The ED SF Project

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

Thursday, November 17, 2005

"Men Without Bones" by Gerald Kersh: An Appreciation by Sarah Monette

Like that of the scorpion, the sting of "Men without Bones" is in its tail.

The story resembles Heart of Darkness, in that it is an uneasy meditation on the relationship between 'civilized men' and 'lesser creatures'--also in that as the narrator, the unfortunately but oh-so-appropriately named Goodbody, penetrates deeper into the jungle, he becomes increasingly alienated from himself. "I saw him get lost!" he says of his expedition leader, Professor Yeoward, and it is only much later that we realize what kind of 'lost' Goodbody means. Kersh literalizes this alienation, this losing of the self, brilliantly with the final revelation, as Goodbody (and by extension the frame narrator, and by further extension, the reader) is alienated not only from his society, but from his cosmology. Goodbody's identity has been stripped away from him piece by piece, just as he loses his supplies, piece by piece, in his struggle to re-emerge from the jungle: his superiority as a 'civilized' man, his courage as a scientist, now, finally his right to call Earth his home. The sudden revelation of the twist ending has all the stately inevitability of the moment of anagnoresis and peripeteia, recognition and reversal, in Greek tragedy.

This alienation of man from his epistemological self is coupled with the alienation of man from his physical self. Even before we learn Goodbody's name, we are told that his hands remind the frame narrator of "that gray, hairy, bird-eating spider." And thus the name itself strikes a discordant note; Goodbody's body is clearly not a good body.

We are thus prepared, sensitized, for the horror of the "little fat men without bones," a horror which does not depend so much on their power--"You can kill them with your boot, or with a stick," Goodbody says, just as the Nicaraguan boy kills the spider with his bare foot--as on their visceral loathsomeness, their scent and texture, the literal, physical nausea they inspire. Man's civilized self is of no use here: "I told him that ... although I pretended to be a man of science with a
detached mind, nothing would induce me ever to touch one of the things again." And for all Yeoward's bluster about science, he cannot bring himself to touch the creature either.

Kersh evokes the repulsive nature of the men without bones to such vivid effect that the final reversion to cosmology catches us off-guard, leaving us defenseless before the horror of the closing line as our world-view is wrested away from us and turned upside down. "Those boneless things are men. We are Martians!" It's hard to describe how brutally effective that sucker-punch is. Just for a moment, the Other--and surely the men without bones are one of the most chilling examples of the Other in modern short fiction--holds up a mirror and shows us our own face.

Link to story.

"Scribble Mind" by Jeffrey Ford: An Appreciation by Jeremy Tolbert

"Scribble Mind" by Jeffrey Ford was one of the first serious Nebula/World Fantasy/Hugo award contenders that I read this year. It's an emotionally affecting story dealing with themes of love, art, memory, and perhaps most of all, obsession--a theme that I find fascinating no matter how many times it is visited. It's a prime example of the kind of complex and rich story for which SCIFICTION came to be known.

One aspect of "Scribble Mind" uses artists as a lens for the examination of obsession. The narrator's friend and eventual romantic interest, Esme, has become obsessed with a child's scribble she has seen many times since in unexpected places, even in the art of a popular avant garde artist. The story is set in the mid-80s, and Esme is doing pioneering work in computer generated artwork, but her real motivation is using computers to attempt to understand this seemingly child-like scribble pattern. And she has made a startling discovery about its mathematics.

It isn't long before Esme's obsession with the scribble and its possibilities infect the narrator. To discuss the story much further, I'm going to need to spoil one crucial element:

Esme's theory is that the scribble is a kind of secret handshake among a cabal of individuals who can remember life inside their mother's womb. They decide that they will use the pattern to draw out one of those who can "remember" by Esme pretending to be able to remember herself, in order to confirm Esme's theory and to learn what other secrets the scribble contains. Unfortunately, there are others trying to find the rememberers too--but for nefarious, even commercial reasons.

Woven into this tale are the growing feelings that the narrator has for Esme. Anyone who has ever had a friendship that they wished would evolve into something more will sympathize with the narrator here. The story captures that mixture of confusion and desire excellently, and it brings him to life for me. This is important, because the story is told in a kind of wistful, nostalgic tone, by a character wiser in years looking back on a particularly exciting part of his life. Nothing so exciting has happened to him since.

