The ED SF Project

The Ellen Datlow/SCI FICTION Project, that is. We're showing the love for five and a half years of great short fiction, and we need your help! We've got over 300 stories to cover, so if you're a person who loves short speculative fiction, we want you. Go here to read the list and add your voice.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

"The Other Celia" by Theodore Sturgeon: An Appreciation by John Joseph Adams

If there's anything positive to take away from the closing of SCI FICTION, it's that it gave me an excuse to re-read "The Other Celia" by Theodore Sturgeon.

I chose to appreciate this story because it's one of the first stories I remember reading on SCI FICTION, and it made me slap myself upside the head for not having read more Sturgeon (this was quickly thereafter remedied).

If I recall correctly, when I read "The Other Celia," SCI FICTION wasn't the must-read magazine for me that it has since become. I was aware of it, sure; I think the only other story I'd read was "Cucumber Gravy" by Susan Palwick. I'd really enjoyed the Palwick, but for some reason I never got around to checking in every week. All that changed after I read "The Other Celia."

Sure, it's a reprint of a classic, by one of the undeniable masters of short SF, but still, it really opened my eyes to what Ellen was trying to do with the site, and made me keep coming back week after week after that.

Another reason reading "The Other Celia" on SCI FICTION stuck in my mind, is because when I read it, I hadn't actually planned to sit and read a whole story. I had just idly clicked on the link to see the first few lines, intending to perhaps read it later. But that's all I needed to be utterly hooked.

Here's how it begins:

If you live in a cheap enough rooming house and the doors are made of cheap enough pine, and the locks are old-fashioned single-action jobs and the hinges are loose, and if you have a hundred and ninety lean pounds to operate with, you can grasp the knob, press the door sidewise against its hinges, and slip the latch. Further, you can lock the door the same way when you come out.

Slim Walsh lived in, and was, and had, and did these things partly because he was bored.

The poetry of Sturgeon's language is what really captured me from the get go. "Slim Walsh lived in, and was, and had, and did these things . . ." That line right there is what did it.

But these opening paragraphs also paint this compelling character portrait of our hero, and then the story moves on into this really strange but undeniably compelling fantasy--as Slim becomes obsessed with Celia, so does the reader.

Robert Charles Wilson has said that "The Other Celia" is "in its way as perfect a science-fiction story as The Time Machine." I agree completely, and it's hard to say it any better than that.

“There’s a Hole in the City” by Rick Bowes: An Appreciation by M. Rickert

After September eleventh, after the great bullhorn speech, and the raising of flags everywhere, bitterness set in. Solemn silence settled over the date. This was mourning and this was patriotism. Many who had something to say said they would move to other countries to say it. The dead were silenced, and the country was silenced, except for the singing of the national anthem.

Writers don't have to write about war, terrorism or brutality. They don't have to do it, and not all should. Writers, most of all, must find their voices. That is the covenant they make with the word. But for those writers who are given the material, the passion, the voice to speak of things that make us sad to be human, it must be said; truth is not lost, until it is silenced.

The first time I read Rick Bowe's story, "There's a Hole in the City" I caught on fire. My hands burned and my eyes teared up from the smoke. My breath shortened. I walked away and left the fire where it started, in the story on the computer. I thought of peaches.

The Sunday before September eleventh one of the woman in my Tai Chi group brought peaches to share. I live in upstate New York and hadn't had a good peach since I was a kid. Peaches in the supermarket were hard and dry. I had given up eating them. But these peaches, locally grown, were incredibly sweet and juicy, so much so that after Tai Chi that day, my husband and I drove to the farmstand to buy our own. It was a tenderly beautiful day, the sky, true blue, the way a kindergartner might paint it, dotted with fat, white Georgia O'Keefe clouds. I remember how light I felt, as if the light of that day, combined with the sun- infused peaches was something I had ingested or become a part of. That was September ninth. I don't remember if I ate a peach the next morning, or the one after that, but for some reason the flavor of peaches is, for me, the flavor of September eleventh. I am sure I will never eat another peach without tasting ash.

After the fire went out, the story lingered on my tongue with the taste of peaches and death.

The large story of loss here is composed of the individual stories of loss. If, like me, you burn from memory and fear when you read this the first time (that's how perfect the writing is) read it again, because the story is essentially one of solace. There is suffering. There is death. There is love. (Ashes, peaches, sweet flavor of life.) You will find more solace in rereading this story than you ever will by watching the towers fall again.

What can we learn from the dead? Why look at such bleak faces when we can be making love, eating chocolate, smelling the apple blossom scent of snow? Why walk with the dead when there will be enough time for that eventually? Read this story. The dead walk with us. They have things to say.

Link to story

"And He Built a Crooked House" by Robert A. Heinlein: An Appreciation by Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon

The first book of "real" SF short stories I ever bought with my own money was Heinlein's collection The Green Hills of Earth (1951). There are many Heinleins, I would discover, and this was the innocent storyteller of the 40s and 50s. Very suitable for a boy of 10 or 11 in the world of 1969. And I remember every story in that collection, almost as if I read them yesterday. I'm usually happy if I truly love 20% of a collection or SF magazine, but 7 out of 10 stories in The Green Hills of Earth make the grade in my book. Whether through starry-eyed innocence or blind luck, I'd stumbled across a winner early in my SF readings and then proceeded to read every one of what we might call today Heinlein's YA novels in my junior high library.

I don't remember when or in whose collection I first read "And He Built a Crooked House" (1940). But I do know that I had already discovered tesseracts and the idea of a four-dimensional object, along with the intriguing mysteries of the Möbius strip and the Klein bottle, and I'd read Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott, so I took to "And He Built a Crooked House" in a flash.

D&D players know about portable holes, Dr. Who fans know that the Tardis is larger than a London call box and the latest Harry Potter movie includes spacious quarters housed inside a modest pup tent. But those of us who read Heinlein's story knew how to make a house bigger on the inside than the outside -- build perpendicular to the usual three dimensions.

It's an engineer's house, full of quirks and disturbing realities as one can watch oneself disappearing into a room down the hall. And while the views from the windows are a wee bit unusual, they're certainly conversation starters. There's just one small technical problem with the place.

This story appeared some sixty-five years ago and yet the opening sentiments are still fresh:

Americans are considered crazy anywhere in the world.

They will usually concede a basis for the accusation but point to California as the focus of the infection. Californians stoutly maintain that their bad reputation is derived solely from the acts of the inhabitants of Los Angeles County. Angelenos will, when pressed, admit the charge but explain hastily, "It's Hollywood. It's not our fault--we didn't ask for it; Hollywood just grew."

The people in Hollywood don't care; they glory in it. If you are interested, they will drive you up Laurel Canyon "--where we keep the violent cases." The Canyonites--the brown-legged women, the trunks-clad men constantly busy building and rebuilding their slap-happy unfinished houses--regard with faint contempt the dull creatures who live down in the flats, and treasure in their hearts the secret knowledge that they, and only they, know how to live.

Lookout Mountain Avenue is the name of a side canyon which twists up from Laurel Canyon. The other Canyonites don't like to have it mentioned; after all, one must draw the line somewhere!

Hard to imagine that this 1940s California was just a shadow of what it would become today. Yet the iconic imagery of carving subdivisions and mansions out of what should've been left desert is buried deep in our collective unconscious--Hollywood TV and movies have seen to that. Perry Mason himself could've driven his car up to Heinlein's tesseract house to investigate what happened. So we're well grounded right at the beginning of the story, even nodding at how crazy we Americans really are. And Heinlein's characters are straight from his box of tricks--part optimist, part charlatan-cum-make-a-buck, part progressive, part conservative--and his sense of timing perfected. And it's not only culture which requires this story to be embedded in California . . .

Okay, so the characters are a bit dated and woefully politically incorrect by today's standards. And you'd never get anything built so quickly today without dealing with zoning boards, etc. It's an old short story, I'll willingly make allowances.

But the real reason I wanted to write this appreciation was that a few years ago I stumbled onto one of the greatest accolades I've ever seen for a story: Bob Seitz's 1997 tribute to "And He Built a Crooked House".

Preamble: The plot and the title for this story belongs to Robert Heinlein. I read it in a science fiction anthology decades ago and thought it was pretty amusing. Unfortunately, I don't know where to find it. I have rewritten it from scratch to go with my paper on relativity.

To tell the truth, I was using Google to try to find Heinlein's story and found Seitz's first. And while it is really intriguing to look at his story in comparison to Heinlein's, this helps illustrate why SciFiction was so important. So someone could find a story like this online. So that we don't have pull a Bob Seitz and write our own versions when we can't find a remembered work online or in print.

See, I'm not so sure we're ready for the Phil Kaldon version of a Time Enough For Love, which thankfully is still in print. But that's a different, later, longer Heinlein than this one and for another time and place.

Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon

Link to story

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

"The Girl Who Ate Garbage" by Jessica Reisman & A.M. Dellamonica: An Appreciation by Deborah Biancotti

Mite found the girl just before dawn. She was eating a shopping cart in a dead-end alley.

She what?

Mite had been born a sorcerer, carrying within him a bright core of magic as solidly his as an appendix. It was called a fetish, and he had thought it would protect him from anything.

Poor Mite, poor, poor Mite.

Zoli'd wanted wings, a spell that called for the ribcage of a girl . . .

Dear god, a ribcage? But why? That's so awful. Maybe he'll even turn the ribcage itself into wings which, when you think about it (and I'm thinking about it now), would be kinda pretty. 'Magine it, ivory wings with tattered bits of skin flapping brown. Wouldn't hold, though. Like Icarus, Zoli'd fall. Zoli wouldn't be solid, see, in his ill-gotten wings. Unsolid Zoli. See?

Zoli got angrier and angrier, shaking Mite from sleep every morning like a dog. The daily demand came harder and faster. "Eat this, honeybee," Zoli would snarl, shoving something at Mite. Turnips or melons if he was lucky, but sometimes a quart of olives, pickled rattlesnake, or raw tripe. Force-fed until his throat bled, Zoli laughed as Mite vomited diamonds and glow-globes, dragon spores and beauty potions.

