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.

Friday, December 30, 2005

"Freeing the Angels" by Pat Cadigan and Chris Fowler: An Appreciation by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz

What a body misses while absent from the Net. I came back online after seven years to discover SCI FICTION and to hear about this place closing down. When I heard of the ED SF Project, I decided to visit and found myself clicking on story after story, reading and regretting those years of not knowing about this treasure trove online.

Going through the list, my eye was caught by a story written by Pat Cadigan and Chris Fowler.

"Freeing the Angels" starts with these lines:

He was standing on the sidewalk, idly flexing his brand-new arm while he waited to cross with the rest of the blowfish, when he heard his mother's voice in his mind. Unbidden, unwished-for, apropos of nothing, it came to him: Carry on the way you have been, Danny-boy, you be seein' angels a lot sooner than you want to. Or maybe devils. You sure got some bad in you, boy. Watch it don't catch you out and take you down. When you go, you want to see them angels waiting to take you in.

Captivated by these lines, I found myself following Danny, a guy revelling in the experience of walking down the street, equipped with a new prosthetic arm. But what an arm! No ordinary bionic arm for Danny. This one comes with its own instruction manual and a quantum state generator. It also opens the doorway to an incredible partnership with Trader Vic, a woman who is gifted in making all the right deals, and whose deals in the story, provide for the fast paced adventure that follows.

This to me was the ultimate mix--science fiction embracing the unexplainable. Just like the story title promises, it is a fantastic blend of mystical and futuristic elements, science and the supernatural joined together in perfect harmony. Filled with action and unexpected twists, I found myself literally sitting on the edge of my seat, waiting for what would happen next.

What stays with me from reading "Freeing the Angels" is a sense of wonder at how the mind is limitless in its possibilities and its imaginations. What causes man to push his imagination beyond what exists--what pushes him to see and create stories like this is a reflection of the divinity in man that science will never truly be able to explain away.

Thank you, Pat and Chris, and thank you, SCI FICTION.

Link to story.

"Frankenstein's Daughter" by Maureen McHugh: An Appreciation by Ted Chiang

I first read "Frankenstein's Daughter" in workshop, and found myself taking a minority position on it. Not with regard to liking it, but regarding the question of whether it's science fiction or not. Many of the other people at the workshop said that it wasn't really science fiction, that the cloning element could be removed without changing the story significantly, that it could easily be a mainstream story about living with a mentally handicapped child.

Now that the story's been published online and in print, I notice that some reviewers have expressed similar opinions, saying that its SFnal trope is under-utilized. This is certainly a response I've had to many, many stories I've read, including stories with far more futuristic settings than "Frankenstein's Daughter." But let me suggest that, upon examination, this is a story that couldn't be told without its SFnal component. The reason can be summed up in one word: blame.

The word "blame" doesn't actually appear anywhere in the story, but it permeates the lives of its characters. If six-year-old Cara's mental and physical handicaps were the result of random chance, no one would blame her mother; she might blame herself, but no one else would. But Cara's condition is a direct result of her mother's decision to use cloning, and everyone knows it. Whether they say it aloud or not, whether they are right to do so or not, people blame her.

This is clearest in the scene where Cara's mother takes her to the emergency room for an asthma attack. "The doctor wants to punish me," she thinks. "I can imagine what he would like to ask. Why the hell did you do it? How do you justify it?" These are not questions that the mothers of ordinary handicapped children are ever asked; this is not a scene that would appear in a mainstream story. And even if nowhere else in the story are such accusations as visible, it's clear that this is something that Cara's mother has had to deal with ever since Cara was born.

And let's be clear: Cara's mother did make a bad decision. Partly because she chose to use cloning when the technology hadn't been perfected yet, but also because she was trying to recreate her dead child Kelsey, when recreating the dead is not what cloning does. Even if Cara had been born healthy, she would not have been Kelsey. By thinking of a new baby as a duplicate of someone else instead of as an individual in her own right, Cara's mother made a terrible mistake.

Maybe it's not fair to blame her for this. In response to the doctor's censure, Cara's mother thinks, "How do I tell him, tell them, that when Cara was conceived, I wasn't sane? Nothing prepares you for the death of a child. Nothing teaches you how to live with it." She's right. There's no way to know how you'd react after the death of a child, and maybe it's not reasonable to hold someone responsible for their decisions under that kind of stress. But that doesn't mean all decisions are good ones. Cara's mother made a bad decision, and she knows it.

And her awareness of her own responsibility is what makes the story's ending so resonant. Cara's parents have just picked up their son Robert from the police station after he was arrested for vandalism, and Robert tries to avoid his parents' punishment by running down the street. Robert's not just trying to escape bad luck, a lousy hand of cards he was dealt; he's trying to escape responsibility for his own ill-considered actions. And though escape may be impossible, that's an impulse his mother can identify with.

To me, "Frankenstein's Daughter" says more about the actual consequences of cloning than any story filled with tank-grown armies of identical workers. It may make its point quietly, but it's saying something that a mainstream story can't, and that's the mark of real SF.

Link to story.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

"Heads Down, Thumbs Up" by Gavin J. Grant: An Appreciation by Jeff VanderMeer

A story can reward on a first or second reading and then either expand in the mind or become an inert object. Or, a story can be difficult on a first reading and only reveal its true nature upon multiple readings. And sometimes the deceptively simple can have hidden depth. Such is the case with Gavin J. Grant's "Heads Down, Thumbs Up," a story that uses simple syntax to express a vastly complex idea: the shifting of metaphysical, cultural, and social boundaries, anchored by the metaphor of the physical shifting of countries. At least, that's how the general populace in the world inhabited by the child narrator has come to see the changes that occur. The brilliance of the story lies in taking what would usually be an underlying theme and making it a literal, concrete fact: gender identities, cultural norms, and much else literally change as the physical country borders change. And by doing this, the concrete fact itself takes on further metaphorical resonance, so that the setting could be our own world seen symbolically.

Grant uses hints of folktale, very specific detail, and the clear-eyed but limited viewpoint of a child to ground his story. Without the specific detail in particular, the story would fly away like a badly moored tent in torrential winds. The magic of the story for me lies in these simple moments. For example, "And then I knew what she meant, the other language coming over me like the dirty water spreading across the painting table when I knocked over my paint cup." Or when Grant describes the aftermath of violence: "She had tied a khaki shirt around her calf, and as we walked it slowly turned red, brown, black."

I've read "Heads Down, Thumbs Up" three or four times and I don't feel fully comfortable parsing its meaning. In a sense, it's the kind of story where the meaning exists in the reading of each sentence. We're not really traveling toward a destination—instead, we are leaving and arriving within each paragraph or set of paragraphs. This gives the story its power and adds a sense of reader confusion at the same time. We pass over the shifting boundaries with the narrator. We lose our confidence in our own telling of the story because of this shifting, then regain it, then lose it. We want the story to be a rigid beast, something that sits still and lets us parse it. But the genius of "Heads Down, Thumbs Up" is that it rejects this kind of reading.

Link to story.

"The Man Who Never Forgot" by Robert Silverberg: An Appreciation by Scott M. Sandridge

Silverberg's tale is about the life of a man who remembers everything, every single detail from the memory of his birth, to everything he's read and every conversation he's heard. I never had a memory as good as the protagonist, Niles, but much of what Niles felt and went through struck a painfully familiar chord in me.

"I could have been something special, he brooded, one of the wonders of the world. Instead I'm a skulking freak who lives in dingy third-floor back rooms, and I don't dare let the world know what I can do."

When I first read this story at SCI FICTION, these sentences jumped off the page and smacked me across the forehead. It was one of those epiphanies you often recieve while reading fiction, that little voice in the back of your mind that says, "Here is truth."

It may never be the "Grand Truth," but the personal truths are no less potent to the one it hits. It may not be a truth you want to hear, but it is always what you need to hear.

"I could have been something special . . ." How often did I tell myself that as I grew older? How often do people older than me tell themselves that? How often have I heard people say it during a moment of confiding?

So few of us ever allow ourselves to reach our full potential.

"He had a gift, a great gift, an awesome gift. It had been too big for him until now. Self-pitying, self-tormented, he had refused to allow for the shortcomings of the forgetful people about him and had paid the price of their hatred. But he couldn't keep running away forever. The time would have to come for him to grow big enough to contain his gift, to learn to live with it instead of moaning in dramatic
self-inflicted anguish."

Silverberg, through Niles' self-realization in this story, speaks to all of us. So throw away your self-pity and let your gifts shine through. You'll make the world a better place for it.

And thank you, SCI FICTION, for publishing a story that contains such an important truth.

Link to story.

"The Dragons of Summer Gulch" by Robert Reed: An Appreciation by Sarah Prineas

Robert Reed's "The Dragons of Summer Gulch"

Okay, I admit it. I hadn't read this story before choosing it for the ED project, and I chose it because it had the word 'dragons' in the title. Because fantasy's all about the dragons; for me, dragons represent the awesome, airborne, sense-of-wonder possible-impossibility of the fantastic. How do they manage to fly, anyway?

Here's what I liked about this story: the happy camels on leashes. The moron-genius Manmark who says, "And then my father died, and I took my inheritance, deciding to apply my wealth and genius in the pursuit of great things." The Wild West setting turned askew. The best locomotive available on short notice. The sly aboriginal girl's story-within-a-story. The eighth dragon. Everything else dragon: the fossils, the eggs, the gold-silver-platinum spleens, the Claws of God.

So obviously, this is not a review or a critique, but an appreciation of the sheer fantastical wonderfulness of this story. It's big, it's not very aerodynamic, but holy cow, it flies.

Link to story.

Friday, December 23, 2005

"The Sea Was Wet as Wet Can Be" by Gahan Wilson: An Appreciation by Lynda E. Rucker

Like Gahan Wilson, I never trusted the Alice books. There was something terrifying, in particular, about the ways in which Sir John Tenniel realized The World According to Lewis Carroll. I remember being particularly frightened, even repulsed, by an illustration of Alice who, in following the cake's instructions to eat me, had grown so that her neck was horrifically elongated till she looked more like a monster than a little girl. So it's no surprise that someone of Gahan Wilson's sensibilities finally concocted such a nasty little tribute to one of Carroll's crueler poems.