If this was all there was to "Scribble Mind," it would be a good story. It is the ending of the story which elevates this story from good to excellent. It's untidy, and ties together the nostalgic tone with the overarching theme of obsession. So often, obsession can turn inward on itself and become delusion. I left the story with an ache no doubt shared by the narrator.

The themes are broad and easily accessible, and the idea of a secret society living out in the open is a powerful one that many writers have utilized. Also powerful: the central MacGuffin of being able to remember what it was like inside the womb, and the idea that the scribble could some how evoke that feeling. Not only is this a society that hides itself, it is a society that hides a secret of the human experience that we are all born knowing, but for some reason, most of us forget. One might hypothesize that mankind's deep yearning for cosmic knowledge stems from this lost secret of life within our mothers, in that tiny space of time when we are alive. Birth is that other great shared experience. Much has been written on our obsessions with death, but I have read very little about that time before. Here, Ford is mining priceless material.

Perhaps the masterstroke is that Ford's story evokes a pervading sense of loss. It allows us to sympathize that much more deeply with Esme's obsession to remember herself. Perhaps, most of all, the story lets us feel what it is like to learn that we have forgotten something without even knowing it. The final twist of Ford's emotional knife is that we'll probably never remember.

We can only fool ourselves.

Link to story.

"The Allamagoosa" by Eric Frank Russell: An Appreciation by Lou Antonelli

Fifty years ago, Eric Frank Russell's "The Allamagoosa" won the first Hugo ever given out for short story. SCI FICTION brought us many brilliant original pieces of fiction in its five and half years, but one of my most enjoyable reads of late was when it republished "The Allamagoosa" as one of its classics. The story seems a little dated when read today--the jut-jawed spacefarers so common in earlier sf were already on their way out by 1955--but in his sly observations about the rigidity of the military (British or otherwise) Russell seems more of a precursor of Douglas Adams than a descendent of Doc Smith.

In the way it depicts people facing bureaucracy in the future, Russell's story shows both an understanding of and sympathy with people that is unfortunately not all that common in a genre whose bedrock is hard, cold science. Like O. Henry, Russell often seems to be in the background with a sardonic chuckle. His stories are all the more endearing in that we know that his depiction of people and the way they react to life--especially when dealing with their own screw-ups--is honest and accurate.

His conclusion to "Allamagoosa"--with the spaceship captain going cross-eyed as he chews his fingernails alone in his cabin--not only flows naturally from the story, it's one of the funniest finales you'll ever read; all the more impressive because the story is not a parody or comedy. It instead explains what happens when the crew of a spaceship can't account for an item in their inventory during an inspection, and how their efforts to bullshit their way out of the dilemma just snowballs all the hell out of control.

"Allamagoosa" is apparently a nonsense word the Brits use for something you don't know the name of--like "thingamabob" or "doosiehickey" here in the U.S. One reason I especially like the story is because the screw up happens due to a typo in the ship's inventory. If you've ever worked in an office and had someone call a service tech because they didn't know they had accidentally unplugged their computer, you appreciate that--despite the technical brilliance of our tools, gadgets and toys--the human capacity to screw up due to ignorance, inattention or just plain damn laziness will continue unimpeded into the future.

I picked up copy of Vol I of the "Hugo Winners" series of paperbacks, edited by Isaac Asimov, two weeks ago for fifty cents at a local thrift shop. Of course, "The Allamagoosa" is right at the front. I reread the last page just to see if it was still as funny as remembered--and I still laughed my ass off. I've always thought Russell's reputation in the genre dropped because of the fact that--although he didn't pass away until 1976--he stopped writing science fiction in 1959. He is one of the few great names of the genre who apparently simply lost interest in it, from all accounts. As a result, fans and editors seemed to have reciprocated the disinterest over the years. Russell's work includes the justifiably famous "Sinister Barrier" and other great works such as "...And Then There Were None," "Hobbyist," "Love Story," "Symbiotica," "The Prr-r-eet," "Dear Devil," "The Witness," "Diabologic," "Space Willies," and "Wasp," among others. If Russell perhaps didn't love SF until the day he died, no matter. The corpus of a great author stands apart from his personality.

Thanks to Ellen for keeping a great story and a great writer on public view.

Link to story.