Aw, man, all kinds of weirdness, & this whole freakish bulimia is worthy of a great, big Freudian interpretation. If I had one. Which I don't.

A girl, bound and gagged, lay on the hotel's crimson carpet. Scared blue eyes stared up at Mite from under spiky dark hair.

"Eat that, honeybee."

Morbid curiosity, that's what I got. It's awful, but I can't look away & when I reach that last honeybee, there, well, I find I have to pause. Just pause & wait. Eat that, honeybee. I'm waiting. Waiting for the ugly.

Gal screeched, hopping behind Mite, clinging to his shoulders as he pivoted to face the shadows. Her breath came in hot bursts behind his ear, and he could feel her pulse—light and rapid—in the warm patch of contact where her throat stretched over his shoulder to peek. "Ghost," she moaned, as if Mite couldn't see that for himself.

Gal is something else, isn't she? I mean, she's way out there. And she also is, more literally, something else. Not the simple gal her name implies.

By the way, these excerpts are in order, but not contiguous, see, don't get confused. It's only that I'm pulling out bits of the story that should make you want to find the bits in-between. Yeah? I'm doing this, some might say, because I'm lazy, or others, because I don't really know how to do a story appreciation. For a start, I'm probably not meant to use the 'I' so much. But, man, can't you feel Gal's throat on your shoulder? Can't you see her kinda floppy & cat-like & crazy, can't you, honeybee? She is disgusting, but compelling. Don't you want to see what goes on around and inside?

It's beautiful-ugly.

My favourite thing.

"Solace is just a wrist-slash away, man. I'm sure you could find a blade in this slop."

"Pass for now, Jonas." Mite's gaze turned from the dark and hazardous bore of the westward tunnel to the wider pit encompassed by Jonas's gesture.

Pass for now, pass on that, Mite, pass on suggestions from the ghost with the suicide fetish. Pass away, pass it on. If Jonas had found solace in the afterlife, would he really be so keen for you to join? But Mite knows that already, he's not at risk of suicide, though you could argue he's suicidal, even if it is for the Goodly Cause. Self-sacrifice, though noble, doesn't always pay off. Mite might find this path a test of his er, might. Poor little mite.

Zoli let go and Mite doubled over to hands and knees. He spit out broken glass and coughed as a shudder of fire shot through his bowels. Retching, he spit up clots and gouts of blood, shreds of flesh. Another hollowing pain shuddered and echoed through his belly. He hacked up a deep, dark clot, nearly blacking out; the tooth and the marble spit out on ropes of bloody bile.

Oh geez, oh God, oh man, oh ho ho, poor Mite, poor, poor Mite, oh.

Now. Oh. I think you should just see this for yourself.

Link to story.

"The Prize of Peril," by Robert Sheckley: An Appreciation by John Kessel

This one I remember reading as a kid, probably twelve or thirteen, a few years after it was first published in Fantasy and Science Fiction. At the time it seemed an outrageous satire: a TV show where an ordinary guy volunteers to be chased down by gangland killers? Camera crews following him through the streets? Helicopters and Good Samaritans? It seemed an impossibly dystopian America where big media has grown like a cancer to destroy any sense of reality or civic decency. Remember, this was at a time when there were three broadcast networks--more like two and a half, with ABC a fledgling--and the limit of TV risk was The $64,000 Question.

But looking back from the age of Survivor and The Amazing Race and Fear Factor, Sheckley's preposterous exaggeration seems like cool prescience. "The Prize of Peril" has it all-—the unctuous TV host "Mike Terry", the real-life contestant chosen because he's handsome and not too smart, the engaged and participating audience, the vicarious thrills edging toward obscenity. A populace glued to their televisions, whose lives are so hollow, whose prospects are so limited, whose dazzlement by the celebrity culture is so complete that the chance to be famous is worth any risk. Jim's truck driver friend clues him in on the chance he has to make it big:

"In the old days you had to be a professional boxer or footballer or hockey player if you wanted your brains beaten out legally for money. But now that opportunity is open to ordinary people like you, Jim."

"I see," Raeder said again.

"It's a marvelous opportunity."

Sheckley's cynicism about the public is complete. The moral posturing of Mike Terry and his flattery of the audience's concern for Jim is a thin veil over excited voyeurism and complicity. For every Good Samaritan ready to help Jim escape there is an informer eager to see him die.

Jim Raeder is an average man. Like a Frank Capra hero, like Gary Cooper in Meet John Doe, Jim is the people. He's good looking (an ugly person can't be the people), and in no way intimidating (neither can a smart one). But this story is a slap in the face of Capracorn: the average man is a moron, and the engaged citizenry has become a passive audience. Democracy has turned into sublimation, torture, and vicarious thrills.

Sometimes, reaching for outrage, the satirist hits closer to home than the writer who confines himself to the probable. Here's a quote I just copied from a TV listing for next week:

Teams of two compete in extreme stunts for keys to unlock a submerged car containing one million dollars. Stunts include a helicopter stunt and crawling through a ventalation [sic] system with rats, spiders, and flames. Also, [the show] travels to Phoenix, Arizona for an all new Home Invasion segment.

Link to story.

John Kessel teaches in the MFA program in Creative Writing at North Carolina State University. He has published three novel and more than fifty short stories, two of which were published on SCI FICTION.

"Jane" by Marc Laidlaw: An appreciation by Brian Overton

SCI FICTION was always available, always there waiting to be read. Over time, maybe I took it for granted. There would always be a new story the next week, there would always be wonderful stories in the archives. All of it free.

Now it's on the way out, and I am deeply saddened.

That easy access to great fiction was what led me to Marc Laidlaw. I'd seen his name around. He was that guy that had written the videogame "Half-Life." I knew he had written a novel called "The 37th Mandala." But that was it. Then I started to see his name at BoingBoing when he was a guest blogger, and at the Night Shade Books message boards, where he'd always have a witty comment or he would be expounding on some writer I should know.

I could have bought one of his books or sought out an anthology with one of his stories, but a combination of laziness and forgetfulness kept me from it. Instead, it was when SCI FICTION put up "Jane" that I thought it's about time I checked this writer out.

And I was well served. "Jane" is a wonderful story that straddles the lines between fantasy and horror. Jane is the middle child of a family that lives out in the wilderness. When two travelers come, she learns things about her father she had never known or imagined.

Mystery is a constant theme of the story. We never see beyond the outlines of what Jane herself can see. Therefore, we can have no true image of the world around her, the one she has just begun to discover.

Her family has filtered everything Jane knows and sees. For much of her childhood, Jane, like the falcon her father keeps, was hooded. Her sister still wears the hood. After the father's history comes to call, the family escapes into the jungle. There, Jane considers her sister under the hood:

Anna was hooded against the fearful shapes of the night, and it fell to me to take her hand; and I remembered when I had been much younger myself and how it felt to be led along through darkness, trusting completely in the hand that guided me; and the smell of the hood; and I almost wished for that same security now. But I was a girlchild no longer; I had left the years of hooding behind when our Father felt I was too old for it, so the sheltering blindness was Anna's luxury and not mine.

The story is filled with falcon imagery. The falcon carries a symbol of immense importance to Jane's father as well as the city the family escapes from. Jane dreams at night of flying like the falcon:

That night I dreamt I was an angel, flying in the clear night air, and around my neck I wore a tinkling silver bell, and around my ankles leather cuffs with silver rings that bore my name.

Even in her dreams she still wears a bell, cuffs and rings, the things that attach her to her father.

Without her hood, Jane is forced to see the horrible things that are done to her brother and the rest of her family. She also sees what her father does, how he is broken under the strain of escape.

In the process, Laidlaw gives us some powerfully horrifying imagery. We see the torture Jane's brother Ash is put through. Her father acts to save him by sending out his falcon. What comes back is not her brother:

He held out his right hand so I could see the quarry. It was fleshy and clear, like yellowed glass with milky green shapes inside. It was veined and buzzing with botflies. And it screamed and screamed with my brother's voice until our Father set it on a granite slab and crushed it under his heel.

Scenes like this hint at the horrible reality of the city and Jane's father's past. It's a reality she will come to see and accept as her own.

The story explores the idea of opening your eyes to one's history and responsibilities and to your parents. Jane must take a hard look at her father and decide what she will take from him. While her father's answers seem wrong, Jane's own choices don't seem much better. The last paragraphs of the story sting with the decisions she has made about her future.

Link to story.

Monday, November 28, 2005

"High Weir" by Samuel R. Delany: An Appreciation by Matthew Cheney

Having spent my childhood reading battered anthologies bought in bulk at used bookstores, I was surprised later to discover how many people I knew who were well-versed in science fiction's history and lore didn't know a lot of the same stories I did, because they had spent most of their time reading novels.

This is one of the reasons why the archive of classic stories reprinted by Ellen Datlow at SCI FICTION is one of my favorite things on the internet: it lets me point people to the stories that shaped my entire view of what fiction is and could be. I spend a lot of time recklessly tossing opinions around, and it's helpful to be able to point people toward the raw material that influenced those opinions. (Then they can form their own, and leave me to chew on some dust.)

For instance, "High Weir". It's not "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" or "Aye, and Gomorrah", so it's generally considered an obscure Delany story. It doesn't represent Delany's best writing, or even his major themes, so it's not likely to have a large place in the critical literature about one of the most singular authors in the world. But I am tremendously grateful to Ellen for reprinting it, because every time I read it, even though I know all the turns and twists, the last few pages remain surprising and, more impressively, moving.

