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.

Monday, November 21, 2005

"The Dread and Fear of Kings" by Richard Paul Russo: An Appreciation by Kev McVeigh

Under the direction of a decaying king an army progresses across a continent, city by city, entering, occupying and wilfully destroying all that is good therein. The narrator of Richard Paul Russo's "The Dread & Fear of Kings" (1) is a scribe, assistant to the First Minister, a man with growing doubts as to the right of this war. The scribe is charged with recording both the official history and, secretly, the Minister's personal alternative account questioning the king's designs.

The French symbolist poet Rimbaud wrote "At dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter the splendid cities." (2) The first line of Russo's story is "We enter the splendid cities at dawn." The army he writes of burns, but not with patience. They serve a king who has no patience left. He is dying, but he believes in the "prophecy of the end of times" and that not only is he to fulfil destiny but that he is effecting the prophecy's completion. Stories say this world was colonised centuries past by starfarers who then moved on with their technology. Prophecy says they will return one day, bringing wonders, miracles and eternal life. This is the king's desperate design.

For the scribe an encounter with a woman, Kiyoko, in one of the captured cities causes him a shift in attitude from concern at the king's acts to active opposition. When he moves from passive to active the story takes on a positive note and ends on a note of optimism.

"The Dread and Fear of Kings" is an interesting story. At face vale, Russo has set up individual motivations which make sense on their own terms, such that his characters act convincingly and are realistic. The old king may be despicable in his wanton vandalism, but in his own belief he is justified. The Minister remains loyal to his position, whilst simultaneously guilty at the betrayal he enacts and angry at the king for forcing this upon him

I believe, however, that Richard Paul Russo is writing of events closer to home. Published in 2001, "The Dread and Fear of Kings" can be read as a commentary on the US-led invasions of Iraq and beyond. The names of the cities echo fantasy perhaps, but Kazakh-Ir, Isengol, Marrakkeen and Kutsk also ring with echoes of the Arab world, of the Silk Road and of ancient Persia. The king follows the prophecy of Ishiaua writing in the Levancian chronicles:

"The day will come when the great cities wither. The land will become barren, art and spirit and hope will lie fallow, and the skies themselves will burn day and night with unholy fire. In that time we will return. The blood of the land shall be washed clean, and the profane purified. We shall resurrect the dead, and bring life eternal to the living."

This is biblical language, and it is easy to see Ishiaua as Isaiah of the Old Testament, or Joshua who fought the battles of Jericho and Gibeon and other mighty cities, and then Levancian referring us to the Levant, the lands at the Eastern end of the Mediterranean, including Israel, Palestine, Syria etc. From there, I would argue, it is but a short step from a mad king obsessed with prophecy and destiny, to a president who justifies his actions with his fundamentalist, apocalyptic brand of Christianity.

Russo wrote before the fall of Saddam Hussein, but in one scene here he is prophetic:
When Kazakh-Ir is entered by the army "there were no people out on the streets . . . the residents watched silently from open windows." Just as they mostly did in Baghdad.

Let us go back to Rimbaud, whose lines not only open this story, but according to Russo (3) were the starting point for his writing it. Taken from the "Farewell" section of "A Season In Hell" the poet talks of how "the vision of justice is God's delight" compared to "the brutal warfare of men" and asks "forgiveness for nourishing myself with lies . . . and where to find help?" Words which might fall into the conversation the scribe has with the Minister as they delicately broach the issue of assisting the opposition without saying so in so many words.

Pablo Neruda cites these same lines of Rimbaud to assert that the splendid city "will bring light, justice and dignity to all mankind." (4) Russo too views the splendid cities as emblematic of culture, freedom and civilization. Isengol is described as a city of "great pride and community" whilst Kazakh-Ir is famed for its stained glass. It is this glass which the king orders to be preserved at all costs during the invasion, until when occupation is complete he demands its total, malicious destruction. "Perhaps that will bring them back" he says of the starfarers, demonstrating a lack of understanding of the nature of his faith or of humanity. It is this which forces the Minister to conclude: "I believe the king is destroying this world . . . and all for nothing. For nothing."