Wilson's succeeded here in doing something many beginning writers in the horror genre wrongheadedly attempt (or that many unfamiliar with the genre mistakenly think is appropriate): he's populated his story with a cast of thoroughly unpleasant characters who seem bound to get their comeuppance by the story's end. Here, of course, it works, first of all because he's Gahan Wilson, but also because the motley partiers at this fateful picnic seem no more shrill and unpleasant than the attendees of a mad tea party or croquet match in Carroll's Wonderland. As the story progresses, of course, the little party the narrator describes as "a contamination" and "a crowd of bored and boring drunks" begin to seem not so much revolting as simply pathetic; but by then, of course, it's too late. They've made the acquaintance of the charming, even lovable, walrus and his sidekick the carpenter, and as is the case in much of Carroll's universe, what seems so whimsical on the surface of things disguises something much more menacing.

Though "The Sea Was Wet as Wet Can Be" made its debut in a 1967 issue of Playboy, I first discovered it in Ellen Datlow's 1989 anthology Blood is Not Enough, probably the same year the anthology was published. The story never left me, but I couldn't remember who had written it, what the title was, or where I'd read it--only Carroll's avuncular walrus and carpenter, every bit as sinister as I'd always suspected they were. I searched in a desultory way for the story once in a while (though I thought the title was something like "The Walrus and the Carpenter") but it wasn't until a friend of mind coincidentally mentioned having read it this past year that I got the title and author again (but of course! I should have realized that only Gahan Wilson could have written such a perfectly macabre take on Lewis Carroll!), and I found the story online at SCI FICTION.

Reuniting with old favorites has been only one of many pleasures the site has given me, and I intend to spend the final year of its life reading or rereading 300+ of the best short stories writers in the field of speculative fiction have produced, not just since the site's inception in 2000, but over more than fifty years. You should do the same.

Link to story.

"A Walk in the Garden" by Lucius Shepard: An Appreciation by David Moles

Wilson loves his helmet forever and happily ever after. It looks dangerous-robot slick with the tiger stripes he painted on the sides. It has a TV mounted above the visor so he can watch his favorite shows. It feeds him, dopes him, keeps him cool, plays his tunes, tells him when to fire, where to hide. An hour before, it reminded him to record messages for family and friends. He sent love to his parents, talked dirty to his girlfriend, Laura Witherspoon, and to his best friend back in Greeley, he said, "Yo, Mackie! I am the magic! My boots store energy — I can jump twenty-five feet straight fucking up, dude! Tomorrow we're gonna kick some brutal ass! Talk to ya later!" Now he's in a more reflective mood. The thought of invading Paradise is fresh, but he's not too sure, you know.

I must have been thirteen when Lucius Shepard first blew my mind. The story was called "R&R," and if you haven't read it you might have read Life During Wartime, the novel it grew into, or grew out of. I was a kid in love with the war toys my folks wouldn’t let me have, in love with Starship Troopers and Hammer's Slammers, in love with brotherhood and sacrifice and most of all in love with the unutterable coolness of kicking ass. And then along comes Lucius Shepard, with this story that's like the Deer Hunter to those other stories' Hogan's Heroes, and rips the lid off of all that, shines a light down into it like the harsh illumination of a parachute flare, revealing a landscape of beauty and terror and sex and drugs and madness and humor and despair.

I won't say I got it. How the hell could I? I was thirteen. But it stayed with me for years. Some of the first pieces I wrote (let's hope no copies of the manuscripts survive) were, I only realized later, fumbling Shepard pastiches: stories about high-tech soldiers in love with their gear, coming to a bad end at the hand of forces they couldn't understand. At the time I had no idea what I was doing, but what I was doing was trying to come to terms with "R&R" and the sharp break it made in the way I understood the world.

Which brings us to August, 2003, and "A Walk in the Garden."

"Maybe you can reach Paradise from here, but I figure we might hafta pass through somewhere bad to get there. And even if we find it, what the fuck we supposed to do then? We're infidels, man. We're unbelievers."

"You may be taking this all too literally."

"Taking it metaphorically just makes you confused."

Maybe that's what "A Walk in the Garden" is really about: finding the truth by literalizing the metaphor of literalizing the metaphor.

The story's been called half-baked and it's been called dated. I prefer to think of it as a raw and angry and courageous expression of its time: six months and two hundred American casualties into a war built on ignorance and lies. In a broader sense it's the time we're still living in, a time when the world's Thomas "Lexus and the Olive Tree" Friedmans and Samuel "Clash of Civilizations" Huntingtons (not to mention its Ahmadinejads and bin Ladens) can blithely explain away the world's problems in terms of a monolithic West and monolithic Islam. "A Walk in the Garden" both encapsulates that world-view and skewers it, savagely.

And it doesn't hurt that it's a fuckin' riot to read. From the opening scene with Charlie and his helmet to the list of "10 Things Specialist Charles N. Wilson Wants You To Know" that ends the story, "A Walk in the Garden" is laced with black humor and dark insight. In many ways "A Walk in the Garden" is the story I was trying to write all through the late Eighties, but immeasurably better, and not only because it's written by an immeasurably better writer than Teenage Me could possibly have been. It's better because it's true, true in the sense that "R&R" was true, true in the sense that all the best fiction is true.

I hope that somewhere out there is a kid for whom "A Walk in the Garden" has done what "R&R" did for me, back when; some Fox News-watching kid who's had his eyes opened or some passionate Cassandra who's had her faith in the future restored.

Like the anonymous Marine put it in another mind-blowing war story, Dispatches: "Don't worry, baby, God'll think of something."

Till then all we can do is keep moving, like Charlie Wilson: keep crawling through shadow, looking for shade.

Link to story.

"The War of the Worlds" by James P. Blaylock: An Appreciation by Robert Burke Richardson

The first SCI FICTION story I read--and one of the first short stories I ever read, period (not counting the terrible ones they force you to read in school)--was James Blaylock's "The War of the Worlds." Not only did this story introduce me to the world of SCI FICTION (itself a brand new entity at the time) and all that it would eventually entail, but it also introduced me to Mr. Blaylock's fiction, a door I am very happy to have opened.

I read "The War of the Worlds" before developing a critical vocabulary for discussing fiction, and the unexpressed joy I find in it may be part of why it still lives so vividly in my mind after all these years--it's not a story I think about or remember, but one which I relive. I haven't so much as glanced at the story again, but I can watch pretty much the whole thing in my head (Blaylock's cinematic writing probably helps a lot here, too). I'm especially fond of the scene where the couple is loading the car for a desperate escape and, once it gets full, each starts dumping the other's things on the sidewalk to make room for their own.

The ending was something I absolutely did not expect, and I've had a certain fondness ever since for stories that are perhaps mainstream in nature, but told with a sensibility very much in tune with genre expectations. Inexperienced reader that I was, I didn't know that was something you could even do, and Blaylock opened
my eyes to it.

"War of the Worlds" was the first of many SCI FICTION stories to expand the horizons for me of what a story could be, and the first of many to introduce me to an author I might not otherwise have met. Many, many thanks!

Link to story

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

"When It Changed" by Joanna Russ: An Appreciation by Kameron Hurley

There is a world where women measure their lives in duels, where the only thing to fear on a dark night are the beasts women can kill with their own hands, where the solace one finds is in the arms of another woman. It's a world where women's words on history, science, theology, agriculture, astronomy, politics, aren't dismissed out of hand as being from the mind of a person whose biological destiny has already predetermined their lack of intellectual merit.

It's a world where things can be really different.

It's a world that belongs to Joanna Russ.

I grew up being told that I lived in a world where women are equal in every way to that standard default of humanity, men. I had to be told this, in case it wasn't clear. I was told I could grow up to be President. I could drive as fast, run as hard, as anybody else.

And when I was eighteen years old I broke out and down and found that I was supposed to be smaller and eat less, because I was a woman. And against all reason, I had gotten so tangled up in the idea that I was supposed to become the nurturing, submissive half of a happy hetero pair that I rewrote the abused woman script all by myself.

Why was the world I found so different from the one I grew up believing in? Why was I measured by the status of my boyfriend (and whether or not I was straight?)? Why did I have to fight over the rights to my own reproduction? Why was I still being told that my woman's brain was too weak for math and science? Why were so many of society's ills blamed on "single" mothers who'd seemingly procreated all by themselves?

I read Joanna Russ's "When It Changed" in one of those coveted courses in "Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature" at my local community college. I read:

Katy drives like a maniac; we must have been doing over 120 km/hr on those turns. She's good, though, extremely good, and I've seen her take the whole car apart and put it together again in a day. My birthplace on Whileaway was largely given to farm machinery and I refuse to wrestle with a five-gear shift at unholy speeds, not having been brought up to it, but even on those turns in the middle of the night, on a country road as bad as only our district can make them, Katy's driving didn't scare me. The funny thing about my wife, though: she will not handle guns. She has even gone hiking in the forests above the 48th parallel without firearms, for days at a time. And that does scare me.

In Whileaway, women were people. They weren't "equal" to anyone but each other. They were strong. They could take apart their cars and put them back together again. They could love each other without fear of reproach. And no one told them they were weak or stupid for having been born a woman.

Things could be really different.

What I always appreciated about Russ as a writer was her fearlessness in challenging the happy-hetero status quo and assumptions of social gender equality. A writer like Ursula LeGuin will build you a world where men and women are the default pair, where even in the most radical of social arrangements, the man narrates, pairs up with a willing woman, loves monogamously, and all is happy in the end.

Russ peels back all those assumptions and looks underneath them. She'll tell you a story about those who assume their superiority, about men who assume a woman lacks the core humanity that men are born with, a story about how women view men entering what is a woman's world, and how men will look to change that world into one that suits men. She'll tell you what she's seen of what men expect, what women will give.