"High Weir" was first published in the October 1968 issue of If, when Delany was 26 years old. I first read it when I was about 16, in the Signet edition of Delany's collection Driftglass, and I almost skipped to the next story, because "High Weir" seemed like little more than a cross between the early stories of Ursula LeGuin and the better stories of H. Beam Piper--a linguistic-anthropological adventure story, likely to end up with some big revelation at the end, but ultimately little more than a diverting way to pass the time. I had read Delany's most famous stories by that point, though, and so I wanted more--I wanted transcendence. Thankfully, something kept me reading.

Teachers of playwrighting and screenwriting often tell their students that dialogue should "not be about what it's about"; "High Weir" is a story that's not about what it's about. The plot, which at first seems so important, by the end has become nearly irrelevant, and the characters, who at first seemed so interchangeable, by the end have become the entire focus. The story is a trick. It knows what sort of tale the reader expects, and goes a long way toward offering it, then digs deeper, takes a U-turn, jumps the rails, and splits town like a thief with a truckload of absinthe and a direct line to somebody else's god.

What we end up with is a Romantic vision of madness and a fun idea of the brain as a hologram. When I first read those last pages of the story at age 16, madness seemed artistic and alluring, and holograms were cool. Holograms are still cool, but I've experienced enough now to find madness both banal and terrifying, but there's something about the Romanticism of "High Weir" at the end that is powerful rather than grotesque. Perhaps it is the infusion of such a view into a story that is otherwise so matter-of-fact, so dry, so procedural--the two extremes balance each other, with rationality and irrationality tied together in a dance of form and meaning.

And now we do our own dance, partnering gratitude to Ellen Datlow and SCI FICTION with sadness at the demise of such a fine endeavor. Joyful appreciation entwines with anger for lost possibilities.

Let's dance all night, kids, because mourning hurts like hell.

Link to story

"The Discharge" by Christopher Priest: An Appreciation by Paul Kincaid

Sometime in the mid-1970s there was a change in Christopher Priest's writing. It was signalled by a pair of short stories, "An Infinite Summer" (1976) and "Palely Loitering" (1979), atmospheric tales whose emphasis on psychology and strangeness was a move away from the overtly science fictional pieces that had preceded them. His novel of that period, A Dream of Wessex (1977), in retrospect, can be seen as a harbinger of the themes and manners of his later work. But it was the stories set in the Dream Archipelago that really trumpeted the fact that here was something disturbing, challenging and new. There were only five stories, the first appearing in 1978, the last in 1980, but they must loom large in any appreciation of Priest's subsequent writing.

The Dream Archipelago stories are set in a world in which the large continent in the north is home to sophisticated nations whose technology and culture are roughly on a par with our own. The two largest of these nations are engaged in a seemingly endless war, which is fought out in the barren and largely uninhabited southern continent. The sea between the two continents is dotted with a string of islands so profuse that there is no island from which it is impossible to see several others. The islands of the Dream Archipelago have maintained a strict neutrality, though the terms differ from island to island. Some allow no outsiders to land, others allow no outsiders to leave once they have landed, still others allow troopships to visit for the purposes of rest and recreation. There are many whores in the Dream Archipelago.

Overtly based on the Greek islands, just becoming a popular but still exotic package holiday destination at the time the stories were being written, the islands of the Dream Archipelago are presented as warm and alluring. But for the visitors we follow in four of the five original stories (in "The Negation" (1978), the Dream Archipelago is an aspiration that is never achieved), it is a place where sexual dreams become nightmares, where the desirable becomes a trap, and where perverse psycho-sexual dramas are played out to a generally fatal conclusion. The Dream Archipelago sequence reached its climax with The Affirmation (1981), which revealed our world to be a psychotic echo of the Dream Archipelago, and vice versa, a self-deluding mobius strip of realities which drained the setting of all further figurative and psychological value. After that stunning tour de force of a novel, it seemed, there was nothing more that could possibly be said about the Dream Archipelago.

Then, in 1999, twenty years after his first visit to the islands, Priest gathered the Dream Archipelago stories (all revised to some extent) into one volume, with a linking thread of narrative. The enterprise clearly reawakened the narrative energy that the setting had once provided, and he followed the collection with a new Dream Archipelago story, "The Discharge." With such a genesis there is one inevitable question: has the Dream Archipelago emerged intact from its twenty-year hiatus? To which the answer has to be: yes. The sheer nastiness of the fate that awaited visitors--the islands can feel like a sort of Venus fly trap, tempting their victims in to a sweet and sticky end--is no more. Indeed the story ends, if not with a note of redemption, then at least with a sense of continuity, of survival, possibly even of some sort of achievement. But if that is different, the casual cruelty of the islands along the way is the same as ever, and the perverse, unsettling, psycho-sexual overtones remain dark and foreboding.

"The Discharge"--as in so many of Priest's fictions, the title is a simple declarative that yet hides a dizzying multiplicity of interpretations: electrical discharge, military discharge, ejaculation, pus, among others--is a story of lost identity, of the uncertainty of our place within the world. One of the things that the Dream Archipelago allowed was the displacement of the individual, the cutting loose from context. When, in The Affirmation, that displacement became possible within our contemporary reality, it opened up the road that Priest's fictions have followed ever since. As our unnamed narrator "emerge(s) into my memories" in the very first line of the story, it places him immediately in the company of Peter Sinclair in The Affirmation, Richard Grey in The Glamour (1984, revised 1996), and J.L. Sawyer in The Separation (2002), all characters whose memory is unreliable, hence weakening their grip on who they are.

Our narrator is, we discover, a new recruit in a northern army marching down to the troopship that will take him away to the battlefields of the southern continent. But as the troopship carries him past the mysterious islands of the Dream Archipelago, the litany of their names found on an illicit map (maps have been a recurring feature of Priest's work since at least the one found in Inverted World (1974)) reawakens something in our narrator's fragmented memory. It seems he was an artist, or at least had an interest in art, or at least in the works of one particular painter, Rascar Acizzone, from the Dream Archipelago island of Muriseay. Acizzone was a leading exponent of an art style known as "tactilism," which employed a new technology, "ultrasound microcircuity." Like the scintilla in "The Watched" (1978), this new technology is used within the Dream Archipelago to lay bare the sexual self and then entrap the user within that sexuality. In this instance, Acizzone's paintings are layerings of colour that more than anything seem to resemble the work of Rothko, but when anyone touches the paintings the ultrasound reveals a representation of their deepest sexual imagining. Over time, we discover later in the story, the ultrasound can also destroy one's memory, which probably explains what happened to our narrator (and almost certainly explains why Acizzone's paintings have now fallen out of fashion and are all but forgotten).

Then the troops are given shore time in Muriseay. The narrator goes in search of Acizzone (and, implicitly, his own memory), but without success, and in the end finds himself drawn to a nightclub already crowded with soldiers. He is targeted by the whores in the club and led away into a dark labyrinth of rooms and corridors where, inexplicably, he finds himself witness to sexual tableaux which recreate two of the most charged images he had found in Acizzone's paintings. Then, abruptly, he escapes and returns to the troopship which takes him on to the war zone. During the years he spends in the army in the freezing wastelands of the southern continent, he experiences an almost constant diet of fear and boredom, but no actual fighting. The war itself seems to be always somewhere else. But as the three-thousandth anniversary of the start of the war approaches, the troops become convinced that a major push is about to happen. On the eve of the campaign, the narrator deserts. By giving over all his accumulated army pay, he persuades a group of whores to smuggle him across to the Dream Archipelago, only to discover he is just one of a very large number making the same journey.

Since the Dream Archipelago is so clearly identified with sex, at its most alluring and its most threatening, it is inevitable that it is a network of whores who provide his safe refuge on island after island as he makes his way across the Dream Archipelago. He discovers, or rediscovers, an artistic talent of his own, and funds his journey by painting for tourists along the way. His destination, inevitably, is Muriseay, where he starts to experiment with ultrasound. Eventually he produces a series of pictures whose hidden sexual imagery is overlaid with images drawn from the fear and isolation he experienced in the army. To store his pictures he rents an abandoned building which contains a curious labyrinth of corridors and rooms, and which is surely the same night club where he experienced the strange sexual visions on his journey to the war. Then military policemen catch up with him at the store house. They are here to give him his discharge--a euphemism for beating him up and perhaps killing him--but though injured, the narrator escapes because the policemen accidentally touch the paintings, and the images they contain prove too powerful for them. A fire starts, caused by the use of their electric batons against the paintings; but even if they were not killed in the fire we might safely assume that they had been destroyed by the images in the pictures.

And our narrator flees to another island, to face more mysteries of the Dream Archipelago. For once, the islands have not killed the one caught in their sexual trap, but for all that they remain as potent and disturbing as ever. "The Discharge" is a measure of how far Priest has come in the last quarter century. The evocation of islands with a beautiful surface but which are considerably less beautiful underneath, is perhaps more subtle. These are real, working places, as contradictory as anywhere else we might visit. But what is really interesting is how the familiar setting proves so adept at staging a story of fragmentary identity, uncertainty of self, the sort of theme that has become more and more central in novels such as The Prestige (1996), The Extremes (1998) and The Separation (2002). In the early stories the exotic landscape of the Dream Archipelago was a place where the sexual imaginings of the characters could be made visible and then turned against them. In "The Discharge" these same sexual imaginings serve a more subtle purpose, not to establish an identity--the narrator remains as unknown and unknowable at the end of the story as he is at the beginning, even to himself--but to make a damaged personality whole enough to survive. It is more positive than we are used to in the Dream Archipelago, but it forms a fascinating development in the way Priest is exploring how our sense of identity shapes our understanding of and our engagement with the world about us.

Link to story.

"A Cold Dish" by Lisa Tuttle: An Appreciation by Melanie Fazi

Quiet horror would be a way to describe this story, and Lisa Tuttle's writings in general. In this tale of unusual revenge, horror never lies in what is described, but in what is hinted, what the reader is led to guess before it happens. The tension lies in the tiniest details. The first sentence grabs you immediately and then it's too late, you're caught in the web.

