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, November 18, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to story.

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

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

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

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

So they eliminate our ability to read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claire Light

Link to story.

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

I love my job.

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

Sometimes, I learn something about myself, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to story.

“Gather Blue Roses” by Pamela Sargent: An Appreciation by Rebecca Gold

I haven’t reviewed anything in awhile: but the days my life is rightside-up are finally becoming more than the days my life is upside-down. I keep meaning to get back to it, but my address has changed and is going to change again soon. We’ll see.

But my mother read Pamela Sargent, between illnesses. Had she been out of bed enough in the past twenty years to catch onto the Internet Age, she would have been an avid fan of SCI FICTION--I have no doubt she would have read, and loved, this story. So, there’s my justification for getting emotional.

But this story is in itself justification for emotion.

Like all the best science fiction stories, it was the ending that shifted my soul, that made this story into something beautiful and wondrous and strange. But the beginning was important, too.

I’ve read a lot of fiction that deals with the holocaust: identifying as a Jew, it comes with the territory. I’ve never read one so poignant, so emotionally true, as this. There are kernels of the most painful truth buried here. You can’t help but recognize it.
"Love and contentment are only soft veils which do not protect me from bludgeons; and with the strongest loves, one can still sense the more violent undercurrents of fear, hate, and jealousy.”

This story did more for me than anything published in The Year’s Best ... ever has. Because before it committed that alchemy that makes a rational person believe in magic, it spoke to me. Where else will there be short stories that can speak to every minority, so wonderfully, so often?

I wish I knew.

Link to Story.

“On Bookstores, Burners and Origami” by Jason Wittman: An Appreciation by Colleen Mondor

When I heard about the demise of SciFiction I decided to take my chances on a story I had never read before. I went browsing through the list and made my choice strictly based on the title. (I know – it’s embarrassing!) I would hardly have believed I could get as lucky as I did for “On Bookstores, Burners and Origami” seems to have been written just for me. After all, I actually have a blog named in honor of Ray Bradbury, the man who wrote the mother of all book burning novels.

Sometimes fate really blows my mind, you know?

Wittman has taken what could have been just a stale retelling of a very old story and given it some lovely and surprising twists. In fact, he has reinvented the book burning/banning tale as we know it. First, “Bookstores” takes place in an alternate history for the United States. It is 1887 and “police dirigibles” hover overhead. The country has come out of the Civil War and into a government that is determined to stamp out negativism. To accomplish this, the Hornsby Administration has purchased all of the publishing houses in the country. Only positive works are still being published, leaving all negative titles to face oblivion. The face of negative publishing is Edgar Allen Poe, rescued here from his untimely date with a gutter and finally allowed to become a living grand master of American literature. Poe is the face of a movement to undermine the government, and the “soldiers” are dedicated volunteers across the country that operate illegal printing presses.

As if this wasn’t enough chaos and confusion for any society, the story’s heroes must also deal with a group known as “burners” who have set fire to their bookstore. No one knows the motivation behind this group although it seems to be just a general desire to destroy books. One of the story’s better revelations is when Poe directly challenges the burners and learns just why they do this. It also allows for a brief stirring speech from Mr. James, an employee of the bookstore and former slave. This exchange gets to the heart of why books matter, and how their importance must be conveyed to everyone, on every level of society.

All of this would have been enough to make me love Wittman’s story. He has given us something to think about when it comes to books and writing, and even presented an intriguing subplot about positive versus negative literature. This seemed particularly prescient to me as the National Book Award announcement was made yesterday. The award for Children’s Book went to The Penderwicks over Autobiography of My Dead Brother. The first is largely a sweet story about children who overcome all and teach someone the true meaning of being a parent – it’s a nice book and one I enjoyed reviewing, but it pales in comparison to the depth and richness of Walter Dean Myers’s much darker novel of inner city challenges. Of course this is just an award and no one is stopping us from buying the books we want but what message is sent when a book is chosen primarily because it is “enormously heartwarming and satisfying”? President Hornsby would applaud this choice I’m sure, while Poe would be terribly disheartened.

The part of the story I’m leaving out though is what I loved best in “Bookstores” – the magic. Hitomi is an employee and ardent believer in the power of literature. She also has a talent for origami as taught to her by her grandfather. As the story proceeds towards Poe’s arrival and the showdown with the burners, Hitomi uncovers her grandfather’s amazing secret and the powerful magic it contains. Ultimately she uses this gift to protect the bookstore and the way in which it is transformed by the works of Mr. Poe makes for a thrilling and, dare I say, most satisfying, climax to the story. Wittman doesn’t cheat us out of a solid ending either, or shy away from the questions that his own characters have raised. He leaves you at the end thinking about how important literacy is, and what our responsibility is to increase it.

I think that Jason Wittman has done a lot with “Bookstores, Burners and Origami”, and most importantly created a wholly original and fascinating world. This is the kind of place that is born in a short story, and then may flourish later in frequent visits by the author. Although I am quite certain that it would be classified as “negative” literature, it was certainly a winner for me. And regardless of the future of SciFiction, Mr. Wittman now has a fan for life.

Isn’t it great what one short story can do?