhere to clarify for the reader that this part is true and this part is fanciful.

Buy this book.

———•———

Typically, when I read for a book for review, one part of my brain is dissecting the book, looking for strengths and weaknesses.  The other part enjoys the ride. But sometimes a writer just sweeps me off my feet and I forget what I was supposed to be doing. Such is the case with the title story from Kelley Eskridge’s collection Dangerous Space. While the year is less than half over, this has garnered my vote as one of the best stories of the year.

“Dangerous Space” is a Mars story: Mars is a character who appears in three of Ms. Eskridge’s stories. The other two are “And Salome Danced” and “Eye of the Storm.” They are not sequels, they are not tied to time and place—”Dangerous Space” and “And Salome Danced” could occur anytime in the last twenty years, but “Eye of the Storm” is set in a quasi-medieval past, like many fantasies, though it is not a fantasy itself. The common thread is Mars’ gender, or rather the lack thereof. There are never pronouns, and his or her behavior is sometimes ‘masculine’ and sometimes ‘feminine.’ Further, as proof of Ms. Eskridge’s genius, in “Dangerous Space,” the story of an indie band on the cusp of stardom, which feels authentic (the personalities, the conflicts, the late night writing sessions, the groupies), she writes that Mars is a sound guy, but then introduces a woman who becomes Mars’ protégé, another ‘sound guy’ though she’s female. And the love interest in that story is a bisexual male, so Mars’ feeling for him and his feelings for Mars cannot be used to assign gender either. What’s more astonishing is that the sex scenes, while they never become mechanical yet retain a sensual power. In the press materials, Ms. Eskridge says:

… the reader is free to read Mars as male or female, and therefore as straight or gay depending on who Mars is relating to emotionally and sexually in a particular story… [Mars] is a space into which any reader can fit themselves.

The power of the Mars stories is precisely this space, a dangerous space, in which readers will likely become uncomfortable with their assumptions. No matter what gender and orientation the reader assigns to Mars, Mars will eventually behave in a way that challenges the male or female reading, the gay or straight reading. It is an excellent experiment (1) because writing more than one-hundred fifty pages without using gendered pronouns or inadvertently assigning gender based on other characters’ behaviors is difficult and (2) because it explores the meaning (or lack of) and value (or lack of) labels. As our nation struggles to more sharply define gender and sexual roles, these are stories that challenge whether such neat categories are more than empty, arbitrary boxes.

“And Salome Danced” has Mars as a director of a play about Herod, in which one character, either Joe or Jo depending on gender, can physically alter her or his biology (I think) to fit the role of either John the Baptist or Salome.

When I look down, I see that her hand is changing: the bones thicken under the flesh, the muscles rearrange themselves subtly, and it’s Joe’s hand on Jo’s arm, Joe’s hand on mine.

In a story where gender and sexuality are undefined, is this a fantasy story where physical alteration is literal, or is it ‘only’ an issue of perception? Does the hand change because Mars wants Jo to be Joe? Not surprisingly, it doesn’t matter. The reader is left to fill in the (dangerous) space. “Eye of the Storm” plays with the tropes of medieval fantasy with as Mars cannot engage in ordinary sex; instead Mars finds sexual fulfillment in fighting.

Other stories include the powerful “Strings,” a horrific fascist world in which any music other than classical is strictly prohibited. “City Life” explores the effects of the laying on of hands: what are the negatives to such power? While sexuality and gender are foci of Ms. Eskridge, she also distrusts (also possibly, and rightly, fears) an overly powerful government. “Somewhere Down the Diamondback Road” is a heady brew of drugs and legalized murder. It’s unclear why the state should not only condone but encourage random murder, if it is random, but in a world of Abu Ghraib and White House lawyers determining that the U.S. doesn’t have to abide by the Geneva convention, it is a chilling story. “Alien Jane” is a story of Jane told by Rita, who is confined to a mental hospital for refusing to act ‘feminine.’ Jane suffers from congenital insensitivity to pain and is thus literally tortured in the name of science. The state condones.