This is about ordinary people and simple themes anyone can relate to. Pregnancy. Punishment. Revenge. With just a hint of Greek tragedy. The unnamed narrator could be any woman, any of the female readers of this story. The only thing that strays a little from our reality is this concept of "sentence pregnancy". What a creepy idea. A woman carrying other people's baby, seeking revenge, haunted by echoes from an old myth . . . . This is as simple as it's disturbing.

And the voice that tells the story remains so quiet the whole time. This particular detail makes the tale even more chilling. Especially during that confrontation scene between the narrator and Judge Arnold Jason towards the end. How can it be that you should identify with this woman and yet feel disturbed by her, share her feelings and yet dread what she might be able to do? Might be, that's the key. The most scary aspect of the story is that you never know what will happen--what could happen.

And what does happen, of course, is not what you expected. Somehow, you almost saw it coming. But still, you wonder until the end. What if...?

Link to story.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

"The Transcendent Tigers" by R.A. Lafferty: An Appreciation by Mike Morrow

In 2003 I discovered a yellowing Daw edition of R.A. Lafferty’s collection Strange Doings in a used bookshop in Madison, Wisconsin. My wife and I were celebrating our wedding anniversary, and that night while I waited for her to get ready for dinner, I dove in and read a short piece called "The Transcendent Tigers."

Big mistake.

"The Transcendent Tigers," like most of Lafferty's fiction, is a fast drug with a slow fuse. It deceives you with instant gratification, even while it changes your body chemistry so that you can never be the same reader again. The quick highs come right after one another: Lafferty was the best character-namer in history and a master of the deadpan, devastating sentence that can render the entire previous paragraph ironic with a single noun-verb pair.

But Lafferty leaves you thinking, thank God, he never reveals too much. So that you'll be enjoying a fine anniversary meal with your spouse and still thinking about how wonderful it would be if Armageddon did finally come at the hands of a seven-year-old with a red hat.

This will, in its own devious way, ruin your evening.

Your spouse will likely not want to discuss rhyming couplets that invoke devastation on the cities named within. Nor will she likely care to join you in speculating on whether or not Homoeoteleutic is really a word (it is).

But when she was ready, if she was ready, you knew you could point her to any number of Lafferty stories on the SCI FICTION site, "The Transcendent Tigers" among them, and you could grow old together basking in The Homoeoteleutic Power of a Lafferty story.

“Saddened benediction—


Link to story.

"Jury Service" by Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow: An Appreciation by Chris Nakashima-Brown

A collaboration! It doesn’t get any more sci-fi than that. This is better than a Marvel Team-Up circa 1974! Dr. Strange and Brother Voodoo! Black Panther and the Vision! Ka-Zar and Ghost Rider! Cory Doctorow and Charlie Stross! The hot Asimov's wonder boys of the new century, romping their way through a 21,000-word novella edited by Grandmaster ED. Try to find something like that in the genteel literary establishment--the authorial equivalent of free jazz, detonating the idea of the author and the conventions of storytelling with improvised explosive memes.

This thing is a case study in why SF writers--and readers--have more fun. Two brightly burning young Turk authors body-slamming in cyberspace like a virtual WWF tag-team. A mano-a-mano ¿Quien es Mas Macho? for people whose stock-in-trade is post-cyberpunk eyeball kicks. Every page another bite of Gonzo Marzipan as the boys pile it on:

- Libyan Goth ninjettes!

- A hungover protagonist "trapped in a mutating bathroom by a transgendered atheist role-playing critic."

- Biohazard burkas! Anti-nanophage underwear!

- The world reimagined post-Singularity as "a matrioshka brain, nested Dyson orbitals built from dismantled moons and planets."

- Mile-long catamaran airships to North Africa crewed by uplifted Islamic gibbons!

- A feral privatized blood bank with a thing for Welsh T-helper lymphocytes.

- Visual spam filtered with adbuster proxy services!

- A chimera engineered with Koranic genome from drosophila, mus musculus, and twentieth century situationist Dan Quayle.

- Doc Björk and the People's Magical Libyan Jamahirya!

The plot? Twenty-first century party people thrown into the tech jury service: "defending the Earth from the scum of the post-Singularity patent office." A solid frame for a story that reads more like a really good Worldcon panel than a conventional narrative. After all, it's the literature of ideas.

The brain bombs pop out of the screen here, each page a contest between the authors to outdo each other with imaginative pyrotechnics. Politics, technology, fashion, food, physics (real and meta-), geography, travel, architecture, religions, genetics, you name it. Fun, and funny, infused with a warm and welcoming nerd whimsy--the spirit of Douglas Adams channeling Greg Egan through an Ono-Sendai translator. Snap, crackle, pop, chortle and boing!

Link to story.

"The Real World" by Steven Utley: An Appreciation by Russell B. Farr

Every fan of Steven Utley knows two things: that Utley loves dinosaurs, and that he doesn't write nearly enough. Oh, and that he doesn't have enough fans, so I guess that's three things.

Utley began writing his "Silurian Tales" around about the time Noah's wife was looking for her swimsuit, which is a fair achievement for a guy only born a couple of days before yesterday. He's got about two volumes of them waiting for a discerning publisher.

How does he do it? It's a little-known secret that Utley has found a time passage back to the Silurian, where he sneaks back to draw cartoons starring trilobites and collects mud by the bucket (he has a lucrative side business selling Devonian slime to starlets).

This might sound a little far-fetched, but it makes about as much sense as the idea of a guy sitting around in Tennessee turning out incredibly descriptive and emotive tales about one of the least picturesque periods in Earth's history.

Like they say, you can't handle the truth. Now go and read Utley's story before I spoil everything for you.

Back already? It was great for me too. Now, where were we? Ah, the past.

Through Utley's stories we know that there is, "for want of a better term, a space-time anomaly" (now that's a scientist who needs to get out more). But that isn't what the "Silurian Tales" are all about, "The Real World" included. Sure, you might think that "The Real World" is about the discovery of the hole and the first expedition back 400 million years, but it isn't.

An academic may come along and say that science fiction is a genre of ideas, and the story asks the question, "What if there was a space-time anomaly that enabled scientists to go back to an alternate-universe Silo-Devonian Earth?" That academic would be barking up the wrong tree (or maybe the right tree, but in the wrong universe).

"The Real World" is about explorers, pioneers, the first people to go boldly, or boldly go: what really happens and what they come back to. It's about real people who find themselves in the most unreal of situations, people who really are doing something no one else has done. Ivan Kelly is just this guy who knows a lot about soil, and is the first time-traveller. He also wonders if he returned to the same world he left, and not a further alternate-universe. The chances are that he has, and he's understandably just trying to cope with everything that follows his expedition, because, after that, how can anything seem completely real again.

Utley cleverly juxtaposes this with the tale of Ivan's brother Don, a writer in an unreal world closer to the present: Hollyweird. Ivan at the amazing Hollywood party, where everyone is fake: it's clever. Real or fake, Utley is writing about the people.

You can't take your eyes of this Utley guy for a second, not when he's giving you so much of a story as in this ten and a half thousand words. How he stays an "internationally unknown" is a mystery to me.


Russell B. Farr is the founding editor of TiconderogaOnline and Ticonderoga Publications and published Steven Utley's first collection, Ghost Seas (1997). He lives in Northam, Western Australia.

Link to story.

Monday, November 21, 2005

"The Dread and Fear of Kings" by Richard Paul Russo: An Appreciation by Kev McVeigh

Under the direction of a decaying king an army progresses across a continent, city by city, entering, occupying and wilfully destroying all that is good therein. The narrator of Richard Paul Russo's "The Dread & Fear of Kings" (1) is a scribe, assistant to the First Minister, a man with growing doubts as to the right of this war. The scribe is charged with recording both the official history and, secretly, the Minister's personal alternative account questioning the king's designs.

The French symbolist poet Rimbaud wrote "At dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter the splendid cities." (2) The first line of Russo's story is "We enter the splendid cities at dawn." The army he writes of burns, but not with patience. They serve a king who has no patience left. He is dying, but he believes in the "prophecy of the end of times" and that not only is he to fulfil destiny but that he is effecting the prophecy's completion. Stories say this world was colonised centuries past by starfarers who then moved on with their technology. Prophecy says they will return one day, bringing wonders, miracles and eternal life. This is the king's desperate design.

For the scribe an encounter with a woman, Kiyoko, in one of the captured cities causes him a shift in attitude from concern at the king's acts to active opposition. When he moves from passive to active the story takes on a positive note and ends on a note of optimism.

"The Dread and Fear of Kings" is an interesting story. At face vale, Russo has set up individual motivations which make sense on their own terms, such that his characters act convincingly and are realistic. The old king may be despicable in his wanton vandalism, but in his own belief he is justified. The Minister remains loyal to his position, whilst simultaneously guilty at the betrayal he enacts and angry at the king for forcing this upon him

I believe, however, that Richard Paul Russo is writing of events closer to home. Published in 2001, "The Dread and Fear of Kings" can be read as a commentary on the US-led invasions of Iraq and beyond. The names of the cities echo fantasy perhaps, but Kazakh-Ir, Isengol, Marrakkeen and Kutsk also ring with echoes of the Arab world, of the Silk Road and of ancient Persia. The king follows the prophecy of Ishiaua writing in the Levancian chronicles:

"The day will come when the great cities wither. The land will become barren, art and spirit and hope will lie fallow, and the skies themselves will burn day and night with unholy fire. In that time we will return. The blood of the land shall be washed clean, and the profane purified. We shall resurrect the dead, and bring life eternal to the living."

This is biblical language, and it is easy to see Ishiaua as Isaiah of the Old Testament, or Joshua who fought the battles of Jericho and Gibeon and other mighty cities, and then Levancian referring us to the Levant, the lands at the Eastern end of the Mediterranean, including Israel, Palestine, Syria etc. From there, I would argue, it is but a short step from a mad king obsessed with prophecy and destiny, to a president who justifies his actions with his fundamentalist, apocalyptic brand of Christianity.