Then Russ will tell you to shove it up your ass.

And I love her for that.

Thirty years after Russ wrote that story, I'd like to say a lot has changed, that I live in that world I grew up believing in. But that's not quite so.

I'm lucky to live in a city where I can shack up with a lesbian couple and have sex outside of wedlock with a younger man from another city and nobody's been by to burn my house down. I can support myself on my own salary, defend myself in a fight, and I hold three degrees. In some circles, that's acceptable.

In many circles, it's not.

Because for all that I'm still living in a country nearly as fearful of single, financially secure women who can change their own tires as the one Russ was writing in, and I'm not sure when that will change. I want to live in a world where my strength and character and worth isn't measured in my ability to fake the submissive feminine ideal. I won't pretend I'm stupider than my male boss (or my female boss, for that matter). I won't be anybody's office eye-candy. I won't lie about what I think. I won't pretend I don't think anything at all.

I want to measure my life in duels.

"Where are all the people?" said the monomaniac.

I realized then that he did not mean people, he meant men, and he was giving the word the meaning it had not had on Whileaway for six centuries.

"They died," I said. "Thirty generations ago."

And I don't want Russ's solution to be ours, either.

It's stories like this that challenge our assumptions about our own world, about the way we think, about the way we treat one another. And it's stories like this that ask us how we would make things really different.

If not Russ's way, then how?

Link to story.

"Articles of a Personal Nature" by Deborah Coates: An Appreciation by Stephanie Burgis

Deborah Coates's Articles of a Personal Nature is a story about the hidden gaps of alienation lurking within even the closest relationships. It's also a story that uses the canine-human tracking partnership as a powerful metaphor for the search for personal connection.

When I volunteered to write an appreciation of this story, I did so based on the warmth I felt when I remembered it, even though many of the details of the plot and characters had faded from my mind since first reading it. What I remembered was the beauty of the final scene--not exactly who said or did what, but that perfect evocation of transcendence, that fleeting but amazing feeling of having established a connection of total intimacy. When I sat down to re-read the story, I found myself teary-eyed at the end again . . . and so grateful that I'd had the motivation and opportunity to re-experience this piece, one of my favorites that SCI FICTION published.

Tommy and his partner Sarah were always very different people, but their relationship somehow managed to work anyway. Then one day, after being experimented on by her company, Sarah disappeared, sucked into what Tommy thinks must have been an alternate universe or black hole. Now, seven years later, she's suddenly reappeared . . . and deeply unfamiliar. But did he ever really know her?

Just as Sarah and her dogs work to track hidden scents across difficult, confusing landscapes, Tommy must work to trace the remnants of their broken relationship, searching for any way to put it back together. The truths exposed in his search are brutally honest...which makes the ending, with its tentative, fragile offer of hope, all the more emotionally rewarding.

A beautiful, beautifully written story. I’m so glad to have read it again.

Link to story.

"Refugees from Nulongwe" by M. Shayne Bell: An Appreciation by Rhonda S. Garcia

When you decide to write, when you sit down and start writing (which is the only sure-fire way to learn how), when you take that plunge and decide to put words to paper for someone other than yourself to read, you start changing. You see things differently; you ask yourself "Is that sound dripping water makes really drip or plonk? Or is it something else?" You start trying to describe things to yourself the way they really are, not the way someone else wrote them in your favourite novel. You start listening to the way people talk, watching the way they act, so you can build realistic characters out of them later.

And you change the way you read. No, that's wrong. You don't really change the way you read--the way you read changes. Before you could read just for the pleasure of it. You could lose yourself in the perfect story, regardless of the imperfect structure. You could recommend something purely because you enjoyed it. But once you start writing, there's a voice in your mind that you can't shut off ever again. A voice that compares your skills to the writer you're reading, a voice that scoffs at the overuse of adverbs and "was." This seems to be true for all writers, no matter what genre they write.

In short, to paraphrase John D. Macdonald, you start reading everything with weary contempt or grinding envy.

What I talked about before was the weary contempt part. "Refugees from Nulongwe" . . . well, that's all about the grinding envy for me.

I call myself a writer because that's what I do when I'm being myself--truly myself. I've got jobs, dependants, lots of chores--the usual. I have yet to see my name in print in something other than a contest also-ran list. But I've been in this world of words since I was two, and I've been writing novels since I was ten, and I think that qualifies me to judge what works for me when it comes to writing.

This story worked for me. Worked like a dream that you're really enjoying, so much so that when you come out of it, it's a slow waking, a soft wondrous letting go that, nevertheless, stays with you as you return to the real world. I read "Refugees from Nulongwe" years ago, when it was first posted to the SCI FICTION site. When I was done, I sent a note to my sister (another struggling writer) asking her to take a look at it. She did.

It's that simple. If you love something, you pass it on. If you love a story, it's impossible for you to find the flaws or to critique from an unbiased place. You lose yourself in it, and when it's time to stop, you do so with some reluctance, but also with jubilation. You've found a story that didn't make you grind to a halt over an ill-chosen phrase or a cliché. You've found a writer that didn't make you roll your eyes over their pursuit of flowery prose.

When I told my sister I was going to do an appreciation, the first thing she said was "do that elephant story." I laughed. I thought she would have forgotten it by now. I should have known I would be wrong.

I remember quite a few stories from SCI FICTION, but none stuck in my gut all this time the way "Refugees" did. In M. Shayne Bell's story, the refugees are elephants, wise creatures that we can finally communicate with due to the technological advancements. The elephants, led by an amazingly graceful animal called Elizabeth, are running from the threat of genocide. Yes, despite the advancements, despite the clear evidence that elephants are intelligent creatures, there are still those who will not share the Earth with another intelligent species--even if they are no less human than…well, humans. Some things never change.

Bell managed to imbue the elephants with a dignity and wisdom all their own, yet we recognize their suffering and their courage, because it is the suffering of all displaced peoples. The courage of those that have no choice but to be courageous or die.

I won't spoil the rest of the story for those who haven't read it yet (this is an appreciation, not a review, so I get to be greedy and just gush), but I will say that at the end of the story, what really stuck it to me was the footnote. The footnote that pointed out that the work to protect and rescue orphans in the story was actually being done at that very moment.

That was amazing for me. The idea that I was not just reading a story, I was reading a real science fiction story. Because it was all about possibilities . . . and truth.

Good stories do more than tell a story - they open our eyes to new possibilities, new ideas. New truths. "Refugees from Nulongwe" is a story that tells the truth about our nature, our society and they way we see them both. How that one thing--that ability to finally talk to a being we never could before--can so completely change us and the world around us. If we let it. If we can overcome the flaws that sometimes, regrettably, make us so human.

"Refugees from Nulongwe" did all this without one useless line. With the perfect prose that made you see the beauty of what was being talked about without the fussiness. Beautiful prose that never drew attention to itself until you really, really read it, and then it made you sigh at the simplicity of it--the rightness.

Easy. That's the word. The whole story felt easy, like it had been written, from beginning to end, with no effort at all--and it was no effort to read either. For a writer, and readers as well, that's one way to recognize that the story is more than good. It's special.

I can't remember if "Refugees from Nulongwe" won any awards. It should have, in my humble opinion. If it didn't, though, it wouldn't matter. To this day, I still recommend it. This story lit me on fire, made me push to be a better writer. I knew then that I couldn't do something like this--I probably can't even now. Maybe I never will. But, oh, the sweet jealousy that made me say, "I want to do that. I want to write a story that sticks in the gut and doesn't let go. That never fails to impress you no matter how many angles you look at it from." I still want to write a story that makes people gush about it the way I gushed about M. Shayne Bell's "Refugees." It's the goal that keeps me going.

So I guess what I want to say is, thanks. Thank you, M. Shayne Bell, for sharing this amazing story, for touching the lives of at least two writers--and lifelong readers--in a way they'll never forget.

Thank you, most of all, for introducing me to the concept of grinding envy.

Link to story.

"Hell Notes" by M.K. Hobson: An Appreciation by Eugie Foster

One of the defining characteristics of SCI FICTION has always been the variety of consistently high quality fiction that it publishes--a testament both to the extraordinary caliber of writers that have graced its webpages, as well as the keen, discerning, and eclectic editorial eye of Ellen Datlow. The stories published in the Originals section of SCI FICTION are all brand new reading adventures, never before seen by fan or fowl. On any given week, it was possible to find a postmodern fantasy, or a gritty fright fest, or a futuristic alien-and-ray-guns saga, or even a postmodern gritty ray-gun parable: virtually anything from within the realm of "speculative fiction."

Discovering these fresh, weekly offerings has been an unfailingly satisfying experience for me, whether the tale is thoughtful, tearful, inspiring, poignant, or funny. However, I've been particularly fond of the funny stories. Comedy can be so many things--intelligent, witty, charming, painful, whimsical, foolish, guilty--and by its nature, it is never ostentatious . . . when done well. And that's the rub; good funny is difficult to write and hence rare. I don't get to laugh as often as I'd like to (then again, perhaps I've got a reluctant sense of humor). My recalcitrant funny bone aside, humor is subjective. So when I find something as broadly appealing as M.K. Hobson's "Hell Notes" that can make me giggle with unabashed glee, I know I've found a gem.

In this story, a marketing consultant wanders into a shoddy Chinese buffet for lunch, gorges himself on the most exquisite twice-cooked pork he's ever eaten, gets mistaken as a walking undead by the lovely chef, and discovers that the path to his heart really is through his stomach. With lines like "The pork was of melting tenderness in a perfectly balanced garlic sauce, with impetuous slices of water chestnut and insouciant threads of onion" to tempt the palate, and "Dishes three, four, and five held, respectively: chunks of clove-spiked raw liver drenched in a bloody sauce; lacy webs of pearl-colored tripe fanned out like exotic sea flora; and a phlegmy stew of cancerous tubers" to repel it, this is a supremely enjoyable blend of droll wit and understated horror. But "Hell Notes" is more than just a gratifying giggle. This story has a bit of everything--danger, romance, incomparable Chinese food, ghosts, the afterlife, and even a dash of philosophy to provide depth--in a context both unusual and striking. Hobson's descriptions are evocative and visceral, her punch lines are agile and witty, and her sense of whimsy and the absurd is nothing short of genius. It's funny horror! You just gotta love funny horror.

