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.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

"The Girl Who Ate Garbage" by Jessica Reisman & A.M. Dellamonica: An Appreciation by Deborah Biancotti

Mite found the girl just before dawn. She was eating a shopping cart in a dead-end alley.

She what?

Mite had been born a sorcerer, carrying within him a bright core of magic as solidly his as an appendix. It was called a fetish, and he had thought it would protect him from anything.

Poor Mite, poor, poor Mite.

Zoli'd wanted wings, a spell that called for the ribcage of a girl . . .

Dear god, a ribcage? But why? That's so awful. Maybe he'll even turn the ribcage itself into wings which, when you think about it (and I'm thinking about it now), would be kinda pretty. 'Magine it, ivory wings with tattered bits of skin flapping brown. Wouldn't hold, though. Like Icarus, Zoli'd fall. Zoli wouldn't be solid, see, in his ill-gotten wings. Unsolid Zoli. See?

Zoli got angrier and angrier, shaking Mite from sleep every morning like a dog. The daily demand came harder and faster. "Eat this, honeybee," Zoli would snarl, shoving something at Mite. Turnips or melons if he was lucky, but sometimes a quart of olives, pickled rattlesnake, or raw tripe. Force-fed until his throat bled, Zoli laughed as Mite vomited diamonds and glow-globes, dragon spores and beauty potions.

Aw, man, all kinds of weirdness, & this whole freakish bulimia is worthy of a great, big Freudian interpretation. If I had one. Which I don't.

A girl, bound and gagged, lay on the hotel's crimson carpet. Scared blue eyes stared up at Mite from under spiky dark hair.

"Eat that, honeybee."

Morbid curiosity, that's what I got. It's awful, but I can't look away & when I reach that last honeybee, there, well, I find I have to pause. Just pause & wait. Eat that, honeybee. I'm waiting. Waiting for the ugly.

Gal screeched, hopping behind Mite, clinging to his shoulders as he pivoted to face the shadows. Her breath came in hot bursts behind his ear, and he could feel her pulse—light and rapid—in the warm patch of contact where her throat stretched over his shoulder to peek. "Ghost," she moaned, as if Mite couldn't see that for himself.

Gal is something else, isn't she? I mean, she's way out there. And she also is, more literally, something else. Not the simple gal her name implies.

By the way, these excerpts are in order, but not contiguous, see, don't get confused. It's only that I'm pulling out bits of the story that should make you want to find the bits in-between. Yeah? I'm doing this, some might say, because I'm lazy, or others, because I don't really know how to do a story appreciation. For a start, I'm probably not meant to use the 'I' so much. But, man, can't you feel Gal's throat on your shoulder? Can't you see her kinda floppy & cat-like & crazy, can't you, honeybee? She is disgusting, but compelling. Don't you want to see what goes on around and inside?

It's beautiful-ugly.

My favourite thing.

"Solace is just a wrist-slash away, man. I'm sure you could find a blade in this slop."

"Pass for now, Jonas." Mite's gaze turned from the dark and hazardous bore of the westward tunnel to the wider pit encompassed by Jonas's gesture.

Pass for now, pass on that, Mite, pass on suggestions from the ghost with the suicide fetish. Pass away, pass it on. If Jonas had found solace in the afterlife, would he really be so keen for you to join? But Mite knows that already, he's not at risk of suicide, though you could argue he's suicidal, even if it is for the Goodly Cause. Self-sacrifice, though noble, doesn't always pay off. Mite might find this path a test of his er, might. Poor little mite.

Zoli let go and Mite doubled over to hands and knees. He spit out broken glass and coughed as a shudder of fire shot through his bowels. Retching, he spit up clots and gouts of blood, shreds of flesh. Another hollowing pain shuddered and echoed through his belly. He hacked up a deep, dark clot, nearly blacking out; the tooth and the marble spit out on ropes of bloody bile.

Oh geez, oh God, oh man, oh ho ho, poor Mite, poor, poor Mite, oh.

Now. Oh. I think you should just see this for yourself.

Link to story.

"The Prize of Peril," by Robert Sheckley: An Appreciation by John Kessel

This one I remember reading as a kid, probably twelve or thirteen, a few years after it was first published in Fantasy and Science Fiction. At the time it seemed an outrageous satire: a TV show where an ordinary guy volunteers to be chased down by gangland killers? Camera crews following him through the streets? Helicopters and Good Samaritans? It seemed an impossibly dystopian America where big media has grown like a cancer to destroy any sense of reality or civic decency. Remember, this was at a time when there were three broadcast networks--more like two and a half, with ABC a fledgling--and the limit of TV risk was The $64,000 Question.