Russo wrote before the fall of Saddam Hussein, but in one scene here he is prophetic:
When Kazakh-Ir is entered by the army "there were no people out on the streets . . . the residents watched silently from open windows." Just as they mostly did in Baghdad.

Let us go back to Rimbaud, whose lines not only open this story, but according to Russo (3) were the starting point for his writing it. Taken from the "Farewell" section of "A Season In Hell" the poet talks of how "the vision of justice is God's delight" compared to "the brutal warfare of men" and asks "forgiveness for nourishing myself with lies . . . and where to find help?" Words which might fall into the conversation the scribe has with the Minister as they delicately broach the issue of assisting the opposition without saying so in so many words.

Pablo Neruda cites these same lines of Rimbaud to assert that the splendid city "will bring light, justice and dignity to all mankind." (4) Russo too views the splendid cities as emblematic of culture, freedom and civilization. Isengol is described as a city of "great pride and community" whilst Kazakh-Ir is famed for its stained glass. It is this glass which the king orders to be preserved at all costs during the invasion, until when occupation is complete he demands its total, malicious destruction. "Perhaps that will bring them back" he says of the starfarers, demonstrating a lack of understanding of the nature of his faith or of humanity. It is this which forces the Minister to conclude: "I believe the king is destroying this world . . . and all for nothing. For nothing."

Russo offers up more than observation, but no easy answers. When the scribe is challenged by Kiyoko to act he says:

"But I can't help you. I am only a scribe."

Kiyoko shook her head. "Oh no, that won't do."

"I only record."

"You would have me believe . . . that you don't consider what you hear and see, that you don't assess and evaluate and make judgements?"

As Rimbaud wrote of "sweet glory as an artist and story teller swept away . . . I'm returned to the soil with a task to pursue": so Russo's scribe will lose his exalted position within the King's inner circle to achieve a greater glory. Neruda too took on this theme: "conscious of our duty as fulfillers . . . faced with the unavoidable task of critical communication." I believe therefore that in "The Dread and Fear of Kings" Richard Paul Russo has called upon the author and the reader alike to do what must be done so that, in a final line bringing us back to Rimbaud, "If the starfarers ever return, they will find not a world of ruins and death, but a world of courage and hope, of wonder and desire . . . a world of splendour and life."

If all this seems to be exaggerating the significance of a single line, take the story's title; "The Dread and Fear of Kings" is a line from Shakespeare. It comes in the middle of Portia's "the quality of mercy speech" from The Merchant of Venice.

His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings
But mercy is above this sceptred sway

This king has shown the force of his temporal power, but no mercy. Russo highlights this with descriptions of the needless poisoning of the abundant fish stocks of Salterno, the deliberate destruction of Kazakh-Ir's beautiful glass; he emphasises mercy with an encounter the scribe has with Kiyoko amongst the dead of Marrakkeen. He sees the body of a woman and fears it is Kiyoko, when he discovers she is alive he is relieved but Kiyoko tells him: "It's not better that she died rather than me. You should feel just as sick about her needless death as you would feel if it were mine."

Reminded of this need for universal compassion the scribe's thoughts at the end are for the Minister who has taken his own life. "I felt a vague and distant sense of accomplishment, but that was overwhelmed by thoughts of the First Minister." Offered the chance to join the rebels the scribe returns to prevent discovery. In his closing lines Russo returns to Rimbaud, but this time the scribe has changed allegiance: "They enter the splendid cities at dawn . . . Someday, somewhere, they will be stopped." Just before this, however, comes a line that I read as Richard Paul Russo's most personal statement in the story:

"I have been a scribe all my adult years--a man of words, not action. I have watched and listened, and recorded the decisions and deeds of other men. I have always stood somewhat apart from the world, and now I was being asked to participate fully in it. Terrifying, but exciting and liberating at the same time."

This then is "The Dread and Fear of Kings" a story of conscience, of mercy and of the time to act. It is a very timely story.


Quotes taken from these sources:

1. "The Dread & Fear Of Kings" – Richard Paul Russo, SCIFICTION 10.24.2001

2. "A Season In Hell" – Arthur Rimbaud 1873

3. Kiyoko is also a character in the graphic novel "Akira" with the ability to influence people.

4. Richard Paul Russo in correspondence with myself towards an interview for Vector: The Critical Journal of the British Science Fiction Association, as yet unpublished.

5. Pablo Neruda's Nobel Prize For Literature acceptance speech 1973

6. The Merchant Of Venice - William Shakespeare.

Link to story.

"Panacea" by Jason Stoddard: An Appreciation by Adam R. Rakunas

If you haven't read the story first, for God's sake, why not?

Here's the problem with being in a writing group with people who are better writers than me: I wind up getting all fanboy about the stuff they bring and forget that it's my job to make the stories the best they can be. I get so caught up in the whizbang, the Holy crap! feeling of reading something that's just kicked off the top of my head and turned my brain around that I forget little things like plot holes or misspellings.

Not to say that Panacea is like that. God, no. Jason brought an early draft to our writing group, the Fictionados, and I dug it right away. Who wouldn't? "The Thomas Edison/Bill Gates Smackdown in the Antarctic!" I said during my critique. I was so caught up the mad spectacle of the story, with its medicine show immortality and aristocratic sysadmins. This is why I like science fiction, because the rules say that there are no rules, other than it has to work. If you set up a world, its mechanics, no matter how fantastic, have to make sense within that world.

"Panacea"'s rules do work, even as they take the histories of computing, world wars and geek ego, drop 'em into a blender and hit FRAPPE. Thanks to Ellen Datlow's suggestions, the story we'd read went past the whizbang and right into the bit about kicking off the top of my head. I can only hope that Jason writes a sequel and adds the Two Steves, Jobs and Wozniak, into the blender. But I think my brain can only take so much twisting.

Link to story.

"The Spear Carrier" by A.M. Dellamonica: An Appreciation by Paul Abbamondi

This otherworldly tale of duels and formal traditions by A.M. Dellamonica is full of excitement, action, detail, and wit. It pulls the reader in from the very first sentence and keeps their eyes-—and other senses-—at full alert until the culminating words at the end. I found myself thinking about the characters even when it was over. That's always a plus for a short story's effect.

"The Spear Carrier" is told through the eyes of a woman named Opal who is trying hard to get everything ready for Masao's ceremony procession. Masao is being initiated into the society that exists on Arune as an ambassador after saving the inhabitants kids during an accident inside a passenger compartment. It is Opal's job to make sure everything runs smoothly, and since they are some of the only people of Earth left, it is basically vital that nothing goes wrong.

The voices of Opal and Masao balance each other in that during one moment one is serious while the other quirky, and at the next, witty and somber. Dellamonica is able to create an air of tension throughout the story, making the reader feel just as worried as Opal that Masao is going to mess up during the procession.

I found this tale to be a fun read that takes place in a fully developed world; the characters are real, the conflict dangerous, and the closing just enough to please the mind. Thank you, Ellen, for finding this gem and making it shine.

Link to story.

"Can These Bones Live?" by Manly Wade Wellman: An Appreciation by Jason S. Ridler

"The Quest for Manly Wade Wellman"
By Jason S. Ridler, MA

The map of anyone's reading life is a unique treasure. For some, the trail to Oz, Narnia, and Middle Earth was discovered as children (how I envy those with such maps!). Others spent their teenage years taking monthly sojourns to Gotham City, Metropolis, or the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters. As adults, our maps expand exponentially, with differing routes, short cuts, and forbidden passages emerging as we listen to the advice of friends, our favorite authors, and an assortment of other influences. These influences smack up against our own tastes and produce more rich and diverse maps. If we keep searching for engaging authors, that is.

The path on my map that leads to the legendary sf/western/horror/crime/young adult/weird fiction writer Manly Wade Wellman (1903-1986) starts in a blasphemous comic book, detours to New Hampshire, and ends on SCI FICTION's on-line archive. In honour of the site's passing, I thought I would share my journey to this outstanding author, and shed light on the strange paths our reading life can take.

After finishing my Masters, I got a job that paid enough for me to indulge in more than the bare essentials of life. On a whim, I bought a copy of the Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon graphic novel PREACHER. It was violent, insulting on just about every level, and very, very funny. I devoured the series, but that first collection will stick in my mind forever because Joe R. Lansdale wrote the introduction.

I'd never heard of him before and certainly hadn't read him at all. But that introduction got me hooked on Lansdale's storytelling voice. After finishing PREACHER, I became a Joe R. junkie, rabidly reading his wild mix of southern storytelling cadence, brutal and emotional story content, and absolutely free imagination.

Flash forward to 2005, and I'm at Jeanne Cavelos' Odyssey Writing Workshop in Manchester, New Hampshire, taking a break from the grueling schedule with my roommates Scott Andrews and Justin Howe (go read Justin's own gonzo appreciation of Wellman and come back). I bring up Lansdale's name a few times, since I consider him a big influence in my own work (in intent if not substance), and Justin asks if I've heard of Manly Wade Wellman.

"Nope. He a wrestler?"

If you've read Justin's tribute, you know the map of his reading life is pretty damn wild, and I've come to appreciate his advice on things off the beaten track. Justin said Wellman was also a free-range writer of supernatural and other stories. "I think of him as the missing link between Lovecraft and Lansdale."

Good enough for me. After surviving the incredible Odyssey experience, I began to hunt for Wellman's work. I read his biography online and was astonished at his output and longevity. Here is a man who could have shaken hands with both Robert E. Howard and Clive Barker, who stalked the same twilight worlds as Bradbury, Bloch, and Leiber, and who put his own distinct stamp on "Weird Tales" until his passing in 1986. Truly an inspiration to young, weird writers like myself. But where to grab the lifetime of stories? So many of the collections Wellman was in are out of my reach or price range, and the library services in my town are not that hot for things on the fringe of fiction. And as a TV brat, I wanted to read Wellman NOW! NOW! NOW!