"Aztechs" by Lucius Shepard: An Appreciation by James Palmer

In "Aztechs," a master storyteller delves into cyberpunk territory for a tale of a future south of the border town. Eddie Poe is hired muscle in a town nestled
against a 1200 mile-long laser fence dubbed "El Rayo." Hired to accompany a member of a mysterious corporation called AZTECH to negotiate with a powerful crime family, Eddie enlists the help of an unstable mercenary called a Sammy. With the AZTECH rep--an AI construction built to resemble a tiki idol--Poe heads to the Carbonelli crime family camp, and learns of a treacherous doublecross.

What else can I say about Lucius Shepard? He is simply one of the finest writers in any genre working today. From fantasy to magic realism, the man has done it all, and with "Aztechs" he shows how adept he is at constructing a purely science fictional universe. He travels extensively in Mexico and South America, and shows an insight into the language and people that most people lack. This is territory previously explored by Ernest Hogan, but Shepard makes it his own, with a plot full of intense twists and turns. Cyberpunk fans will want to add this to their list of all time faves. "Aztechs" is one of the best examples of the type of fiction that Ellen Datlow has given us during her tenure as editor of SCI FICTION.

Link to story.

“View From a Height” by Joan D. Vinge: An Appreciation by Aimee C. Amodio

Let me get this off my chest first.

Some of my “friends” in high school mocked me mercilessly for reading Joan D. Vinge’s THE SNOW QUEEN on the bus. I tried to argue that it was an award winning novel, but they decided it was some sort of bad thing to read science fiction in public.

Lucky for me, I liked reading science fiction and fantasy more than I liked my friends.

If I had read “View From a Height” in those days, I would have felt a sort of kinship with Emmylou on her long, lonely journey. But I appreciate JDV for so much more than her writing. I appreciate that her story was stronger than the teasing. And every time someone asks me why I don’t write about “real” things, I remember sitting on that bus, burning with embarrassment. Alone but not alone.

Loneliness. Paranoia. Ah, the familiar companions of the socially outcast.

“View From a Height” gives hope. The clouds part, the view is great, and life isn’t so bad after all.

Link to story.

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

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

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

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

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

Been there. Boy, have I been there.

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

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

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

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

With affection,
Trent Hergenrader

Link to story.

"Winter Quarters" by Howard Waldrop: An Appreciation by Deborah Layne

"Perhaps I should start 'When he was twelve, he ran away from the circus.'"

Say that again. He ran *away* from the circus?

Have you ever tried to tell someone who is not familiar with Howard Waldrop's work about a Waldrop story and found yourself saying things like, "Well, it's about the circus, and extinction and mammoths, but not really because it's also about World War II and, um, no that's not exactly it . . . look, you just have to read it . . ." And then the person gives you that puzzled look that says, "Um, yeah, I'll run right out and read *that* one." Only, you know they need to. You know everyone needs to run out and read something by Howard because it will twist his or her brain into a quadruple helix and what good is making stuff up if you can't twist people's brains into quadruple helixes. At least that must be what Howard thinks, because God bless him, he does that to me with nearly every story.

"Maybe I should begin 'As circuses go, it was a small one. It only had two mammoths.'"

Two what? Oh, boy.

In an interview, Howard said of "Winter Quarters" that he had two beginnings and he kept trying to decide which one to use, and when he couldn't make up his mind, he used both.

"I'll just start at the beginning: The phone rang."

He didn't mention the third one, but there it is. The beginning. The beginning.

Feeling your brain starting to twist yet? Good. Keep reading.

"Winter Quarters" is about some people who were in college together, and who meet up years later when a strange (maybe) Frenchmen of their acquaintance is in town with the circus. The small one. The one with only two mammoths.

Like so much of Howard's work, it's also about Times Gone By and Something We've Lost, but it carries no trace of the kind of cheap sentimentality that often goes with nostalgia in fiction.

And like so much of Howard's work, I found myself reading it and saying, "Wait, did he make that up? Is that something that kinda sorta happened . . . I gotta look that
up . . ."

And off I go with my twisted brain to Google something. Reading Howard's work engages me intellectually and emotionally in a way that is entirely unique. I can think of no other writer who does what he does, so deftly, so consistently, and with so few seams showing.

Someone else talked about the sheer joy and excitement of seeing that a new Waldrop story had been posted at SCI FICTION. It saddens me that we're losing that.