Russo offers up more than observation, but no easy answers. When the scribe is challenged by Kiyoko to act he says:

"But I can't help you. I am only a scribe."

Kiyoko shook her head. "Oh no, that won't do."

"I only record."

"You would have me believe . . . that you don't consider what you hear and see, that you don't assess and evaluate and make judgements?"

As Rimbaud wrote of "sweet glory as an artist and story teller swept away . . . I'm returned to the soil with a task to pursue": so Russo's scribe will lose his exalted position within the King's inner circle to achieve a greater glory. Neruda too took on this theme: "conscious of our duty as fulfillers . . . faced with the unavoidable task of critical communication." I believe therefore that in "The Dread and Fear of Kings" Richard Paul Russo has called upon the author and the reader alike to do what must be done so that, in a final line bringing us back to Rimbaud, "If the starfarers ever return, they will find not a world of ruins and death, but a world of courage and hope, of wonder and desire . . . a world of splendour and life."

If all this seems to be exaggerating the significance of a single line, take the story's title; "The Dread and Fear of Kings" is a line from Shakespeare. It comes in the middle of Portia's "the quality of mercy speech" from The Merchant of Venice.

His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings
But mercy is above this sceptred sway

This king has shown the force of his temporal power, but no mercy. Russo highlights this with descriptions of the needless poisoning of the abundant fish stocks of Salterno, the deliberate destruction of Kazakh-Ir's beautiful glass; he emphasises mercy with an encounter the scribe has with Kiyoko amongst the dead of Marrakkeen. He sees the body of a woman and fears it is Kiyoko, when he discovers she is alive he is relieved but Kiyoko tells him: "It's not better that she died rather than me. You should feel just as sick about her needless death as you would feel if it were mine."

Reminded of this need for universal compassion the scribe's thoughts at the end are for the Minister who has taken his own life. "I felt a vague and distant sense of accomplishment, but that was overwhelmed by thoughts of the First Minister." Offered the chance to join the rebels the scribe returns to prevent discovery. In his closing lines Russo returns to Rimbaud, but this time the scribe has changed allegiance: "They enter the splendid cities at dawn . . . Someday, somewhere, they will be stopped." Just before this, however, comes a line that I read as Richard Paul Russo's most personal statement in the story:

"I have been a scribe all my adult years--a man of words, not action. I have watched and listened, and recorded the decisions and deeds of other men. I have always stood somewhat apart from the world, and now I was being asked to participate fully in it. Terrifying, but exciting and liberating at the same time."

This then is "The Dread and Fear of Kings" a story of conscience, of mercy and of the time to act. It is a very timely story.


Quotes taken from these sources:

1. "The Dread & Fear Of Kings" – Richard Paul Russo, SCIFICTION 10.24.2001

2. "A Season In Hell" – Arthur Rimbaud 1873

3. Kiyoko is also a character in the graphic novel "Akira" with the ability to influence people.

4. Richard Paul Russo in correspondence with myself towards an interview for Vector: The Critical Journal of the British Science Fiction Association, as yet unpublished.

5. Pablo Neruda's Nobel Prize For Literature acceptance speech 1973

6. The Merchant Of Venice - William Shakespeare.

Link to story.

"Panacea" by Jason Stoddard: An Appreciation by Adam R. Rakunas

If you haven't read the story first, for God's sake, why not?

Here's the problem with being in a writing group with people who are better writers than me: I wind up getting all fanboy about the stuff they bring and forget that it's my job to make the stories the best they can be. I get so caught up in the whizbang, the Holy crap! feeling of reading something that's just kicked off the top of my head and turned my brain around that I forget little things like plot holes or misspellings.

Not to say that Panacea is like that. God, no. Jason brought an early draft to our writing group, the Fictionados, and I dug it right away. Who wouldn't? "The Thomas Edison/Bill Gates Smackdown in the Antarctic!" I said during my critique. I was so caught up the mad spectacle of the story, with its medicine show immortality and aristocratic sysadmins. This is why I like science fiction, because the rules say that there are no rules, other than it has to work. If you set up a world, its mechanics, no matter how fantastic, have to make sense within that world.