My thanks to M.K. Hobson for writing this delightful tale, and to Ellen Datlow and the Sci Fi Channel for bringing it and hundreds of other marvelous stories to the public, free of charge.

Link to story.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

"The Three Unknowns" by Severna Park: An Appreciation by Merrie Haskell

She had me at the word "archaeology."

Of course, my little geek niche isn't a fair way to judge a hook, but I bet she had the rest of you by "Mars" at the latest.

And if archaeology and Mars aren't enough, Severna Park gives us (in no particular order): academic infighting, smarmy-lusty ship captains, twelve flavors of protein supplements, the first extraterrestrial McDonald's, exile, betrayal, revenge, forgeries, middens, obelisks and Alpha Centauri.

And she gives us wonderful bits about archaeology that point to both the truth and inherent humor of the profession, like:

"On Earth, the first things Althea would have looked for were the town dump and the cemetery. The wealth of civilizations eventually ended up in one place or the other."

"The Three Unknowns" hits so many of my brain-buttons on what makes for good story that reading it for the first time was like mainlining chocolate espresso beans. The fact that SCI FICTION managed to find these chocolate espresso beans and share them regularly still amazes me. I will miss the weekly jolt.

Link to story.

"Neutrino Drag" by Paul Di Filippo: An Appreciation by Claude Lalumière

"Neutrino Drag" is a campy gonzo historical mythic hard-SF drag-race comedy of Americana. It beautifully and mirthfully captures a specific time and place, a low-culture moment of twentieth-century American mythology. It's fun as all hell. It's funny as all hell. It's sorta sexy, in a high-kitsch 1950s kind of way. It plays amusing linguistic games, and its exuberant language is inseparable from the story being told. The speculative science is mind-bending. The characters are beyond peculiar. The plot is totally ridiculous, yet we joyfully fall into "Neutrino Drag"'s expertly created universe.

It's fun.

Short stories can be fun.

Paul Di Filippo stories often remind us to chill out and have fun. And that includes having fun reading Paul Di Filippo stories.

Link to story.

"All the Sounds of Fear" by Harlan Ellison: An Appreciation by CJ Hurtt

Ellison's "All The Sounds of Fear" reads not so much as a short story, but rather as a type of sermon. This shotgun blast of words and passion is aimed straight at the reader. This is Ellison doing what he does best; calling it as he sees it.

While not the strongest piece In Harlan Ellison's body of work, this story is definitely one of the most raw and terrifying. We are shown a mirror of humanity in protagonist Richard Becker. We get a peek at the life of someone who absorbs the world's madness and shows it to us, all while the audience applauds. His destruction is the result of life imitating art imitating life. He is a reflection of us at our worst and he dies without redemption, an Oedipus screaming for some light.

Link to story.

Monday, December 19, 2005

"Zora and the Zombie" by Andy Duncan: An Appreciation by Andy Wolverton

"What is the truth?"

Those are the perfect words to open Andy Duncan's "Zora and the Zombie." Truth is exactly what writer Zora Neale Hurston is looking for in 1936 Haiti, any type of truth she can use as potential story material. When she learns of a woman thirty years dead wandering a local road, Hurston knows she's found her material. (Along the way, of course, she'll find a whole lot more.)

The stunning thing about the story is that it could all be true. We know from her non-fiction book Tell My Horse that Hurston did visit Haiti, did meet "zombie" Felicia Felix-Mentor, and did become the first person to photograph one of the living dead. As for the rest of the story, if it didn't happen the way Andy Duncan writes it, it sure feels like it did.

It feels true because Andy knows his setting and characters so well. Sure, all good writers know how to make setting and character come alive, but Duncan's stories don't feel researched, they feel lived in. For all I know, Andy Duncan has observed a drum-frenzied truth ceremony, has ridden in a crowded tap-tap bumping along a dusty, pothole-ridden highway, and has probably met a coven of red-robed cannibals on an abandoned moonlit road.

Duncan latches onto historical details, savors them, and sprinkles them in exactly the right places. Even if you can't find Haiti on a map, as you read the story, you know exactly what it feels like to be there. If Andy had been around in the 1940's, I Walked with a Zombie producer Val Lewton would have no doubt hired him as a consultant.

Duncan also understands the essential relationship between setting and character. The arrogant doctor, the frightened housekeeper, the temptress Erzulie-–they're all perfect extensions of the Haitian setting. But it's Zora who's the stranger, and the story's most fascinating character. With masterful strokes, Duncan shows us Hurston's brazen confidence in the presence of the arrogant Dr. Legros, her boldness in standing toe-to-toe with a goddess, and her subtle use of sexuality to get what she wants. By the end of the story, you know this character.

Writing historical figures into fiction can be dangerous, but Duncan has previously done so in expert fashion with Abraham Lincoln ("Lincoln in Frogmore"), General George S. Patton "Fortitude"), and several others. With Zora Neale Hurston, the results are just as impressive. In the introduction to "Zora and the Zombie" in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror Eighteenth Annual Collection, Duncan states, "If this story inspires others to seek out her work, I'm happy."

Anytime a historical figure appears in a work of fiction and leaves the reader hungering to learn more, the writer has done his job. Duncan has done that and told a great story in the process. Thanks, Andy. And thanks, Ellen, for sharing it with us.

Link to story

"Light of Other Days" by Bob Shaw: An Appreciation by Graham Sleight

Dr. Manhattan, looking up at the Martian sky in Alan Moore's Watchmen (1987) reflects that all we ever see of stars are their old photographs. All sight is nostalgia; everything you know about the world is old news. You wonder if Moore, when he wrote that, was thinking of Bob Shaw's "Light of Other Days", first published in 1966, and republished on SCI FICTION after the author's death in 1996.

Many writers' work disappears from view after their death, but the speed and extent to which this has happened to Bob Shaw is particularly unjust. Shaw was a Northern Irish author whose sf career was firmly traditional; he was never drawn by the stylistic experiments of the New Wave. But he produced some of the most memorable images that modern sf has to offer: the ghostly neutrino planet within our own in A Wreath of Stars (1976), the immensities of Orbitsville (1975), and the extraordinary balloon flight between planets in The Ragged Astronauts (1986). Perhaps most famous is the opening line of "Light of Other Days": "Leaving the village behind, we followed the heady sweeps of the road up into a land of slow glass."

In a sense, this is a story that could have appeared in Galaxy a decade or two earlier. A single innovation is posited, explored, and its effects on a small group of people are described. The extrapolation-on-all-fronts that one associates with cyberpunk is not present-–and, given the story's isolated setting, nor does it need to be. The narrator and his wife are on holiday, driving through rural Scotland. The arrays of slow glass they see are there for commercial purposes. Slow glass is, simply, glass which light takes months or years to pass through. A sheet set up in the Scottish Highlands can therefore be sold to a city-dweller and provide them with years of beautiful views.

The implications of this are fascinating enough in the abstract. Would having a slow glass window in a city home be a life-enhancing piece of beauty, or a retreat from what's really outside the window? What does it mean that society commoditises the beauty of its landscapes in this way? But Shaw deals with them in the specific through the narrator, his newly-pregnant wife, and Hagan, the man who tries to sell them some slow glass. We're told, to start with, that the pregnancy has caused tension for the narrator and his wife Selina: "We, who had thought ourselves so unique, had fallen into the same biological trap as every mindless rutting creature which had ever existed." They cannot afford a child, and nor do they want one. By contrast, looking in through Hagan's cottage window, they see his wife and son playing happily. But when Selina opens the door to the living-room, she finds it "a sickening clutter of shabby furniture, old newspapers, cast-off clothing and smeared dishes. It was damp, stinking, and utterly deserted." The window was slow glass; Hagan's wife and child died in a car accident six years ago; all he has of them is the old photographs in slow glass. Shaw leaves understated at the end the obvious conclusion: that the narrator and his wife have some perspective on their future child from someone who has lost his future. "Light of Other Days" is so restrained, perfectly constructed, and so devastatingly economical (a little over three thousand words long) that moralising would be clangingly unnecessary.

Shaw later used the story as the basis for a novel, Other Days, Other Eyes (1972), pushing the implications of slow glass further--for, say, murder investigations or surveillance. But the short story is perfect in itself, a character study that could only be achieved in SF. By making a metaphor concrete, by creating a device that captures nostalgia, he has done what all writers want to: he has made the ephemeral last.

Link to story.

"The Ugly Chickens" by Howard Waldrop: An Appreciation by Rose Fox

Once upon a time, I acquired and read my first speculative fiction anthology. I have no idea, at this point, which one it was. All I remember is that it was breathtaking, world-opening, awe-inspiring. After I finally, slowly put it down, I went out to every bookstore I could find and scoured the shelves for more. Somewhere in that binge or another soon after, I came across Terry Carr's The Best Science Fiction of the Year #10 and "The Ugly Chickens" by Howard Waldrop.

When I heard about the ED SF Project, I leaped to secure the "appreciation rights" for this story, which I remembered so vividly even though I hadn't read it in years; indeed, I hadn't read it in years because I remembered it so vividly. Then I sat around for a while, trying to put into words what made it so deeply special to me. It's hard. I have to think back to a time when I didn't have fifty or so cubic feet of anthologies, because "The Ugly Chickens" was one of the four tales that pulled me in to my glorious lifelong love affair with the short story. (The other three are John Varley's "Press Enter[]" and Charles Harness's "Summer Solstice" via Carr's Best SF of the Year #14, which is still the first book I would grab if my house was on fire, and Tom Reamy's "San Diego Lightfoot Sue" in Edward Ferman's Best of F&SF #22. Most of my hopes for an afterlife center around the chance to spend an eternity at the Harp 'n' Halo Bar 'n' Grill buying drinks for these fine gentlemen, and when describing writers and editors I do not use such a term lightly.)