But looking back from the age of Survivor and The Amazing Race and Fear Factor, Sheckley's preposterous exaggeration seems like cool prescience. "The Prize of Peril" has it all-—the unctuous TV host "Mike Terry", the real-life contestant chosen because he's handsome and not too smart, the engaged and participating audience, the vicarious thrills edging toward obscenity. A populace glued to their televisions, whose lives are so hollow, whose prospects are so limited, whose dazzlement by the celebrity culture is so complete that the chance to be famous is worth any risk. Jim's truck driver friend clues him in on the chance he has to make it big:

"In the old days you had to be a professional boxer or footballer or hockey player if you wanted your brains beaten out legally for money. But now that opportunity is open to ordinary people like you, Jim."

"I see," Raeder said again.

"It's a marvelous opportunity."

Sheckley's cynicism about the public is complete. The moral posturing of Mike Terry and his flattery of the audience's concern for Jim is a thin veil over excited voyeurism and complicity. For every Good Samaritan ready to help Jim escape there is an informer eager to see him die.

Jim Raeder is an average man. Like a Frank Capra hero, like Gary Cooper in Meet John Doe, Jim is the people. He's good looking (an ugly person can't be the people), and in no way intimidating (neither can a smart one). But this story is a slap in the face of Capracorn: the average man is a moron, and the engaged citizenry has become a passive audience. Democracy has turned into sublimation, torture, and vicarious thrills.

Sometimes, reaching for outrage, the satirist hits closer to home than the writer who confines himself to the probable. Here's a quote I just copied from a TV listing for next week:

Teams of two compete in extreme stunts for keys to unlock a submerged car containing one million dollars. Stunts include a helicopter stunt and crawling through a ventalation [sic] system with rats, spiders, and flames. Also, [the show] travels to Phoenix, Arizona for an all new Home Invasion segment.

Link to story.

John Kessel teaches in the MFA program in Creative Writing at North Carolina State University. He has published three novel and more than fifty short stories, two of which were published on SCI FICTION.

"Jane" by Marc Laidlaw: An appreciation by Brian Overton

SCI FICTION was always available, always there waiting to be read. Over time, maybe I took it for granted. There would always be a new story the next week, there would always be wonderful stories in the archives. All of it free.

Now it's on the way out, and I am deeply saddened.

That easy access to great fiction was what led me to Marc Laidlaw. I'd seen his name around. He was that guy that had written the videogame "Half-Life." I knew he had written a novel called "The 37th Mandala." But that was it. Then I started to see his name at BoingBoing when he was a guest blogger, and at the Night Shade Books message boards, where he'd always have a witty comment or he would be expounding on some writer I should know.

I could have bought one of his books or sought out an anthology with one of his stories, but a combination of laziness and forgetfulness kept me from it. Instead, it was when SCI FICTION put up "Jane" that I thought it's about time I checked this writer out.

And I was well served. "Jane" is a wonderful story that straddles the lines between fantasy and horror. Jane is the middle child of a family that lives out in the wilderness. When two travelers come, she learns things about her father she had never known or imagined.

Mystery is a constant theme of the story. We never see beyond the outlines of what Jane herself can see. Therefore, we can have no true image of the world around her, the one she has just begun to discover.

Her family has filtered everything Jane knows and sees. For much of her childhood, Jane, like the falcon her father keeps, was hooded. Her sister still wears the hood. After the father's history comes to call, the family escapes into the jungle. There, Jane considers her sister under the hood:

Anna was hooded against the fearful shapes of the night, and it fell to me to take her hand; and I remembered when I had been much younger myself and how it felt to be led along through darkness, trusting completely in the hand that guided me; and the smell of the hood; and I almost wished for that same security now. But I was a girlchild no longer; I had left the years of hooding behind when our Father felt I was too old for it, so the sheltering blindness was Anna's luxury and not mine.

The story is filled with falcon imagery. The falcon carries a symbol of immense importance to Jane's father as well as the city the family escapes from. Jane dreams at night of flying like the falcon:

That night I dreamt I was an angel, flying in the clear night air, and around my neck I wore a tinkling silver bell, and around my ankles leather cuffs with silver rings that bore my name.

Even in her dreams she still wears a bell, cuffs and rings, the things that attach her to her father.

Without her hood, Jane is forced to see the horrible things that are done to her brother and the rest of her family. She also sees what her father does, how he is broken under the strain of escape.

In the process, Laidlaw gives us some powerfully horrifying imagery. We see the torture Jane's brother Ash is put through. Her father acts to save him by sending out his falcon. What comes back is not her brother:

He held out his right hand so I could see the quarry. It was fleshy and clear, like yellowed glass with milky green shapes inside. It was veined and buzzing with botflies. And it screamed and screamed with my brother's voice until our Father set it on a granite slab and crushed it under his heel.

Scenes like this hint at the horrible reality of the city and Jane's father's past. It's a reality she will come to see and accept as her own.

The story explores the idea of opening your eyes to one's history and responsibilities and to your parents. Jane must take a hard look at her father and decide what she will take from him. While her father's answers seem wrong, Jane's own choices don't seem much better. The last paragraphs of the story sting with the decisions she has made about her future.

Link to story.