Deborah Layne is publisher and co-editor of the Polyphony anthology series. She also published Waldrop's collection Dream Factories and Radio Pictures in 2003 (Wheatland Press).

Link to story.

"Fairy Tale" by Gardner Dozois: An Appreciation by Jeffrey Ford

“Fairy Tale” by Gardner Dozois

The first story I ever published with Ellen was back in 1999, on her equally excellent website, Event Horizon. After working with her for the first time on that story, I knew I’d found an editor who shared my vision of fantastic fiction and someone from whom I could learn a great deal. The story I refer to was “At Reparata.” It got some nice notice and was chosen by Terri Windling for the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. In reviewing “At Reparata” a couple of the reviewers remarked as to how it “turned the conventions of the Fairy Tale on their head.” I’m not exactly sure it turned conventions on their head, but if it did, then Gardner Dozois’s “Fairy Tale,” which Ellen later published on SCI FICTION, took those same conventions, grabbed them roughly by the collar, smacked them around, and kicked them squarely in the ass. “Fairy Tale” subjects the style, structure, and intent of the fairy tale to a Hobbesian wake-up call. The story is like a fish hook in the Little Mermaid’s eye, the remains of Jack on the sole of the giant’s shoe, Rapunzel with alopecia. With great precision and artifice Dozois tantalizes us by promising the fulfillment of our deepest expectations of this form and then one by one undercuts them by prying open the usually hermetically sealed world of fantasy and letting reality slither in.

Dozois captures the voice of the fairy tale perfectly and the writing is truly beautiful. Here’s a paragraph in a single sentence that holds all the flowing art of the oral tradition so often associated with these types of tales:

The Romans had been here once, and as you followed the only road across the empty steppe toward town, you would pass the broken white marble pillars they had left behind, as well as a vine-overgrown fane where, in another story, you might have ventured forth at night to view for yourself the strange lights that local legends say haunt the spot, and perhaps, your heart in your throat, glimpsed the misty shapes of ancient pagan gods as they flitted among the ruined columns . . . but this isn't that kind of story.

As with the paragraph above, time after time, he entertains the possibility of the expected fairy tale convention--a village, a castle, a good king, an evil step mother, a true love, a prince, and a Cinderella figure in the character of Eleanor--only to slowly remove it from the table and replace it with the same image stripped of the illusion of fantasy. The village is really only a town; the castle is a castle but it is falling apart, the king is not really good, in fact, he’s just not so bad to his peasants in order to get more work out of them; the evil step mother is an alcoholic, who’s neither good nor bad but a victim of circumstance and her own failures; Eleanor’s true love is, in reality, a big, dumb working stiff, the prince is a spoiled brat with too much power, a rapist, who answers to no one; and Eleanor is, in the end, merely like us in that she too approaches life with a head full of fairy tale dreams that rather quickly, upon entering the world, are stripped away.

This process that takes place throughout the story would all be for naught if Dozois camped it up or went for the easy laugh, but instead he manages to restrain the tone in the narrator’s voice so that there’s a kind of world weariness in it. As if he were saying, “Look, it would be really cool if this is the way it was, but, alas, you only get that in Disney films.” The narrator comes across as if he wishes he could tell you one of those fine illusory tales, but the only one he has to tell is one in which Cinderella is nearly raped by the Prince and must flee for her life.

When I first read this story, I had a physical reaction to it. This is rare for me. It wasn’t anything dramatic, no puking or headache, but I felt it viscerally. At the same time, I was, in a way, intellectually enchanted by Dozois’s deconstruction of the form. An interesting effect. One of the delights of the piece is that it is not unremittingly dark. At the end, you come to the realization, as does the character Eleanor, that although the world we venture into will not support fairy tale illusions, there are pleasures and comforts and meaning to be had in a life without illusion. The way the fiction manages to evoke this epiphany is ingenious. Although I’ve given away something of the end, the marvels and surprises of this story exist throughout it, so in no way have I ruined your reading experience.

I’ve read this story many times over the past few years, and when my writing students tell me they want to write fantasy, I point them to it, not in order to dissuade them from writing fantasy, but because it’s a master class in the anatomy of a fairy tale. As much as it is a deconstruction, it is also, in the intensity with which it scrutinizes the form, a celebration of it.

Link to story.