It sneaks up on you, that story. I reread it, and even knowing the first line and the last line and all the major points in between, it still snuck up on me. You want to say, this isn't speculative fiction; this is biographical, this is history. This is what really happened. What's this doing in a science fiction collection? There's science in it, sure, but where's the fiction? And then you read it a few more times and slowly it sinks in that it is fiction and those huge grotesque birds that he writes about with such demented love never actually pecked their way across rural America, and you find yourself mad and upset because they should have, dammit. It almost doesn't matter that the dodos are still dead. What matters is that, as stupid and absurd as they were, they never got the chance to live.

It took me a long time to understand why "The Ugly Chickens" pulled me in so strongly because I usually read for fun and I wouldn't say that my first few reads through it were fun. I had to work hard at reading it. A lot of good stories make you work for it, but usually you have some sense of what you're working for. With this one I didn't know why it was so important to keep coming back to it, but I did anyway, because something in me said that I needed to. I was, I don't know, thirteen or fourteen or something, plowing through piles of fluffy juvies and giving no thought at all to challenging myself, and "The Ugly Chickens" came along and grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and shook me until I became a better reader. I didn't even know it until I started writing this essay, but there it is.

I'm deeply grateful to Ellen Datlow for making this amazing story available to a wider audience (and to me, when I didn't feel like digging through those triple-stacked shelves for my battered old copy of Best SF of the Year #10) and to Mr. Waldrop for giving permission to do so. I had to work hard for this too, and it was worth it.

Link to story.

- Rose Fox

Friday, December 16, 2005

"Come On, Wagon" by Zenna Henderson: An Appreciation by Suzette Haden Elgin

Suppose your family includes a child with a talent that's not one of the standard culture-approved set--a talent that's inevitably going to get that child labeled with the dread word "different." Are you going to notice? If you do notice, are you going to understand that what you're perceving is a talent? Suppose you do understand; then what? What, if anything, should be done about it?

"Come On, Wagon" is a story that explores those questions. The narrator claims that he doesn't like children, but he pays enough attention to them to notice that one child--Thaddeus--is different. When Thaddeus walks away from his little toy wagon saying, "Come on, Wagon," the wagon does as it's told.

As happens all too often in this world, the other people in the story not only don't value and nurture this talent Thaddeus is gifted with, they all work together to make sure he "outgrows" it and turns out just like all the other kids. Which means that on the day years later when that talent is the one thing that could have prevented a tragedy, Thaddeus either doesn't remember how to use it, or has so thoroughly accepted the idea that what he does is impossible that he is no longer able to use it.

Unlike the narrator of "Come On, Wagon," I like children very much. And I have always valued Zenna Henderson's stories for their portrayal of the world of children (tweaked just a science-fictional tad) and of the children that inhabit that world.

It's easy to say that we human beings would like to have psibilities--talents that would let us manipulate the physical world without machines and tools. "If only I could just wiggle my fingertips and heal a broken leg . . . mend a broken chair or window . . . send a message to my friend and get one back . . . persuade a tornado to pass my household by." Those talents have a seductive allure, and we think how wonderful it would be to have them. But Zenna Henderson's stories show us clearly and vividly that with those talents would come new responsibilities and burdens and unpredictable consequences, and that perhaps our tendency to stamp out any signs of them in children is only another way of trying to protect the little ones.

"Come on, Wagon" drives home an important point: We can't arrange for those talents to be available only on the rare occasions when we suddenly perceive them as desirable. If we want them, we have to let them be there all the time, to be practiced and fine-tuned.

Many thanks to Zenna Henderson and to Ellen Datlow for this wonderful story.

Link to story.

"The Sliced-Crosswise Only-On-Tuesday World" by Philip José Farmer: An Appreciation by Danny Adams

"The Sliced-Crosswise Only-On-Tuesday World" is a simple story about . . .

Wait, this is a Philip José Farmer story we're talking about. There's nothing simple about it.

A Farmer story like this one may appear simple because there's no flashy cutting-edge-science notion(s) the narrative is built around (though it is built around a unique solution to the problem of an overcrowded population). There's no space opera, no convoluted multiple storylines requiring ten books to bring to a fireworks-filled conclusion. What it does give us is an interweave of human emotions and desires so primal we often try to pretend we are too sophisticated to have them any longer; but as we read they come just close enough to the surface for the story to grip our attention and refuse to let go.

Tom Pym lives in Tuesday. That is, he lives in a world so overcrowded that it created the need for "stoners," suspended animation chambers where you live six days out of seven so others can use your physical space during those days. Once you're set in a day, you're set. Almost. As the story's opening line says, "Getting into Wednesday was almost impossible." But it could be done—-one time only.

Tom is perfectly content with being a Tuesday until he meets the woman of his dreams-—"meets" being a relative term, considering that black-haired long-legged Jennie Marlowe is a Wednesday. Unattainable. Which, of course, makes Tom want to attain her that much more. Good sense, the restrictions of his society, having a lover already, the Brobdingnagian difficulties in having her-—even a message she leaves him saying any kind of communication between them is foolishly pointless—-make no difference to Tom. His mind is set and he will not give up on his quest.

Whether Phil Farmer intended this or not—-and I find it hard to believe he didn't, as he was too skilled a writer to place anything in his stories by accident—-several primal themes innate to humanity flow through this story like a swollen river. Lust is the most obvious—-no less for the fact that Tom knows little about Jennie save that she's an actress-—but his motivations go even more deeply than this.

There is the matter of territory. Tom has a whole planet to wander through, but only one day out of every week; and suddenly what he has, broad though it may be, is no longer big enough or good enough. He wants what is just beyond an iron veil, and the fact that he has no clue what awaits him not only is no obstacle, but a further enticement. Lust is only the first step; the next is his desire for conquest of a
forbidden land.

His desire blinds him and makes him unmindful. He has a lover he could be perfectly happy with—-or at least content—-but great heroes, for good or ill, are never content. And Tom is the archetype of the great hero in his desire for conquest, for exploration, for facing seemingly insurmountable challenges. He becomes a twisted Odysseus figure, seeking a home he has never had or known, seeking a mate who cannot be faithful to him for she was never bound to him in the first place. Tom further cripples himself when he succeeds in convincing his psycher, Doctor Sigmund Traurig, that Jennie is superior to all other women. Dr. Traurig becomes the catalyst for the undoing of Tom's designs.

Ultimately, what gives Tom the materials for being a hero—-strength, determination, perseverance—-also prove to be his tragic flaws. He succeeds in changing his life irrevocably but allows his world to be yanked out from under him. And in the end Farmer deals with the bitter theme of permanent exile, as Tom finds himself in a world that resembles his own almost exactly, yet is totally alien.

Anyone who has ever been lucky enough to enjoy a long conversation with Phil Farmer knows he will start his end with deceptive simplicity, then build onto it layer by layer-—but with practiced, almost hidden ease—-until you not only find yourself led by the skilled hand of a grand master, but also diving in far deeper waters than you ever imagined. This story, like most if not all of Farmer's other works, is the same way. When you are finished reading you realize you have experienced a great deal more of an adventure than the words on the surface of the pages initially revealed.

And of course, "The Sliced-Crosswise Only-On-Tuesday World" is the prequel for the Dayworld trilogy, set some thirteen-hundred (normal, not divided by seven) years later, a series that was one of my earliest and best exposures to Farmer's works . . . but that's another appreciation.

So thank you, Phil Farmer, for decades of wonderful storytelling that found something to grip in each and every one of us. And thanks to Ellen Datlow and the Sci Fi Channel for their years of bringing us the masters through SCI FICTION!

Link to story.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

"Boys" by Carol Emshwiller: An Appreciation by Jenn Reese

When we're learning to write, many of our teachers tell us to imbue our stories with details. It's not a car, it's a beat-up Civic. They're not pants, they're a pair of paint-stained Levi's with a rip in the back left pocket and a guacamole stain on the right knee. Details, we are told, will allow our readers to connect more with our stories, will anchor them, will give them substance.

How does Carol Emshwiller do it, then? "Boys" contains only a few details, only a few names, only the barest hints about time and place. We can't tell if it's science fiction or fantasy. If anything, it's timeless and placeless, capable of existing anywhere and anywhen. But instead of distancing the reader, this absence of detail serves to magnify the themes that Emshwiller is exploring. Nothing distracts, dilutes, or distances the reader from the story and its lessons.

Two armies of men exist in the mountains on either side of a valley. The women live in villages between them and bear sons and daughters for both sides, though their sons are always stolen to join the war effort. The men have been fighting so long, no one even knows how it started. The women, however, have decided to end it--no matter what the price.

The story reminds me of the Dar Williams song "When I Was a Boy." Both deal with gender roles, and what humanity loses when we deny ourselves the full range of experiences. Emshwiller's story takes this idea to extremes, but they're terrifyingly believable extremes. Every time I see a little boy playing with a GI Joe action figure, I think of "Boys."

I want to thank Ellen Datlow and all the folks at SCI FICTION for making Carol Emshwiller's work accessible to the world for free. I've never read an Emshwiller story that hasn't made me think, that hasn't enriched my life in some way. In this, I'm sure I'm not alone.

Link to story.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

"The Stare" by John Wyndham: An Appreciation by Gavin J. Grant

Reviewers have to review. Editors have to fill their pages (paper or otherwise). Writers (apparently) have to write. And the profusion of books shops happily supplying their addicted customers perfectly illustrates that readers have to read.

But no one, reviewer, editor, writer, or reader had to go back, dig into the archives, find a loved or admired story (or one that nagged, or a new story, fresh, still sparkling, or...) and take the time out of their busy lives to write about it.

SCI FICTION and this project embody what to me is one of the best parts of the internet: the continued availability of these works (although I hadn't realized quite so many of the older stories had been taken down); the community of readers and writers and the equalization of same; and the ability to look backward into the archive and forward into the future--every week when a new story was posted.