"Panacea"'s rules do work, even as they take the histories of computing, world wars and geek ego, drop 'em into a blender and hit FRAPPE. Thanks to Ellen Datlow's suggestions, the story we'd read went past the whizbang and right into the bit about kicking off the top of my head. I can only hope that Jason writes a sequel and adds the Two Steves, Jobs and Wozniak, into the blender. But I think my brain can only take so much twisting.

Link to story.

"The Spear Carrier" by A.M. Dellamonica: An Appreciation by Paul Abbamondi

This otherworldly tale of duels and formal traditions by A.M. Dellamonica is full of excitement, action, detail, and wit. It pulls the reader in from the very first sentence and keeps their eyes-—and other senses-—at full alert until the culminating words at the end. I found myself thinking about the characters even when it was over. That's always a plus for a short story's effect.

"The Spear Carrier" is told through the eyes of a woman named Opal who is trying hard to get everything ready for Masao's ceremony procession. Masao is being initiated into the society that exists on Arune as an ambassador after saving the inhabitants kids during an accident inside a passenger compartment. It is Opal's job to make sure everything runs smoothly, and since they are some of the only people of Earth left, it is basically vital that nothing goes wrong.

The voices of Opal and Masao balance each other in that during one moment one is serious while the other quirky, and at the next, witty and somber. Dellamonica is able to create an air of tension throughout the story, making the reader feel just as worried as Opal that Masao is going to mess up during the procession.

I found this tale to be a fun read that takes place in a fully developed world; the characters are real, the conflict dangerous, and the closing just enough to please the mind. Thank you, Ellen, for finding this gem and making it shine.

Link to story.

"Can These Bones Live?" by Manly Wade Wellman: An Appreciation by Jason S. Ridler

"The Quest for Manly Wade Wellman"
By Jason S. Ridler, MA

The map of anyone's reading life is a unique treasure. For some, the trail to Oz, Narnia, and Middle Earth was discovered as children (how I envy those with such maps!). Others spent their teenage years taking monthly sojourns to Gotham City, Metropolis, or the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters. As adults, our maps expand exponentially, with differing routes, short cuts, and forbidden passages emerging as we listen to the advice of friends, our favorite authors, and an assortment of other influences. These influences smack up against our own tastes and produce more rich and diverse maps. If we keep searching for engaging authors, that is.

The path on my map that leads to the legendary sf/western/horror/crime/young adult/weird fiction writer Manly Wade Wellman (1903-1986) starts in a blasphemous comic book, detours to New Hampshire, and ends on SCI FICTION's on-line archive. In honour of the site's passing, I thought I would share my journey to this outstanding author, and shed light on the strange paths our reading life can take.

After finishing my Masters, I got a job that paid enough for me to indulge in more than the bare essentials of life. On a whim, I bought a copy of the Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon graphic novel PREACHER. It was violent, insulting on just about every level, and very, very funny. I devoured the series, but that first collection will stick in my mind forever because Joe R. Lansdale wrote the introduction.

I'd never heard of him before and certainly hadn't read him at all. But that introduction got me hooked on Lansdale's storytelling voice. After finishing PREACHER, I became a Joe R. junkie, rabidly reading his wild mix of southern storytelling cadence, brutal and emotional story content, and absolutely free imagination.

Flash forward to 2005, and I'm at Jeanne Cavelos' Odyssey Writing Workshop in Manchester, New Hampshire, taking a break from the grueling schedule with my roommates Scott Andrews and Justin Howe (go read Justin's own gonzo appreciation of Wellman and come back). I bring up Lansdale's name a few times, since I consider him a big influence in my own work (in intent if not substance), and Justin asks if I've heard of Manly Wade Wellman.

"Nope. He a wrestler?"