Justin, ever on the prowl in his reading life, cut out the middle man and said SCI FICTION had a few Wellman stories archived. And so I read, for the first time, "Can These Bones Live?" I've been grinning ever since.

Reading the story was like remembering the words to a favorite song that had almost slipped away from me. It was a unique storytelling voice, one whose influence has permeated the work of many of my heroes. In "Can These Bones Live?" John, the wandering musician in a modern yet supernatural southern US, armed only with unique knowledge and a six string, confronts a creature of legend in a battle of brawn versus art. As each sentence passed, the smile on my face hitched higher. Rough characters in a raw landscape, where religion and myth can both save and curse you, fight for survival with wit and charm. Here was a pulp master of pacing, writing a southern gothic with fringe SF and folk elements, at the height of his powers near the end of his days. And like all pulp masters, Wellman did not leave me satisfied. He left me wanting more.

After reading "Can These Bones Live?" I'd extend Justin's assessment a tad. Manly Wade Wellman is the bridge between the lost worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, and the modern dark landscapes of Neal Barrett, Jr. and Joe R. Lansdale. Ellen Datlow's courageous decision to include such lost masters of weird fiction as Wellman has provided readers with a glimpse of talent that has shone bright against the dark for generations. Huzzah to her for championing a writer whose imagination knew few bounds, and whose name, thanks to SCI FICTION, will now
and forever be etched on the map of my own reading life. Thanks again, SCI FICTION. Your efforts will be missed, but not forgotten.

Link to story.

"Sin's Doorway" by Manly Wade Mellman: An Appreciation by Justin Howe

Manly Wade Wellman is not a name you can forget. You hear it once and it's stuck with you. At first, you might think it's a joke, "Manly Wade Wellman? Wasn't he a wrestler?"

I first discovered Wellman's work when I lived in Jersey City. At that time I was rediscovering the joys of the slap-happy, weird genre fiction I loved in my teens. The moment I read the book flap a series of long-dormant time bombs went off inside my head.

Like all bookish boy geeks from New England, I had been indoctrinated into the Church of HP Lovecraft upon the onset of puberty. Ole' HP is the patron saint of every nerd north and east of Connecticut. (I'd placed my own private Ry'leh somewhere off the shore of Lynn/Marblehead, beyond the GE Power Plant. At any moment, Cthulhu might rise up to menace Revere Beach and wreak havoc upon the meat-headed goons that drove their muscle cars along the beach road. Afterwards Cthulhu would stop and have a clam roll at Kelly's Roast-beef, putting tartar sauce on his French fries.) From Lovecraft, I learned the word "Pulp" and associated all sorts of mystical references to those authors who toiled in those strange, heady, prehistoric days.

Now go forward a few years when the subtle joys of male puberty are in full bloom, I'd recently discovered a mail-order catalog of dubious reading material. Among the sordid accounts of serial killers, confessional junkie novels, and how-to-be-a-criminal manuals, is a nice, whopping chapter on the pulps. Names appear: Clark Ashton Smith, H. Warner Munn, Talbot Mundy, A. Merritt, and Manly Wade Wellman. Manly sticks in my head because not only is he writing pulp, but, pulp set in the Appalachian Mountains.

The Appalachian Mountains, I'd heard of them. They supposedly existed on the western side of my home state, out there beyond the suburbs and interstates. As anyone who's grown up outside of Boston knows, once you pass beyond the safe, urban belt of Route 128, you may as well have to show a passport. It's a different country.

So, there I am in the Jersey City Library, my brain full of suppressed Weird Tales time bombs, my antenna twitching. I read the copy and my antenna start to do the double twitch. I take the book home and start reading. I meet John the Balladeer and John Thunstone, men who fight against monsters with silver stringed guitars and sword canes. It's like I've tuned my television set to my own private channel, where the weird and the heroic runs twenty-four hours a day.

Wellman had it all: sad sack heroes who fought against evil, but were drifters. They faced forces of darkness more or less because they were honest men trying to find a meal.

That brings me to "Sin's Doorway." Who's this stranger that comes to town? He has no name and is just trying to avoid the law and get by. In my mind I cast a younger John the Balladeer, maybe after he's returned from some battlefield of World War Two. The voice is his. And Wellman puts in little bits of original weirdness, the familiar Parway and the Gardinel. Are there such things in Appalachian folklore: intelligent prehistoric critters and evil houses that sprout up from fungus? Is Wellman creating his own mythology and welding it to the backbone of some broader folklore that includes the notion of sin eating?

Rereading this story (and going through the rest of the archive) I was struck by the wealth of stories SCI FICTION published and brought back from oblivion.

Sure, I find Wellman's stark conflict of good vs. evil to be a bit uninteresting. I'd like to add a big splash of gray to his universe, but that's not the point. I'm indebted to him for that moment when all those tiny charges went off and knocked down the wall I'd set up between the stories I once loved and myself. He reintroduced me to old friends and set me on my way to find plenty of new ones. For that I'm thankful.

Link to story.

"Luciferase" by Bruce Sterling: An Appreciation by Richard Butner

That's some tight ideation, jack ... a snake as described by a firefly:

"The grass snake had teeth, a tongue, bones, scales, ate anything, never stopped growing, and apparently lived forever."

(If you haven't read "Luciferase" yet, go do that. These meager comments can wait.)

In "Luciferase" Bruce Sterling violates Strunk & White with glee and with considerable effect, sprinkling in adjectives and adverbs like glitter:

"She was colossally huge, crazily powerful, treacherous, grisly, and fanged, but she was kind of growing on him."

and writing in exclamations:

"Love is a carnival! It's an adventure! There should be tenderness in all this, there should be soulfulness! The unexamined light is not worth flashing! A man and woman in sexual union are the very hinge of futurity!"

The exclamation points in particular carve out characters who are in continuous agitated states, perched on the brink of the existential abyss. Hunter Thompson is the mostly-unacknowledged influence here (but that's a whole essay that needs writing by someone else some other time, the influence of Thompson on cyberpunk, both in the frenzied style and the brand-name obsession.)

Only Bruce knows the exact ticklings of the spearhead of cognition that led him to write a funny animals story. In true hard sf fashion, though, it had to start with a scientific article about fireflies. Maybe it was "Summer flings: firefly courtship, sex, and death," by Sara Lewis and James E. Lloyd in the July-August 2003 issue of Natural History?

In some old-school fictionizing of this, or even in some coldhearted cyberpunk riff on it, biochemistry would be destiny, the end. But there's too much funny and too much pretty here, and it's finally more important than any cold equation about natural selection. Here, art beats food.


"Your head is three times too big! Your mouth is a mass of fangs! And your ass is enormous. You know what? You're not alluring. You're a giant, ugly cannibal."


"Light shocked out of his slatted belly and the world exploded with meaning. He was a glowing arc across the nullity of darkness."

Glee, that's the word I keep coming back to when I think about this story, and many of Bruce's stories. The glee that, manacled as we are by the slipshod evolutionary parameters of biology, there are still interesting choices to be made as we look out into the void and it looks back at us.

Link to story.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

"The Anatomist's Apprentice" by Matthew Claxton: An Appreciation by Mahesh Raj Mohan

"The Anatomist's Apprentice" was not only a first sale to SCIFICTION, but it was Matthew Claxton's first sale period. As anyone familiar with the grueling submission process knows--this is an impressive achievement. So I was curious how this tale captured Ellen Datlow's attention and made her love it.

It took just the first two paragraphs for me to be captivated as well. "The Anatomist's Apprentice" is an alternate history tale that takes place in "New Amsterdam." It's about Molly, a young woman who has been brought back from death, but has been reduced to a head, spinal cord, and small organ tree. She is being kept alive for research purposes by a "parsimonious" anatomist. Forced to endure endless experiments that drive home her lack of a body, she stops feeling. That is, until Jack enters the anatomist's laboratory. A poor city boy afflicted by a malignant growth, Jack will die within days unless the anatomist performs necessary surgery on him. With Molly's help, though, Jack becomes the anatomist's assistant, earning his keep so he'll survive. In the process, he gets to know Molly, and they form a bond.

The tale is a beautiful love story, leavened with just the right amount of humor, a heady dose of horror, and a masterful plot When we discover the nature of the malignant growth, the revelation is both grotesque and inspired. The setting is also inspired; in a short amount of space, Mr. Claxton builds a novel's worth of
history and culture.

The only moments where I felt that I was reading a first published effort came near the end, when I realized how the story was going to conclude. Yet I can't really fault Mr. Claxton for this, because the ending rises organically and logically from what has come before. Plus, though I read it over a year ago, Molly and Jack and the anatomist have stayed with me, as has the dirty and unforgiving world of New Amsterdam.

SCIFICTION published dozens of worthy stories by exceptional writers, each worthy of multiple readings. If you missed "The Anatomist's Apprentice" the first time around, allow yourself to be marvelled by a bright new light in the field.

Link to story.

"Transfer" by Barry Malzberg: An Appreciation by Keith Ferrell

"Transfer," from late in Malzberg’s early career, reminds us that he entered the field a fully-formed master still capable of growth, and as the still-new new work he has produced (some of it appearing on SCI FICTION) reminds us he is still growing.

And still a master and maestro, the most musical of sf writers, now as then, when "Transfer" first was published. The story retains its music, as well as its power and its art, shocking still and still horrifying--as strong on the Web today as in the pages of Fantastic three decades ago. So much of that power is encapsulated--or, better, enabled--by the story's voice that it is easy to see why some have felt that Malzberg is all voice.

They couldn't be more wrong. Malzberg's voice is perhaps the sharpest and angriest the field has seen, and yet is in some ways the least of his tools, if the most supple. For in Malzberg's case the Voice is virtually always in service to the author’s heart which is in service to his intellect and sense of our poor bedamned and bedraggled culture. Heart/mind/voice--that Barry Malzberg committed his energy and talent to the application of that triptych to the key issues of our time in what looked for much of that time to be the key popular literature of our time, a world of work that could change the world is something for which many, if not enough, of us have been grateful for for close to four decades.