Many of my favorite writers have stories on SCI FICTION. So many that I thought I wouldn't be able to choose. If I were to write about Ray Vukcevich, what about Carol Emshwiller? If Jeff Ford what about Suzy McKee Charnas? Terry Bisson? C.M. Kornbluth, Ursula Le Guin, Maureen McHugh, Octavia E. Butler? Kessel. Rowe? Butner? Duncan, Waldrop, Tiptree, Fowler, Rickert? Ad (almost) infinitum. No matter, there are many readers and many writers and the fun is in the choosing of something, not necessarily a personal best, but something enjoyed, something worth pointing to.

So to John Wyndham's "The Stare" a brief, satisfying club tale with a tiny unexpected bump at the end. Wyndham was a teenage favorite. (I'd love to add his novel The Chrysalids to our Peapod Classics reprint line.) The only problem I had was that he published under so many variations of his name (John Beynon Harris, sometimes with a Lucas thrown in) and that some of his books were published under more than one title so that I could never quite be sure if I had read all of them. What I would have done then for the SCI FICTION Author Biography and Bibliography!

Though slight, "The Stare" embodies much of what is wonderful in Wyndham's writing. He instantly establishes the tenor of his characters--passing time at the club, half-bored but ready to listen--and then takes us off into another story. His writing is full of great descriptions--although this one is more familiar now than it may have been to readers when the story was first published in The Daily Express in 1932:

"By day the subway is a mass of men and women all apparently ten minutes behind time, but late at night it echoes with a dreary desolation, and the trains seem to rattle and crash indecently through a world more than half dead."

Ellen Datlow's SCI FICTION was an invaluable resource for readers. Not only could readers explore the work of new writers, SCI FICTION also worked as a filter through which piles of ancient paperbacks, pulps, and magazines passed through and delightful stories such as "The Stare" emerged to be enjoyed by new readers. I hope that SCI FICTION will relaunch with Ellen at the helm (I hope for world peace first, though) or that she can find another venue to do the same wonderful job.

Should the SCI FICTION archives ever disappear, "The Stare" may still be available here.

Link to story.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

"Abimagique" by Lucius Shepard: An Appreciation by Sue Lange

There is never any reason not to read Lucius Shepard.

Take "Abimagique" for instance. If this had been written by anybody else, about a sixth of the way through the story, I would have been saying: okay, it's a male fantasy story that stars a hypnotizing seductress that is just impossible to resist and that eats him in the end. Yeah, like I've never seen this before. And I would read no further. Why would I bother? But it was Lucius Shepard this time and since his endings are never predictable, I stuck it out. And you know what? I was right; his endings are never predictable. As much as I'd like to tell what happened this time, I can't. Why not? Because I'm a thoughtful citizen that knows it's not nice to spoil? No, I'm not nice, in fact. It's because as usual with Lucius Shepard, I don't exactly know what happened in the end. And by the time I figure it out, I will have forgotten the URL for this project and so won't be able to ruin it for everyone else.

Suffice it to say, Mr. Shepard's writing is as great here as it always is. I read some writers' work to get the gist or the plot or the moral. I read Shepard's work just because it's so wonderful. The stuff flows and once I get into it I can't step out, I can't turn and go upstream, I can only go with it. His work is like the hypnotizing seductress that even as you watch yourself falling further and further under her spell, you can't resist. And in the end you'll be eaten. Well, maybe not that, but you do sort of get knocked for a loop.

Fabulous story.

Link to story.

"Wetlands Preserve" by Nancy Kress: An Appreciation by David B. Coe

I didn't exactly go out on a limb in choosing to comment on Nancy Kress's wonderful short story, "Wetlands Preserve." Nancy has been, deservedly, a legend in speculative fiction since well before I published my first novel. I won't presume to critique this story, except to say that it exemplifies all that is compelling and admirable about science fiction. It presents, eloquently and with powerful understatement, a simple tale of first contact. A vessel from another world has crashed in the middle of an Upstate New York nature preserve, and it falls to a cadre of scientists, including graduate student Lisa Jackson, to learn what they can about the new life form that has established itself in the wetlands.

This isn't a story of invasion in the usual sense of the word. There are no battles, no technologically advanced weapons, no blood-thirsty aliens intent on taking control of our world. There's a place for such stories, of course. But Nancy is trying to do something different here; this story is smaller than that, and at the same time grander. This is about one woman's attempt to make sense of the incomprehensible, to bring morality to the unconscionable, to impose order on the ever-growing chaos of what passes for normal human existence.

The details of Lisa's troubled personal life--her daily struggle to care for a severely disabled child, the increasing pressures of her research position, the sudden reappearance of her charismatic but dangerous ex-lover--are far more than a backdrop for the rest of the story. In Nancy Kress's hands, Lisa's trials and the fate of the creatures who have come to inhabit the Kenton Wetlands merge into a quiet, desperate tale that finds coherence without falling into cliché.

I could go on, but I won't. Do yourself a favor and read the story for yourself. As I said earlier, no one will be surprised that I've found so much to admire in Nancy's story. Indeed, the only thing less surprising than the quality of "Wetlands Preserve," is the fact that it was Ellen Datlow who found it for us, who made it available to the world. That is Ellen's gift; it's the reason why so many of us find the end of SCI FICTION so disturbing. We depend upon Ellen to find us great stories. Perhaps we'd even taken for granted the notion that she'd always have a forum for doing so. No doubt she will again, and soon. But SCI FICTION was Ellen's through and through. The quality of the fiction she published there, the professionalism of the site, the privilege afforded to those of us fortunate enough to work with her--those things will be difficult to replace.

The decision to end SCI FICTION should give pause to all of us in the industry. If Ellen Datlow's site isn't safe, can any site or publication be? If stories as good as "Wetlands Preserve" can't convince the suits to choose literature over profit, what can? Difficult, troubling questions, but ones we have to answer, not simply for Ellen's sake, as she herself would be the first to point out, but for the sake of all who love speculative fiction.

Link to story.

"The View from Endless Scarp" by Marta Randall: An Appreciation by Pat Lundrigan

It starts off simply enough: the last human spaceship is taking off from a dead world. But wait! Someone's been left behind. Her reactions are what you'd expect, but it turns out she planned on staying behind, and only when the ship took off did she have her moment of doubt. Why Markowitz stayed behind, and what happens to her, left on a world that is nothing more than a failed terraforming project, is the story.

I read this story when it originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The late 70's was my "golden age" of science fiction. I had started by reading I, Robot and other books by Asimov. Then I found out that those wonderful Science Fiction magazines as described in The Early Asimov still existed, and could be found for sale at newsstands, drugstores, and even supermarkets. I started buying them, and in a Christmas gift to rival a Daisy Red Rider BB gun with a compass in the stock, my sister gave me a one-year subscription to F&SF. That was my yearly gift for a few years, until my interest in SF waned. I still kept all those magazines, though.

Flash forward several years, past college, past work, past several apartments. Clutter had finally caught up with me, and I was throwing out junk with reckless abandon to make more room. In the hall closet was a box, full of those magazines from the late 70's. I was on the verge of chucking the entire lot into the dumpster when I picked out the June 1978 issue of F&SF and looked at the table of contents. "The View from Endless Scarp" was in that issue. And I remembered it. Remembered Markowitz's journey down Endless Scarp across the desert to search for Thompson, and her struggles with the native, Kre'e. "Wow!" I thought, "can't throw this out!" A few more looks through the pile revealed more gems, more stories that I remembered almost 20 years after reading them. I kept that box of old SF magazines. And I'm glad I did, because when my interest in SF was rekindled a few years ago, and I went right to the stories that got hooked in the first place.

And that's what SCI FICTION has been for me. A place where I could not only read the latest SF, but also a source of the good old stuff (classics, in other words)--stories from a few or more years ago, but still good stories.

"The View from Endless Scarp" stands the test of time. It is an example of good SF not because it has groundbreaking ideas or prose crammed full of eyeball kicks, but because it is a character story, about character that is memorable, and one who we can know and feel for.

I'll miss the "Classics" section of SCI FICTION. Ellen Datlow has chosen some of her favorite stories, and brought to the forefront stories that might otherwise never have been read. But don't despair. You might have a box of old magazines or books in your closet. And there's always used bookstores. But, for a brief while, it was nice to able to find some of the good old stuff right on your computer.

Link to story.

Monday, December 12, 2005

"New Light on the Drake Equation" by Ian R. Macleod: an appreciation by Niall Harrison

A couple of my friends have a t-shirt that says:

they lied to us
this was supposed to be the future
where is my jetpack
where is my robotic companion
where is my dinner in pill form
where is my hydrogen fueled automobile
where is my nuclear powered levitating house

where is my cure for this disease

It's funny because it's true. You could add moonbases and teleporters to the list, and a dozen other things that science fiction made us believe were just around the corner. But it lied to us; that future will never happen. Ian R. Macleod's beautiful novella 'New Light on the Drake Equation', first published at SCI FICTION in May 2001, takes that truth of modern life and makes it hurt. It is an elegy for a genre that believed in its dreams.

Tom Kelly is an old man, living in a shabby hut on the side of a mountain in France, listening to the sky, in a twenty-first century where twentysomethings twist their bodies with genetic engineering, growing scales or wings, becoming 'bright alien insects'. He's the last and forgotten advocate of SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, waiting for a message from the stars, trapped behind the bars of his life's choices, alcoholic and alone. He grew up a science fiction fan, and lives in a world where sf is as archaic as fairytale, extinguished by 'the real and often quite hard to believe present'. He listens. He waits. He longs. He is, it is hard not to think, one of us.

Every first Wednesday of the month, he rattles down his mountain into St Hilaire, to collect his post. On this particular Wednesday--actually a Thursday; he's got his days mixed up--his first piece of mail is from Sally Normanton, at the University of Aston in Birmingham, telling him the University is withdrawing its funding for his project. It's no use trying to argue; Sally grew up on Clarke and Asimov too, she understands. It's just policy. Nobody believes in anything but the most pessimistic interpretation of the Drake Equation, that calculation to estimate the number of intelligent and communicating species in our galaxy, any more. If they're out there, we should have heard from them by now.