If you've read Justin's tribute, you know the map of his reading life is pretty damn wild, and I've come to appreciate his advice on things off the beaten track. Justin said Wellman was also a free-range writer of supernatural and other stories. "I think of him as the missing link between Lovecraft and Lansdale."

Good enough for me. After surviving the incredible Odyssey experience, I began to hunt for Wellman's work. I read his biography online and was astonished at his output and longevity. Here is a man who could have shaken hands with both Robert E. Howard and Clive Barker, who stalked the same twilight worlds as Bradbury, Bloch, and Leiber, and who put his own distinct stamp on "Weird Tales" until his passing in 1986. Truly an inspiration to young, weird writers like myself. But where to grab the lifetime of stories? So many of the collections Wellman was in are out of my reach or price range, and the library services in my town are not that hot for things on the fringe of fiction. And as a TV brat, I wanted to read Wellman NOW! NOW! NOW!

Justin, ever on the prowl in his reading life, cut out the middle man and said SCI FICTION had a few Wellman stories archived. And so I read, for the first time, "Can These Bones Live?" I've been grinning ever since.

Reading the story was like remembering the words to a favorite song that had almost slipped away from me. It was a unique storytelling voice, one whose influence has permeated the work of many of my heroes. In "Can These Bones Live?" John, the wandering musician in a modern yet supernatural southern US, armed only with unique knowledge and a six string, confronts a creature of legend in a battle of brawn versus art. As each sentence passed, the smile on my face hitched higher. Rough characters in a raw landscape, where religion and myth can both save and curse you, fight for survival with wit and charm. Here was a pulp master of pacing, writing a southern gothic with fringe SF and folk elements, at the height of his powers near the end of his days. And like all pulp masters, Wellman did not leave me satisfied. He left me wanting more.

After reading "Can These Bones Live?" I'd extend Justin's assessment a tad. Manly Wade Wellman is the bridge between the lost worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, and the modern dark landscapes of Neal Barrett, Jr. and Joe R. Lansdale. Ellen Datlow's courageous decision to include such lost masters of weird fiction as Wellman has provided readers with a glimpse of talent that has shone bright against the dark for generations. Huzzah to her for championing a writer whose imagination knew few bounds, and whose name, thanks to SCI FICTION, will now
and forever be etched on the map of my own reading life. Thanks again, SCI FICTION. Your efforts will be missed, but not forgotten.

Link to story.

"Sin's Doorway" by Manly Wade Mellman: An Appreciation by Justin Howe

Manly Wade Wellman is not a name you can forget. You hear it once and it's stuck with you. At first, you might think it's a joke, "Manly Wade Wellman? Wasn't he a wrestler?"

I first discovered Wellman's work when I lived in Jersey City. At that time I was rediscovering the joys of the slap-happy, weird genre fiction I loved in my teens. The moment I read the book flap a series of long-dormant time bombs went off inside my head.

Like all bookish boy geeks from New England, I had been indoctrinated into the Church of HP Lovecraft upon the onset of puberty. Ole' HP is the patron saint of every nerd north and east of Connecticut. (I'd placed my own private Ry'leh somewhere off the shore of Lynn/Marblehead, beyond the GE Power Plant. At any moment, Cthulhu might rise up to menace Revere Beach and wreak havoc upon the meat-headed goons that drove their muscle cars along the beach road. Afterwards Cthulhu would stop and have a clam roll at Kelly's Roast-beef, putting tartar sauce on his French fries.) From Lovecraft, I learned the word "Pulp" and associated all sorts of mystical references to those authors who toiled in those strange, heady, prehistoric days.

Now go forward a few years when the subtle joys of male puberty are in full bloom, I'd recently discovered a mail-order catalog of dubious reading material. Among the sordid accounts of serial killers, confessional junkie novels, and how-to-be-a-criminal manuals, is a nice, whopping chapter on the pulps. Names appear: Clark Ashton Smith, H. Warner Munn, Talbot Mundy, A. Merritt, and Manly Wade Wellman. Manly sticks in my head because not only is he writing pulp, but, pulp set in the Appalachian Mountains.

