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.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

"Five Cigars of Abu Ali" by Eric Schaller: An Appreciation by Trent Hergenrader

SCIFICTION has been a wonderful showcase for the breadth and depth of stories that we all, more or less, agree to call "speculative fiction." Science fiction. Fantasy. Alternate history. Near future. Far future. No future. SCIFICTION featured stories that both defined and defied the genre. Who cares what you called it, as long as it was good--and stories on SCIFICTION were always good. You never knew whether a given week's story would make you laugh or make you cry or (when you least expected it) simply steal your breath away.

Which leads me to my grudge with Eric Schaller and his "Five Cigars of Abu Ali." On a cold January evening last year, I found myself with fifteen minutes to kill before going home from work. In an effort to use the time productively, I surfed over to SCIFICTION to check out the latest story and found Mr. Schaller's work. The good news? I successfully killed off those fifteen minutes. The bad news? I spent an extra thirty minutes reading without realizing it and had to come up with a lame excuse for my boss as to why I clocked out late. Mr. Schaller, if you're reading this, you owe me some time back, sir.

I'd tell you exactly how this happened but it's difficult to explain a story's magic, isn't it? Maybe this story captured my attention because I could relate to the protagonist, a married thirtysomething entertaining an old friend renowned for his partying ways; a friend his wife dislikes so much so she invents a reason to leave before he arrives.

Elizabeth kissed me good-bye but missed my mouth by an inch that was
as good as a mile.

Been there. Boy, have I been there.

Or maybe the story grabbed me because I felt like I knew Abu Ali. He barges into the story, two shady girls in tow, wanting to drink whisky and smoke cigars into the wee hours of the morning regaling our protagonist with his latest so-crazy-it-has-to-be-true story. It's a well-documented fact that the married man's stories get tamer and lamer the longer he's been out of college, so it's unsurprising when the protagonist himself becomes a mute observer while Abu and his story inevitably take
center stage.

Or was it the richness of Abu Ali's story that made me lose track of time? Genies trapped in bottles, curses, magic cigars. What's not to love? Then the last quarter of the story turns it all upside down so you're left wondering what's real and what's not, a question Schaller partially answers in the closing paragraphs with a light yet powerful touch; and after reading the final words, it takes a moment to realize that you've been forgetting to breathe.

Powerful stuff, this fiction that makes us lose track of space and time. I hope some day I can beg a few minutes of that time back from Mr. Schaller so I may shake his hand and thank him for writing this story that touched me so deeply.

Double-thanks to Ellen Datlow, who provided so many stories I loved, and for ensuring that all those many minutes that somehow slipped away from me as I read (alas, a fortunately common problem for me) were never lost, never wasted; in fact, I am quite certain that while the SCIFICTION site will soon disappear, these stories will remain with me forever.

With affection,
Trent Hergenrader

Link to story.


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