That Malzberg's great and enduring theme--we must dismantle the Communications Shack--is refracted in the demise of SCI FICTION's dismantling by one of the Communications Shack's larger players lends a sort of bitter lagniappe to the story’s reappearance and the renewal, for awhile, of its music.

Keith Ferrell is former Editor-in-Chief of OMNI Magazine.

Link to story.

"The Wolf-man of Alcatraz" by Howard Waldrop: An Appreciation by Chris Barnes

If you've not read this story--or any other Howard Waldrop story--you could be forgiven for thinking, "Come on, a wolf-man story? That's so old." And ordinarily you might be right, but this is a Waldrop story, so in this case you'd be wrong. He takes the old werewolf trope and puts the monster squarely into the real world with such assurance that you really wonder where history ends and fiction begins. And (as any writer will realise on reading the story, usually on the second careful reading because the first reading flowed by so smoothly) he makes it look easy. The story is as rock-solid as the famous island it's set on.

That solidity doesn't lie just in the voice of the story, but in the details. The cell door isn't just a door, it's a Diebold vault door with a chrome-steel lock. The wolf-man, Bob Howlin (great name!), doesn’t just chew gum, he chews Beeman's Black Jack. Howlin's fascination with lunar astronomy is a masterful touch, and the reference to 17th Century fantasies about lunar voyagers is pure Waldrop. As is the unexpected and poignant ending.

Of course, that richness of detail doesn't come easily at all. It takes a formidable amount of research to get those details right; and Waldrop gets it right. Go check his facts and you'll see.

His stories continually impress not just with detail but with their variety of voices and settings. From the literate lycanthrope in Alcatraz to 50's doo-wop rock n' roll kids, from Isaac Walton angling for Leviathan to the WW2 teenage flying ace, each story covers new ground, and each one is a gem.

SCI FICTION published eight of Howard Waldrop's stories, six of them originals, and I believe there's still one more to come. I can't think of a better indication of SCI FICTION's quality than that. Thanks, Ellen. And thanks, Howard. Please keep the stories coming.

Link to story.

"Passing of the Minotaurs," by Rjurik Davidson: An Appreciation by E. Catherine Tobler

Dear R. Davidson,
You had me at "minotaur,"
and labyrinth jokes.

Majestic dark head;
The interlacing lashes
of liquid black eyes.

A desperate woman
Will risk everything she has.
Don't damage the eyes.

She watches them come;
she'll never be free of them.
She cried only once.

A sunken city;
the sea serpents will eat you.
Moss blows on soft waves.

Link to story.

"Castaway" by Gene Wolfe: An Appreciation by Spencer Pate

There is little that I can say about Gene Wolfe that has not already been said, but it is probably sufficient to repeat Michael Swanwick's assertion that "Gene Wolfe is the greatest writer in the English language alive today." This may seem to be an exaggeration at first glance, but anyone who has read one of Wolfe's amazing novels or short stories would probably be tempted to agree. I've read just about everything that Wolfe has written and loved all of it, but "Castaway" remains one of my favorite stories by him. "Castaway" is lyrical, subtle, surprising, moving, and deceptively simple--in other words, a typical Wolfe story. I actually first read it in David Hartwell's Year's Best SF anthology at the neighborhood Kroger store. But a noisy grocery store is perhaps not the best place to savor Wolfe's brilliant use of language. The lovely imagery of an alien planet in the story haunted me, and I was overjoyed to find "Castaway" on SCI FICTION so that I could reread it.

Gene Wolfe is not just a writer but a magician with words. Like a conjuror, Wolfe always evokes a sense of wonder and awe, but he never reveals how he does it. That's why I'm finding it difficult to explicate "Castaway" right now--as another critic has said, "I feel a little bit like a musical contemporary attempting to tell people what's good about Mozart." "Castaway" is a perfect example of Wolfe's multilayered approach to fiction. In this story, he uses the well-worn theme of a person stranded on an alien planet and turns it into a commentary on beauty and longing. And like Wolfe's best work, "Castaway" deals with the power of memory and perception. Wolfe's themes are always like the swift currents that flow beneath the river ice. We can sense that they are just beneath the surface but can never truly pin them down. All I can really say is that Wolfe's work is absolutely essential and will reward careful reading and rereading.

Any appreciation of a story on SCI FICTION is also necessarily an appreciation of the immense talents of its editor, Ellen Datlow. Datlow is one of the most experienced, and certainly the best, editors in the field of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Her discerning eye for great fiction can be seen not only on the SCI FICTION website but also the many excellent anthologies she has edited, especially the invaluable Year's Best Fantasy and Horror series. I think all of us are a bit shocked that the award-winning SCI FICTION website has been terminated by the SciFi channel, and I encourage everyone who has enjoyed the stories it has published to send emails of protest. I wish the best of luck to Ellen in finding editorial jobs in the future. Even if SCI FICTION is gone for good, the stories it has published will endure.

Link to story.

Friday, November 18, 2005

"The Book of Martha" by Octavia Butler: An Appreciation by Mary Madewell

Seventeen Words to God
God kept silent but was so palpably, disturbingly present that even in the silence Martha felt rebuked.

In these seventeen words Octavia E. Butler brings the reader as close to the divine as a prayer. With a few simple words she can take us anywhere she likes. We are her willing captives. In this case where Butler likes is Heaven, and who she likes is the one with all the answers, and incidentally, all the questions. Her prose is subtle, deft, and as perfect as a new child. Not standing in the shadow of the Lord yet? How about this:
"Don't you know everything?"

God smiled. "No, I outgrew that trick long ago. You can't imagine how boring it was."

Beautiful, ideal, and more than a little chilling. As an agnostic, I found Butler's portrayal of a flawed God curious and wonderful. Here is the literal representation of the Lord, our ultimate leader, and He's admitting boredom like any child seeking distraction. Butler's God, as frightening as he is to contemplate, feels more true to me than the God gleaned from the pulpit, perhaps for the very reasons that Martha is eventually able to question and reprimand her kidnapper. His flaws make him a target for judgment rather than the ultimate Judge, drawing Him down to the level of any erring fellow man. A simultaneously alarming and comforting view.

On the surface, "The Book of Martha" is a story about choices; the choice we make between a struggle for improvement or an easier path of continuing as we are, the choice between the known and the unknown, the choice between trusting in faith or merely believing in what's before our eyes. The story is about Martha Bes, a middle-aged writer given a choice by God. The process of her choosing creates the bulk of the story, but by the time Martha reaches her decision, by the time we reach the end, Butler has opened wide her simple premise to include more vital and encompassing ideas.

The reader is invited to consider a writer's place in the pattern of the world, a notion every writer seems to explore at some point. She also touches on the nature of addiction, cultural evolution, the balance of need and fulfillment, the repercussions of achieving our goals, equality between the sexes and the races of the world, and the future of humanity in general. Here Butler's touch is so light, even these weighty themes are offered as nearly subliminal glimpses of something deeper than mere story, and the choice of whether or not to take a longer look is left where it should be, with the reader.

"The Book of Martha" is as timeless as it is relevant, and Martha's final decision leaves the question of whether we glimpse the future or the past. Is this a vision of our tomorrow or our yesterday? Either answer brings hope for the future and a touch of fear of a God of limitation and weakness.

God offers Martha a choice with a stipulation that if Martha accepts she will return to life as whatever she decides is "one of their lowliest". After God's final incarnation, Butler's vision of the lowliest being in humankind leaves us to examine our own motives and egos, and there is no superior accomplishment for any writer than to inspire a greater sense of self-awareness in her readers. And in that aspect as well, Butler brings us that much closer to the humility of the devout before God.

A sincere thanks to Ellen Datlow and Octavia E. Butler for allowing me the chance to read this amazing and beautiful tale.

Link to story.

"Russian Vine" by Simon Ings: An Appreciation by Abigail Nussbaum

So the aliens come. They take one good look at humanity and come to the obvious conclusions--we're violent, self-destructive, out of control. Give us a couple more decades and we'll bomb ourselves back into the stone age. And then we'll really get to work.

Cue the exploding national monuments, right? Or the armies of implacable, green-skinned killing machines, or the shadowy groups who quietly take over the government? How about "To Serve Man"?

Not according to Simon Ings in his 2001 story, "Russian Vine". Ings' aliens, the Puscha, aren't interested in conquest or destruction. They like things to be quiet, orderly, beautiful, and a war-like Earth doesn't fit in with their plans.

So they eliminate our ability to read.

The elimination of literacy naturally leads to the collapse of the planet's larger institutions, the global economy, and most governments.

Rob a culture of literacy, and rumour replaces record, anecdotes supersede annals. The drive to cooperation remains, but cooperation itself, on a grand scale, becomes impractical. The dream of universal understanding fades. Nations are reborn, and, within them, peoples—reborn or invented. Models of the world proliferate, and science—beyond a rude natural philosophy—becomes impossible. Religions multiply and speciate, fetishising wildly. Parochialism arises in all its finery, speaking argot, wearing folk dress, dancing its ethnic dance.

Ings avoids the cliché of the jack-booted alien invaders, but he also refuses to tell a story about the benevolent parent race who save us from our own weaknesses. "Russian Vine" is told from the point of view of Connie, a Puscha bureaucrat stationed on Earth, who can't himself decide whether he's an invader, an imperialist, or a savior. The marvel of Ings' story is that neither can we. Nor can we decide whether the Puscha were right to act as they did.

But what's most surprising about "Russian Vine" is that, at its heart, it is a love story, albeit a very sad one. The aimless, rootless Connie lives among humans but constantly at a remove from them. He tries to make connections--with the human Rebecca, whose meeting with Connie has the distinct undertones of both the resistance member who seduces a German officer and the young native who allows herself to be seduced by an aging colonialist, and with a nameless young Parisienne with whom he has a brief affair--but ultimately he is alone, a middle-aged imperialist straight out of Graham Greene, who doesn't understand the society he lives in but can't find in himself the strength to leave.

