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.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to story.

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

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

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

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

Link to story.