Out of the corner of his eye, across the market, he catches a glimpse of a memory; and later, back up on the mountain, above the bustle of the French town, the memory comes to visit him. Terr, a woman he once made a leap to love. Tom pulls out the bottle of Santernay le Chenay 2058 he's been saving for First Contact, and they sit outside, and look upwards, and Tom remembers: decades earlier, back in Birmingham, when he was an American scientist abroad, and she was desperately in love with the world and everything in it. "How can two people be so different, and so right for each other?" Tom wonders. So right, but perhaps not right enough. After a time they drift apart, Tom's innate conservatism at odds with Terr's addiction to experience. She grows wings and, later, goes to the moon; he, ironically, would never do either.

'New Light on the Drake Equation' is a lovingly crafted story. Sentence by sentence, Macleod is as good at layering mood as any writer I can think of, and his future is subdued but enthralling. The story is, as I said, an elegy, so the predominant tone is one of melancholy and regret, but the glimpses of hope and possibility are as carefully portrayed, and as moving. It is also a story about what happens when nothing happens; about how it feels to wait through 'a slowly roaring beat of city silence', or any silence; about how it feels to have the future wash over you while you're still lost in the past. And, as you may be able to tell, it is the sort of story that lends itself to grand poetic statements about its achievements. Every time I re-read it, I'm left a little dazed, a little dazzled--which sounds, for a story that is in an up-front and important sense, about that thing we call science fiction and about its relationship to the world, a little ridiculous. Who mourns for a jetpack?

But it's not ridiculous, not at all, because what the story uses the subject of science fiction to question is how dreams drive us, and how we cope when we lose them. It's something that almost everyone has to face. It's the question raised in The Great Gatsby, except that where F. Scott Fitzgerald would persuade us there is something admirable about Gatsby's obsession, Macleod presents Tom Kelly as neutral. Gatsby attempts to make his dream come true; Tom doesn't have that option, but he does everything in his power to make sure he'll be listening when the message comes in. Tom is Gatsby, facing forwards but pulled backwards, forty years older rather than gunned down in a blaze of melodrama, not longing any less but perhaps admitting to himself, somewhere deep down, that his dream is dead. More than that, perhaps fearing that it wasn't worth spending the best part of his life on for no return; maybe even suspecting that it did more harm than good, left him less prepared for the future, not more. They are, these two, both particularly American dreamers. (And of course, a lot of science fiction is a particularly American dream.)

And then Terr comes to visit. It seems too convenient, and it is. Tom and Terr drink all night, remembering and arguing together, but as the dawn comes, Terr fades. The stars shine through her, and she's gone.

Oh, we want to believe. We want to believe this is science fiction, not just a dream--no. It is science fiction; there are men on Mars, and flying over the Lake District. What we want is hope. To believe again in the science fiction we've lost, which is to say that we want to believe what every person wants to believe: that we are not alone. We want to believe that Tom Kelly drank his Santernay le Chenay on the night of First Contact, not for the sake of a drunken dream. Not that dreaming made him drink.

Tom lets himself believe, perhaps, for a moment. Watching Terr leave, 'all he felt was a glorious, exquisite sense of wonder' (and never has that phrase had such a sharp edge). The day comes and the wonder recedes, but that moment sustains him, for a while at least. He cleans himself up, starts selling SETI merchandise--including t-shirts--at the market in St Hilaire. It's an ambiguous ending at best, leaving us considering whether it's a turning point or a hollow reprieve, but:

He's Tom Kelly, after all.
And this might be the night.
He's still listening, waiting.

As are we.

Link to story.

"Rocket Fall" by David Prill: An Appreciation by David Herter

1. The Fall of the Painships

Rocket Fall by David Prill. . .
Rocket Fall by David Prill. . .
Rocket Fall by David Prill. . .

Welcome children of the night to the darkest hour of "Rocket Fall" by David Prill. "Rocket Fall" by David Prill, where David Prill clocks Bradbury on the back of the head (with reel six of Roger Corman's Fall of the House of Usher, no less), and the concussion rings with dark and terrible delights. "Rocket Fall" by David Prill, where the pathos of The Marquis De Sade meets the dramaturgy of The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. "Rocket Fall" by David Prill, where David Prill pours us a cocktail of dandelion wine laced with pure bang-up psilocybin--

. . . . .

Obsequious adulation shunted into venting port?


Canny valuation monitors set to proper post-Bradbury slash post-Ballard slash post-post-Lovecraft mode?


Vaporous internet text saved to local hard drive?


. . . . .

"Good evening, folks, and Praise Madeline. We're broadcasting live at the burial of "Rocket Fall" by David Prill near the shores of Lake Tenebrae. Mere moments from now, an aetheric cartridge holding its remains will be laid atop this kerosene-soaked wooden raft, nudged into the ebon serene waters and there set ablaze by our own Mike Sanders, who is standing by in the Madeline-Live-at-Five news copter. Mike, can you hear me?"

"I certainly can, Ger-- I--"

"Mike? Hello, Mike, your signal dropped out there."

"Yeah, Gerald. We're experiencing some interference from the various manifestations in the Lake waters this afternoon. I'm sending you live-feed now of the gathering. Do you--"

"Yes, yes, Mike, we're receiving it. Would you look at that."

"On a normal commute day we never see anything like this, of course. The manifestations rarely rise near the surface. And now--yeah, right there, Jim, point it at one o'clock. Gerald, you can see a flock of Demon-Jacknapes breaching the waves, just a mile or so off-shore."

"Wow, quite a sight. Mike, are those tentacles?"

"Yeah, the orifices have opened up, and yes, those are tentacles. As I think we all learned--whoa, hold on, Jim--uh, as I think we all learned in elementary pain school, one doesn't see those tentacles and escape with one's mind intact. I don't have the quote entirely, um, praise Madeline."

"Mike? I'm being told by Deborah, our producer, that it's 'look upon. . .' Yes, I'll have Deb say it--"

"Hi, Mike. It goes 'Look upon the dread Chtonic visage and feel the weight of countless loathsome universes shatter the very fabric of your mind.' That's why I don't swim in Lake Tenebrae."

"Thanks, Deb."

"Gerald, as you can see, those tentacles are snapping at the air, trying to get at my copter. What they really want, of course, is the aetheric cartridge . . ."

"And that's as good a segue as any, Mike. Thanks. So now we'll go out to Dee Pegs, who's spent the day with the short story in question as it was being prepared. Dee?"

"Thanks, Gerald. This is Dee Pegs standing beside the aetheric cartridge. Or, rather, standing as close as I can get without breaching its aetheric field, which has now been turned on, Gerald."

"Ah, that's an important milestone, Dee. We've been waiting for it."

"And I . . . if I could get Dr. Dark from the Roderick Institute to say a word or two. Dr. Dark, are you somewhere in the procedure where you could talk to the Madeline-Live-at-Five viewers?"

"Oh. Hello. Uh, no, not really."

"Very briefly, Dr. Dark. Turning on the aetheric field is a big step in preparing the story for burial, isn't it?"

"Indeed. The story has been put to rest. It is now for all intents and purposes dormant, and at peace."

"Doctor, we’ve had reports that Demon-Jacknapes have surfaced in Lake Tenebrae. What problems do they pose for the proper burial of the aetheric cartridge?"

"They should pose no problem. They'll have plenty of competition in devouring it."

"I'm being. . . yes, I understand, I'm being told by your assistant that you have to return to the task. Let me just get one last point in, Doctor: Now that the story is being 'put to rest,' as you call it, there will in fact be little rest for it? Is that the case?"

"Absolutely, my dear. It will most certainly be digested in many dimensions for countless millennia, fueling the very aetheric Nature that surrounds us."

"Doctor, did you have a favorite line from the story?"

"I simply cannot offer a comment. Thank you. Farewell."

"Thank you, Doctor. Gerald, I think everything's ready over here. I see that the band is about to strike up, and, wow, that Sousaphone player seems super-thrilled at the prospect, doesn't he?"

"Yes, he certainly does. Do you have a favorite line you'd like to mention, Dee?"

"I do, Gerald. I hurt inside."

"That's a good one, Dee. I think we all hurt inside, ever since losing Baron Armstrong and his beloved Madeline. What about you, Deb? Oh--wait--yes, they're now levitating the story onto the burial raft. Mike, how close are those Jacknapes to shore?"

"They seem a bit timid, Gerald. They're not lovers of band music, of course, and I think they sense what's coming. They shouldn't interfere with the actual launching of the raft, at least."

"Well, don't take any chances. Deb, favorite line? Favorite moment?"

"Any mention of lee–-"

"Your, uh. Wait. Did you catch that, folks? Deb's microphone cut out. She says, 'Any mention of lederhosen.' The interference, the aetheric interference, is rising as the moment approaches. As you can all see, the aetheric cartridge has been settled onto the raft, and yes, they've begun nudging the raft down toward the water. And yes, there's the music. Wow. A beautiful yet sad sight, praise Madeline. I must admit, I never read the story myself, but others have told me--Mike, you read it, didn't you?"

"I waited too long, Gerald. I regret that, now. When I get home from work I find myself sticking to TV. And I've never enjoyed reading on a computer screen. Too hard on the eyes. Anyway, Jim's read it. Jim, you loved it, right? Yep, Gerald, he's giving me the thumbs up, he absolutely loved it, and says that he will miss it desperately. And he agrees with Dee on that line. It's a plum."

"Well, folks, why don't we just watch, and listen, and take in all that this day has to offer. I see the sun is setting over the lake, casting a blood-red band of brilliance over those ebon waters. I'm going to stop jabbering now, and spend a moment experiencing this truly wonderful and terribly sad event along with you at home."

Link to story.