———•———

When David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer’s Year’s Best Fantasy 7 landed on my doorstep, it was a pleasant and unexpected surprise. (Partially because the much-talked-about Gene Wolfe “Build-A-Bear” now appears in print.) While the editors generally pick more traditional fantasy than other years’ best, because the book is shorter than others, it contains a higher percentage of very short (less than 7000 word) stories, which, when done well, are my preferred size. I say traditional because no less than three stories contain a scene in a village tavern, not that traditional necessarily lacks in quality, nor that the content or style is narrow in scope: “Build-A-Bear” occurs on a cruise ship, Geoff Ryman’s “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy)” is set in Cambodia, Lucius Shepard’s “The Lepidopterist” is set in Roatan and written in dialect, and Howard Waldrop’s “Thin, On the Ground” occurs in 1960’s Mexico. M. Rickert’s “The Christmas Witch,” while employing the trope of ‘witch,’ particularly that of the ahistorical witch, delves deep into the meaning of the supernatural through a child whose mother has been murdered, and whose father is abusive. Like many of Ms. Rickert’s stories, it defies easy description or analysis. Robert Reed’s “Show Me Yours” may not be fantasy at all, and though I’ve felt some of his stories suffer from white-room syndrome, this one employs it to logical use. Saying much more would ruin the ending.

Several stories are about unusual children, such as “The Christmas Witch” and Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s “Sea Air,” about an adopted boy who (well, you’ll guess this halfway through) isn’t a boy at all. Adoption also figures prominently in Ian R. MacLeod’s “The Bonny Boy,” but it’s the parents who are unusual. Although not strictly necessary, the story is better if you’re familiar with the world of The Light Ages and The House of Storms. Ghosts also figure prominently as in Gavin J. Grant’s disturbing “Yours, Etc.,” in which a man walks widdershins round his house until he’s paced a deep trench. Oh, and his wife writes letters to ghosts. Like M. Rickert, Mr. Grant’s stories employ tropes but don’t fall into archetype. The same cannot be said of L.E. Modesitt Jr.’s “Ghost Mission,” which is easily the weakest as it falls prey to too many stereotypes. Greg Van Eekhout’s “The Osteomancer’s Son” has a novel idea, but the ending dissolves into a standard special effects showdown.

Nonetheless, this is an exceptional collection, especially for fans of short fiction. Standouts include Mr. Grant’s piece, Ms. Rickert’s, Mr. Ryman’s, Mr. Waldrop’s, and “Build-a-Bear” as well as Mr. Wolfe’s “Bea and Her Bird Brother,” which on initial reading seems little more than an elaborate pun but after a second reading, it’s a powerful meditation on parenting and sibling rivalry.

———•———

We, Robots, a novella, is Sue Lange’s contribution to Aqueduct Press’ Conversation Pieces Series. Avey is a robot purchased to protect Angelina from perverts and drug dealers while walking to and from school, and to perform various domestic chores. While dealers are a real problem in poorer neighborhoods, the prevalence and boldness of sexual predators struck me as rather unlikely (strangers are many times less likely to assault children than relatives or friends). Avey does his robot duty until two weeks before the predicted Singularity. Transhumans (more cyborgs more than of the Greg Egan sort) recall all robots that have not had a pain receptor installed. The theory is that when the Singularity occurs, robots will perceive humans as unnecessary and enslave (The Matrix) or eliminate (Terminator) us, so a pain receptor will allow humans to break the robot spirit, much like a cowboy breaks a wild stallion. A scene in which a child with a baseball bat assaults a robot while the robot recites “I’m in pain” with autistic regularity is disturbing. Naturally, events go awry (although the Singularity is stopped and Regularity continues) when robots discover the twin of pain is love, and humans undergo a pain stoppage operation, resulting in extreme risk-taking. (It’s an interesting comparison to Ms. Eskridge’s “Alien Jane,” and unfortunately ignores the very real problem that insensitivity to pain is often lethal. After all, how do you know if you’ve broken a bone, if it’s ruptured your lung, or if your appendix or spleen has burst, or you’ve sustained such extreme internal or external injuries that you’re bleeding out? But that’s not really Ms. Lange’s point.) The robots can feel pain while humans cannot.

The story suffers from the fact that the human characters, indeed almost every character save Avey, are thinly drawn. Still, this is a funny and disturbing satire, and a refutation of the more facile writings in our genre.

———•———

There have been many attempts to logically and scientifically skirt the speed of light restriction, often exploring and giving fictional form to the abstract boundaries of science: negative energy, quantum foam, and so forth. Larry Niven wrote that he and Jerry Pournelle went so far as to solve differential equations for The Mote in God’s Eye. But Kay Kenyon’s Bright of the Sky takes this extrapolation one step further: in its search for shortcuts between the stars, the corporation Minerva has used wormholes, but they tend to be unstable and occasionally destroy entire ships, which is not good for the bottom line. One such ship was destroyed, but its captain, Titus Quinn (a literally big-fisted hero) returns after a long absence claiming there’s another world between which would safely allow ships to make shortcuts. The problem? The world is inhabited. On the other side, Quinn’s wife died and his daughter is lost to him. Returning to Earth, he wants nothing more to do with Minerva, however, and Minerva certainly wants nothing to do with him. After all, that’s crazy talk, right?