Through Connie, through his relationship with Rebecca, and through the Puscha's actions on Earth, Ings conflates the personal and the political. Did the Puscha render humanity illiterate because they are indifferent guardians of life, conscientious gardeners? Or was their true, unacknowledged motivation a desire to encourage the balkanization of Earth's society--as Connie puts it, "We are good gardeners, but we are too flashy. We succumb again and again to our vulgar hunger for exotica. ... We have made this place our hothouse"? Does Rebecca betray Connie out of racial pride, or does she do it because he's been unfaithful to her?

"Russian Vine" is a story that will leave you with more questions that answers. Sad and haunting in all the best possible ways, it has lingered with me for nearly five years because of its terrifying premise (what could be worse, after all, for a voracious reader?), its beautiful prose, and the unanswerable riddles it poses.

Link to story.

"The Best Christmas Ever" by James Patrick Kelly: An Appreciation by Deb Coates

James Patrick Kelly's prose always strikes me as clean and accessible, while at the same time rich and textured and descriptive. In "The Best Christmas Ever" he tackles one of the hoary cliches of science fiction--the last man on earth. And as if that's not enough, he brings Christmas into the mix, a holiday loaded with overdone emotional and cultural resonances, which are often exploited for cheap effect in mediocre stories.

It's tempting to say that if Ellen Datlow had received this story from you or me, she would have tossed it back to us right after this passage here, which comes rather early in the story:

...she beamed an alert to all of her biops and assigned roles. She warned them that if this wasn't the best Christmas ever, they might lose the last man on earth.

But I have more faith in Ellen than that. Her ability to pick out the appealing uniquenesses of a particular story is one of the reasons she has been a successful editor in general and one of the ways she was successful at SCI FICTION. "The Best Christmas Ever" both undermines and reinforces the hoary cliche and the overdone emotional and cultural cues. Even before the "last man on earth" line, there are telling details generously seeded throughout the narrative that tell us that this story is, in fact, unique in its own ways and can be enjoyed for its writing and its sympathetic characters and even for the story itself which eventually gives us both the bleakness of unforgiving end times and traces of hope that life, though perhaps not as we've known it, may continue and that living a particular life, rather than drowning in, even understandable, despair, can be worthwhile.

From the beginning, we encounter details--specific and telling--which neatly illustrate a world that is both like and utterly unlike our own:

Aunty Em spent three days baking cookies. She dumped eight sticks of fatty acid triglycerides, four cups of C12H22O11, four vat-grown ova, four teaspoons of flavor potentiator, twelve cups of milled grain endosperm, and five teaspoons each of NaHCO3 and KHC4H4O6 into the bathtub and then trod on the mixture with her best baking boots. She rolled the dough and then pulled cookie cutters off the top shelf of the pantry: the mitten and the dollar sign and the snake and the double-bladed ax. She dusted the cookies with red nutriceutical sprinkles, baked them at 190°C, and brought a plate to the man while they were still warm.

I like this story because it is about hoary cliches and emotional resonance, because it makes promises to me, the reader, at the beginning that there will be things both expected and unexpected, that it is a Christmas story and a "last man on earth" story and yet not, that the emotion I expect to be there will be there and that there will be something else, something I don't yet know. "The Best Christmas Ever" delivers on its promises and gives me fresh insight on things I thought I knew.

Link to story.

"Amnesty" by Octavia Butler: An Appreciation by Claire Light

In trying to create an egalitarian civil society, we deliberately lose, or avoid learning, the ability to understand the master/slave relationship. In America especially, we also avoid understanding oppressive relationships built on cultural, racist, classist, and gendered divides. We seem to convince ourselves that not knowing somehow protects us from becoming. Even as veins of all of these dynamics run through every part of our society, we deliberately blind ourselves.

Octavia Butler's project in over a dozen books of fiction has been to look hard at these relationships in all their brutality and cold comfort. Entering a Butler story is a process of falling in love and then steeling yourself for pain; the payoff is fascination, a view of life you never wanted to see, but can't look away from. However you proceed from the experience her stories offer, you're left with a gratitude towards Butler herself, that she was brave enough to put herself through such a shocking reckoning, and to record the event so the rest of us can follow from a safer distance. I imagine that Butler herself might feel some gratitude towards her protagonists, who are always balanced between two hostile cultures, and who choose to absorb that hostility to create a bridge. They allow her to put them through hell, so that she can report on what hell is like, and maybe report a way out of it.

Butler pursues this project through an essential plot construct, repeated in different ways throughout her oeuvre: a character, almost always a woman, emerges from violent, invasive captivity--captured first by foreign invaders, then by her own people, now suspicious of her relation to aliens. Ironically, it is this experience of being a captive of both cultures that gives her power over both. She is the only one who can bridge the two. Fearful of both, and not forgiving either, she still inserts herself--her body and her heart and mind--into the gap, knowing that either or both may hurt or kill her for her generosity. It is not all heroism; she has nowhere else to go, and if she fails, humanity may not survive.

"Amnesty" distills the essential Butler moment. Noah was kidnapped and experimented upon as a child by recently arrived and technologically superior aliens. When she was released, the US government held her captive for several years, torturing her for information. Now she works for the aliens, recruiting humans to serve in their now-harmless experiments.

Almost the entire story is a dialogue between her and the six human recruits. The protagonist, heroic as she is, is also calculating, revealing her story to her hearers slowly, tactically reassuring them, shocking them, arousing their anger and their pity and their fear. Her personal goal, beyond the aliens' instructions to "calm" the humans, is to convince her afraid and hostile or self-deluding hearers of her essential message: you don't have to like it, you don't have to forgive, but if you want to survive you have to deal with it. The end of the story is not a win or a loss, but simply the end of the dialogue.

Reading "Amnesty" recalls for me every traumatic and wonderful Butler book I've read, and reminds me, again, of how much reading Butler has changed my view of my world and my place in it. What changed me was Butler forcing me to root for characters who didn't stand up for their rights (because it would have gotten them killed) but rather compromised out of necessity. She forced me to look at myself, at my often silly insistence upon abstract rights in the face of daily, unbearable, soul-destroying compromise. Would I be able to be a slave? Could I do what was necessary to save not only myself but my entire community? What would I do in a situation in which I had no good choices?

What Butler does is to take a "minority" experience--an experience of being unbearably helpless and compromised, a frightening experience, an experience of taking power when you have none, and making choices when no one gives you any, of ignoring the drive toward triumph because there's no victory to be had, and living without joy because grief has crushed it--and make us want to know about it. It's not feel-good multi-culti boosterism. It's the complex and painful truth, told imaginatively and with respect for your intelligence and choice. I'm grateful for these stories.

Claire Light

Link to story.

"Emerald Street Expansions" by Lucius Shepard: An Appreciation by Jean-Daniel Breque

I love my job.

As a professional translator, I get to work on all kinds of books and stories, from endless epics to haiku-like short-shorts. But whatever the writer, whatever the genre, I know I'll learn something. Sometimes, it's a point of history, sometimes a piece of technical know-how. Thanks to writers as diverse as Dan Simmons, Edward Whittemore and Robert W. Chambers, I discovered the Age of Bronze, Jerusalem, Caterpillar-driving, the wonders of Nature, and much, much more.

Sometimes, I learn something about myself, too.

When I was given this story to translate, I admit I was a bit nonplussed. François Villon? What's he doing here? And if you don't know who he is, just read the story--Lucius Shepard manages to give you enough details about his life and works to make you want learn more, and he does it while moving forward the story he has to tell. Let me just say that Villon was a poet. A French poet. And Shepard not only quotes him, he inserts in the text a few pastiches of his poems.

Do you see where I'm getting at? That's right: I had to translate into French English pastiches of French poetry.

Since I don't want to bore you, I'll skip on the details--buying the complete works of Villon (alas, he only left a small paperback worth of poetry), locating the quotes used by Lucius, and trying to translate his (or his character's) original poetry.

The point is, thanks to Lucius, I learned more about a poet from my country. I learnt something about myself.

In this wonderful story, François Villon comes back--or does he?--to haunt a man with quite a nasty bent. But is it a real haunting, or is LeGary gullible enough to fall for Amorise's con? Won't tell. Read the story and expand your mind.

Mind-expanding, that's the work good writers and good editors do the best. We'll see more from Ellen Datlow, I think.

Link to story.

"Anyway" by Mary Rickert: An Appreciation by Rick Bowes

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to read the manuscript of an amazing Mary Rickert novel. I didn't think the book was a word too long, in fact I wouldn't have minded at all if it had been longer. The cast of characters was large - it seemed to encompass most of the population of an upstate New York town - and the tightly wound plot spiraled hypnotically in ever-wider and wilder circles before it snapped shut.

"Anyway" has an entirely different tone. The words have a different rhythm. And this is a story of less than seven thousand words. But at the end, the trap again snaps and the shock is profound.

This short story has remarkable scope. It deals with Alzheimer's and young people bound for combat, with salvation and magic and the tangled love and anger of a family. The characters are rounded and multi-faceted. A man whose over-fond reminiscences of war lead his grandson to enlist in the marines has himself never been able to recover from the brutal murder of his son. The young recruit is a bright and sensitive kid.

The old man's daughter, the marine's mother is our narrator. At story's start she is in the midst of a mundane life, visiting her mother in a nursing home, musing on the paradox of being a vegetarian who has to buy pot roast for a birthday dinner. By story's end and without a false step on the author's part the narrator has become a terrifying figure with a human life and all of human life in her hands.

Mary Rickert is a remarkable new writer. This story will be among the wonders in her first book, the fiction collection Map of Dreams, due from Golden Gryphon in October 2006.

Link to story.