The Appalachian Mountains, I'd heard of them. They supposedly existed on the western side of my home state, out there beyond the suburbs and interstates. As anyone who's grown up outside of Boston knows, once you pass beyond the safe, urban belt of Route 128, you may as well have to show a passport. It's a different country.

So, there I am in the Jersey City Library, my brain full of suppressed Weird Tales time bombs, my antenna twitching. I read the copy and my antenna start to do the double twitch. I take the book home and start reading. I meet John the Balladeer and John Thunstone, men who fight against monsters with silver stringed guitars and sword canes. It's like I've tuned my television set to my own private channel, where the weird and the heroic runs twenty-four hours a day.

Wellman had it all: sad sack heroes who fought against evil, but were drifters. They faced forces of darkness more or less because they were honest men trying to find a meal.

That brings me to "Sin's Doorway." Who's this stranger that comes to town? He has no name and is just trying to avoid the law and get by. In my mind I cast a younger John the Balladeer, maybe after he's returned from some battlefield of World War Two. The voice is his. And Wellman puts in little bits of original weirdness, the familiar Parway and the Gardinel. Are there such things in Appalachian folklore: intelligent prehistoric critters and evil houses that sprout up from fungus? Is Wellman creating his own mythology and welding it to the backbone of some broader folklore that includes the notion of sin eating?

Rereading this story (and going through the rest of the archive) I was struck by the wealth of stories SCI FICTION published and brought back from oblivion.

Sure, I find Wellman's stark conflict of good vs. evil to be a bit uninteresting. I'd like to add a big splash of gray to his universe, but that's not the point. I'm indebted to him for that moment when all those tiny charges went off and knocked down the wall I'd set up between the stories I once loved and myself. He reintroduced me to old friends and set me on my way to find plenty of new ones. For that I'm thankful.

Link to story.

"Luciferase" by Bruce Sterling: An Appreciation by Richard Butner

That's some tight ideation, jack ... a snake as described by a firefly:

"The grass snake had teeth, a tongue, bones, scales, ate anything, never stopped growing, and apparently lived forever."

(If you haven't read "Luciferase" yet, go do that. These meager comments can wait.)

In "Luciferase" Bruce Sterling violates Strunk & White with glee and with considerable effect, sprinkling in adjectives and adverbs like glitter:

"She was colossally huge, crazily powerful, treacherous, grisly, and fanged, but she was kind of growing on him."

and writing in exclamations:

"Love is a carnival! It's an adventure! There should be tenderness in all this, there should be soulfulness! The unexamined light is not worth flashing! A man and woman in sexual union are the very hinge of futurity!"

The exclamation points in particular carve out characters who are in continuous agitated states, perched on the brink of the existential abyss. Hunter Thompson is the mostly-unacknowledged influence here (but that's a whole essay that needs writing by someone else some other time, the influence of Thompson on cyberpunk, both in the frenzied style and the brand-name obsession.)

Only Bruce knows the exact ticklings of the spearhead of cognition that led him to write a funny animals story. In true hard sf fashion, though, it had to start with a scientific article about fireflies. Maybe it was "Summer flings: firefly courtship, sex, and death," by Sara Lewis and James E. Lloyd in the July-August 2003 issue of Natural History?

In some old-school fictionizing of this, or even in some coldhearted cyberpunk riff on it, biochemistry would be destiny, the end. But there's too much funny and too much pretty here, and it's finally more important than any cold equation about natural selection. Here, art beats food.


"Your head is three times too big! Your mouth is a mass of fangs! And your ass is enormous. You know what? You're not alluring. You're a giant, ugly cannibal."


"Light shocked out of his slatted belly and the world exploded with meaning. He was a glowing arc across the nullity of darkness."

Glee, that's the word I keep coming back to when I think about this story, and many of Bruce's stories. The glee that, manacled as we are by the slipshod evolutionary parameters of biology, there are still interesting choices to be made as we look out into the void and it looks back at us.

Link to story.