Except, it’s not. And Minvera’s figured part of it out. But they (surprise) need Quinn. Quinn doesn’t want or need Minerva, except he’s blackmailed into it. (In a minor subplot, it’s revealed that people’s careers and futures are determined by a single test, and Quinn’s nephew’s results (conveniently, his nephew is about to take the test) can be manipulated by Minerva.) And Quinn decides that he will rescue his daughter. My major problem here is that the people of Minerva, who don’t trust Quinn, are easily convinced by him that he doesn’t need a Minerva employee with him. They need Quinn because he knows the Entire, but the insurance they have he will behave according to their desires is relatively thin. They don’t even have a guarantee he’ll return, and then what?

Through Minerva’s device, he travels to the cleverly titled Entire. Although it is clearly not the entirety of the universe, and the dominant species knows this, it’s an excellent example of cultural manipulation. What subjugated species will argue against them? (The Rose is what the people of the Entire, who obviously know about us, call our universe—roses are an artifact found only in our universe and nowhere in the Entire.) The Entire is ruled by the Tarig, who we quickly learn have built the Entire, and have peopled it with species and cultures artificially derived from earth and probably other worlds. The Tarig are mantis-like, which beggars the question: why are all evil, dominant species giant insects? (Or humanoid.) How come they’re never kittens or nematodes? What is it in our species’ subconscious that so fears giant insects? (Think back to those ’50s and ’60s mutant movies—how many had something giant and cute?)

Quinn’s enters the Entire, is captured, convinces a modest lord to pretend Quinn is his son, has his features changed, and travels through the well-imagined, detailed world of the Entire carrying on paper the idea of enlisting the Inyx in the Tarig’s perpetual war. The Inyx are a sort of mount (beautifully illustrated on the cover) with telepathic powers and a desire to bond with a rider, who must first be blinded. Why? Because Sydney, Quinn’s daughter, is one of those riders. It’s all rather Byzantine, and if there was a good reason for this roundabout route, (rather than simply traveling to the Inyx) I missed it.

Meanwhile, we are treated to a rather lovingly detailed and convincing culture of the Inyx through… well, not Sydney’s eyes, as she’s blind, but through the Inyx’s eyes as revealed by Sydney’s words. The relationship of the Inyx and their riders is a neat inversion of the traditional cowboy-and-horse archetype.

While there are a few structural flaws, most notably a tendency to switch viewpoints midway through a chapter for no reason other than authorial convenience, as well as the spineless of Minerva’s corporate goons and Quinn’s literal heavy-handedness, (C’mon, folks! Can’t we have a pulp, romance hero who’s small, weak, maybe even nearsighted?) this is a novel well worth reading.

———•———

I criticized Justina Robson’s first novel for being little more than a mish-mash of tropes. Her new novel, Keeping It Real, is also a mish-mash, but a more successful one.

In 2015, the Quantum Bomb binds the five worlds, including earth (now known as Otopia); Zoomenon, the world of elementals; Alfheim, the world of elves; Demonia (guess); and Thanatopia, the world of death. The borders are maintained either supernaturally or physically: Thanatopia’s gates are pretty much one way while xenophobic Alfheim has closed its borders to all foreigners.

Meanwhile, Zal, the elfin lead singer of the multiple-species band The No-Shows has been receiving death threats. Using a clever reversal of the usual fantastic trope of ‘dominating all life’ (see: Sauron, Lord Foul, etc.) Alfheim wants to separate itself from the other worlds and guess whose blood is needed?

Enter Lila Black, special agent, recently seriously injured and turned into a 21st century update on the Bionic Woman. She’s assigned to protect Zal, only wild magic has caused her and Zal to enter into a Game. Enter sexual tension, stage right.

Keeping It Real is a fun book, full of high- and low-tech battles, but the writing never manages to fully capture the extraordinary mechanisms that Lila has, or to fully distinguish the worlds from one another. Alfheim isn’t terribly alien, only a slightly prettier version of earth… erm, Otopia. And Ms. Robson relies so heavily on the standard fantastic clichés of elves and demons that they never come across as anything more than cardboard cultures.

Still, it’s a more intelligent than average beach book.



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