David Herter is the author of Ceres Storm and Evening's Empire. Forthcoming is On the Overgrown Path, from PS Publishing.

"Periodic Table of Science Fiction" by Michael Swanwick: An Appreciation by Greg van Eekhout

In the Periodic Table of Science Fiction, Michael Swanwick gives us 118 very short stories, each based on different element. He pulls off these flash pieces like a street magician flinging scarves and rabbits from his sleeves. He makes it look effortless, as though he could do this all day, dispensing an endless store of heavy metals and halogens and alkalis with spark and energy and mordant humor.

He gives us a punk barbarian princess, the Devil in Las Vegas, a Superman reluctant to face the consequences of knocking up Lois Lane, a sentient starship, a radioactive basement monster . . . and these are just the noble gases. Swanwick's table is a dazzling performance, a pyrotechnic display from a nimble imagination.

Since their appearance at SCI FICTION, these stories have appeared in an attractive print volume, but I prefer them in their original online format. Ellen Datlow presents to us a kind of interactive story device, and it's simply fun to click on the familiar-looking table, not knowing if what shows up in the little pop-up window will be a story about a reincarnated talking mule, an insidious toothpaste conspiracy, or a chilling account of the real reason the Hindenburg exploded. Online, the table becomes more than an accumulation of stories. It becomes a new thing, one that engages the reader in a new way, and short of shipping to each reader a box with 118 compartments, it's hard to think of a way the presentation could be duplicated, let alone improved upon.

Michael Swanwick's Periodic Table of Science Fiction is an innovative marriage of form and fiction. It's a fabulous toy to play with. Ellen Datlow is owed thanks for bringing it to us.

Link to story.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

"The Mouse" by Fredric Brown: An Appreciation by Gary Alan Wassner

Timelessness. The timelessness of the fantastic is what strikes me so profoundly. The mind can only bridge certain gaps, and those are so narrow in the scope of things that it's really quite scary. So what do we do when we can't make that leap from mystery to comprehension? We write science fiction and fantasy.

This story could have been written yesterday. We haven't come any closer today to understanding what form an extraterrestrial might take than we were in 1949 when Fredric Brown wrote this. But that's what so marvelous about this kind of writing. The imagination has to govern the way a story is shaped, not facts. And where do we get the food for these thoughts? We tap into what mystifies us all; how small we are. Writing about aliens reminds us of just how little we do know and it humbles us. Presidents and scientists, Prime Ministers and Generals, ordinary people, all blend into one another, lose their independence, their distinguishing characteristics, when juxtaposed against the unknown, the limitlessness of what we don't know. Stories like this one, simple, well told, personal stories just like this, serve as the great equalizers, the most effective means of leveling the playing field, egalitarian in all respects. In the face of the unknown, we are merely human. In the face of the unknown, we are tiny, tiny creatures, struggling to make sense out of a limitless universe that we can never truly embrace with our minds. In the face of the unknown we can only dance and sing . . . and write fantastic fiction.

Link to story.

Gary Alan Wassner

"You Go Where It Takes You" by Nathan Ballingrud: An Appreciation by Lucius Shepard

"He did not look like a man who would change her life. He was big, roped with muscles from working on offshore oil rigs, and tending to fat. His face was broad and inoffensively ugly, as though he had spent a lifetime taking blows and delivering them. He wore a brown raincoat against the light morning drizzle and against the threat of something more powerful held in abeyance. He breathed heavily, moved slowly, found a booth by the window overlooking the water, and collapsed into it. He picked up a syrup-smeared menu and studied it with his whole attention, like a student deciphering Middle English. He was like every man who ever walked into that little diner. He did not look like a beginning or an end."

This, the opening of "You Go Where It Takes You," is handled with such deft economy and elegance, it's easy to go right past it and not notice everything it achieves. Which is how things should be. You read a story, you don't analyze it. Nevertheless, for anyone interested in writing, the mechanics and structure of this superb paragraph merit some brief analysis.

As with many great openings, it is a story unto itself and has a circularity that mimicks and presages the circle drawn by the larger story. It is packed with information. It tells us who this man and woman are by describing the woman's observance of the man and her estimation of his worth in her eyes. We know at once that these are working people, people who have risen or sunk to, or were born into the working class; they have both been worn down by their experience of the world. We know the woman has a jaundiced view of men--the negative, distant manner with which she sums him up tells us that. They don't expect much of one another, yet we have the idea that their lack of expectation will lead to trouble, because they're the kind of people for whom trouble is an inevitablity, a break in the monotony, no more to be feared than the passage of another empty day.

The prose reads easily and we don't register that we know these things, but the knowledge is there, embedded in the words, released from them by the passage of our eyes across the page. It's there in the noirish tone and the sentences used to generate it. All the sentences but one begin with the word, "He"; the single anomalous sentence begins with "His." This gives unusual weight to the subjective pronouns and lends the sentences a rhythm and a punch they might not have without that repetition. It's as if the reader is being cautioned, as if the author, beneath the surface of the words, is warning through the medium of the stressed pronouns that, "You better beware. You better hang on, because this isn't going to be a smooth ride. You might just hear something you won't like, and learn something you don't want to." The sentences, their aggressive rhythms, have the effect of probing blows, like the jabs a fighter uses to set up his right hand. Indeed, the whole story is a big; it turns on an actual blow. And you, the reader, are being set up for the ending, which will--like a shot to the bundle of nerves in the solar plexus--leave you sagging and helpless, painfully aware.

Wonderfully observed, concisely narrated, the story tells of Toni, a single mom, a waitress, and Alex, an ex-oil rig worker, now a drifter, who come together in a small Gulf Coast town in Louisiana. They meet, they become casual lovers, and then Alex shows Toni something that smacks of insanity, something to do with masks, with identity. Witnessing it sets a lit match to Toni's own desperation and craziness, and drives her to an almost unthinkable act. Beneath the honest, authentic, straightforward craft of the story's surface lies a scrambled circuitry of derangement and indifference . . . the fundamental indifference that permits us to live while around us, whether close at hand or far away, horrible crimes are perpetrated and terrible sins are being committed. Alex's crime, which seems at first to be implausible, an element in a horror movie, is given plausibility by the real horror and utter human-ness of Toni's sin, her indifference. The story ends abruptly. Too abruptly, you think. It's like listening to jukebox that gets accidentally unplugged before the song ends. There should be a fade, a crescendo, something. But then, as you think more about it--and you will continue to think about it--you realize that nothing meaningful can happen to Alex and Toni past the moment the story ends, and the ending, jagged, truncated, is dead-on perfect.

Nathan Ballingrud worked as a bartender in New Orleans, a platform that's a great vantage from which to view desperation and derangement, and he has used his experience to good end. I don't know how long it took him to write the story or, for that matter, the opening, Sometimes these things come as gifts to a writer and seem to flow from the brain fully formed; sometimes what appears effortless is the product of a month's grinding. Whichever, it was well worth the trouble. Reading "You Go Where It Takes You" reminded me of something I had lost track of in my own writing, and I'm grateful for that. But more pertinently, it's tremendous story and I'm priviledged to celebrate Nathan and his work. That he has written such an impressive piece so early in his career announces the arrival of a significant talent.

Link to story.

"Song of the Black Dog" by Kit Reed: An Appreciation by Gregory Frost

This is such an exemplary Kit Reed story, written in a kind of helix around the core idea, which shares certain characteristics with Philip K. Dick stories--in particular that man who doesn't know why he knows what he knows, doesn't know how to find out, and so becomes a displaced film-noir character who never manages to get ahead of the plot he's caught up in, and who is, in effect, always wrong.

"If the wonder dog is just a dog, then the police department are money-grubbing charlatans and the exposé will move him from unemployed to famous."

I had a character in a story a few years ago who approached things similarly—-with delusions of how he could expose something and make a big name for himself. He was likewise out of his depth. Perhaps that's part of the appeal for me.

Here, as she often does, Kit approaches the story obliquely, edge-on, in a kind of literary anamorphosis, in which you have to find the perspective, view it from the right vantage, and assemble the mosaic yourself, the final picture is greater, always greater, than the sum of the parts. It's all there but significant pieces are left out, selectively, and in such a way that the story will go on threading its pathway through your brain long after you reach the end. It's why I still seek out Kit Reed stories decades after I encountered my first one. How lovely is that?

It's also science fiction in a wrapper of mythological inference: a future not far from now but with hints, images and notions of Hades, of Cerberus, of Death personified. The dog that can identify who will live and who will die is Death; by pointing out the living, he defines the dead. Dog and man meet underground, in a labyrinth beneath a theater. The story, so invested, invites me, as engaged reader, to bring something to it--in this case, from a reading awhile back, a recollection of Ephyra in Greece, a place considered in antiquity to be one of the gateways to the realm of the dead, where archaeologists have uncovered a substantial subterranean labyrinth that conforms with Homer's description, in the Odyssey, of the Halls of Hades.

Siefert, the man, and the supernatural dog meet in the underworld, and become thus two figures out of myth—the one charged with knowing the dead, the other unaware that this power, like a torch, will pass to him, because he's too busy dreaming of fame and fortune to see what's really there. It's a wonderful encounter. The world assumes the dog is some genetic fluke, a mutation; it can’t imagine the truth of the animal that the author presents anymore than Siefert can.

"You're not the agent I would have chosen," the dog tells the man, understanding his power, his purpose, his fate; the human, on the cusp of inheriting all, still doesn't get it right up till the last paragraph. The epiphany in the story belongs to the dog. The man, in the end, has fallen into his fate but seems none the wiser for it.

"Siefert understands. Grimacing with unspeakable pain, he turns. Goes inside. Sits down in front of a network vice president."

In this one final paragraph, Kit delivers the killer blow. What the dog has known as its existence the man recognizes as almost unbearable. The death of his predecessor is added to his knowledge along with the power itself. Now, if we can just get him to sit in front of Rupert Murdoch . . . .

Link to story.

Gregory Frost is the author of the short story collection Attack of the Jazz Giants & Other Stories from Golden Gryphon Press.