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, December 06, 2005

"Different Flesh" by Claude Lalumière : An Appreciation by Anna Tambour

A poem of a story but more, a story-teller's story. I mean that to the last syllable, understated detail and nuance of personality. Only the best stories, I think, marry sound with meaning, and this one does. And only gems like "Different Flesh" have more facets than the story as read, without flashing into your eyes.

Who else would have published "Different Flesh," which doesn't taste a bit like chicken?

Link to story.

"His Own Back Yard," by James P. Blaylock: An Appreciation by Michael Jasper

I don't like to tell people this (so here I am, doing just that), but I'm a big softie at heart. A mushy old romantic, really. I blame my wife, first of all, for making me fall in love with her the moment I met her, as well as my almost-one-year-old son, who's made me learn all over again what it's like to love someone, and learn for the first time what it's like to be a father.

Yes, this is going to be that kind of essay. Move along if you must (I would've done the same a year or two ago). But I will be talking about the writing of James P. Blaylock, so I hope that will redeem my indulgences.

Blaylock's story "His Own Back Yard" was the first piece of fiction I thought of when I heard of this excellent project. I won't claim to have read every piece of excellent fiction at the groundbreaking SCI FICTION site, but I've rarely been disappointed by those I have read. Great fiction, and all of it free? It was too good to last, I guess. Finding out what new story and new reprint would be posted was something to look forward to every Wednesday. I guess my time's running out for that, now.

Time is one of the key factors in Blaylock's story: how it passes and how we spend it, and who we spend that time with in our lives. His protagonist, Alan, returns to his boyhood home days before the house is to be razed. He wanders through the old shed, digs up some hidden treasures he and his father had buried, and even enters the condemned house. His trip down memory lane magically turns into a big step back through the years, as he slip-slides through time to glimpse himself at ten and encounter his father in his mid-thirties.

Blaylock knows the secrets about life we're afraid to say out loud. Secrets like the knowledge that if we're lucky, we find love in our lives to make each second worthwhile. Or the fact that with love comes a fear of losing it and the lingering sense that the one we love will one day move on without us.

Sort of like the feeling a new parent has while his baby son is still sleeping in the early morning, half-hoping the baby will stay asleep and get some rest, but half-hoping the baby will wake up so Dad can spend more time with the little guy before the baby grows up and doesn't want to hang out with Dad so much any more.

We get to experience this secret knowledge when Blaylock's protagonist is left alone as his wife takes their son off to college, and the empty nest echoes:

Alan had stayed home looking forward to the peace and quiet, a commodity that had grown scarce over the years. But somewhere along the line he had lost his talent for solitude, and the days of empty stillness had filled him with a sense of loss that was almost irrational, as if Susan and Tyler been gone months instead of days, or as if, like the old house in front of him now, he was coming to the end of something.

It's a reminder that life is short, and we can't go home again. Clichés, yes, but Blaylock is able to take this material to the edge of sentimentality without going over the edge. The story itself takes some interesting twists and turns without ever leaving the house and back yard of the title. The magic element is very understated and subtle, which I loved--it isn't a puzzle story. It is a bit of a wish-fulfillment story--I mean, who wouldn't want to go back and meet your parents when they were the same age as us? What would you say to them after you've all recovered from the shock and weirdness (which Blaylock handles masterfully)? And what questions would they have for you?

Since I've already admitted that I'm such a softie, I'm not afraid to admit that one of the questions the young version of Alan's dad asks his returned-from-the-future son made me tear up. It's a question I'd want to ask my son in thirty years, hoping the answer would be an unhesitant "Yes."

I won't tell you what the line is; you should read this fine story to discover it for yourself. But I will tell you this--it's a line on par with the question Kevin Costner's character in "Field of Dreams" asks his returned-from-the-past father: "Hey, Dad, you wanna have a catch?"

And yeah, that movie made me bawl like a baby too when I watched it this past year, thinking of my own father, me as a new father, and, most of all, my young son and our shared future together. It's rare that a piece of fiction affects me in such an emotional way, and for that I owe James Blaylock my gratitude.

Link to story.

"Space-time for Springers" by Fritz Leiber: An Appreciation by E. Sedia

WARNING: Spoilers.

This is a cat story. However, I wouldn't love it so much if it were only a cat story. It starts as a humorous, cute tale of a genius kitten named Gummitch, his mind full of theories of space-time, and material for many books he would write, but soon things turn very deep and very dark. Mr. Leiber writes from the point of view of a cat with stunning confidence, and after reading this story for the first time I was convinced that this is how kittens really think.

One of the main themes of this story is metamorphosis. Gummitch is convinced that when he grows up he will become a man, while human children (stupid and defenseless Baby and feral, developmentally abnormal Sissy) will become cats:

If you just rid your mind of preconceived notions, Gummitch told himself, it was all very logical. Babies were stupid, fumbling, vindictive creatures without reason or speech. What could be more natural than that they should grow up into mute, sullen, selfish beasts bent only on rapine and reproduction? While kittens were quick, sensitive, subtle, supremely alive. What other destiny were they possibly fitted for except to become the deft, word-speaking, book-writing, music-making, meat-getting-and-dispensing masters of the world?

Another manifestation of metamorphosis comes from the theme of mirrors – a classic trope, but employed with great imagination. Gummitch learns that mirror worlds, harmless for the most part, are quite conducive to spirit transfer, and fears that the mirror Gummitch "who touched paws with him so softly yet so coldly" might one day decide to take Gummitch's place. The spirit transfer, conceived by Gummitch as a wild speculation, soon becomes frightening reality.

The darkness in the story comes from Sissy, a scary child who is fond of tormenting the cats and Baby. Gummitch, out of the loyalty to his "parents," appoints himself as the guardian of Baby, and he is the one who is privy to the depth of Sissy's pathology. "Gummitch found increasing horror in this mute vampirish being inhabiting the body of a rapidly growing girl, though inwardly equipped to be nothing but a most bloodthirsty she-cat."

Sissy's nighttime attack of Baby forces Gummitch into his ultimate sacrifice – and this is what makes this story great. The utter selflessness of his decision, the fact that he knows his fate and yet trades spirits with Sissy to save his human family makes it perhaps the saddest and the most moving story ever written. The terror of his life afterwards, smothered by Sissy's black and diseased spirit, is only hinted at, but we can picture it fully: "In a last intuition, before the animal blackness closed in utterly, Gummitch realized that the spirit, alas, is not the same thing as the consciousness, and that one may lose—-sacrifice—-the first and still be burdened with the second."

The contrast between the playful beginning and the terrible end makes this story heart-wrenching, much in the same way as the contrast between the care-free kitten and the great weight of his sacrifice. We expect sacrifice from the strong and from the able; forcing it on the small and the weak, those we mean to protect, seems unthinkable. And yet when the smallest accept their responsibilities, the price they pay is the greatest. The great tragedy of this story is that Gummitch had to give up his glorious metamorphosis into a man for mirror-magic, trading spirits with Sissy: "[A]s Gummitch knew very well, bitterly well indeed, his fate was to be the only kitten in the world that did not grow up to be a man."

Even if you don't like cats, I strongly recommend this story. Daring to write a kitten as completely and with as much sympathy and understanding as a human protagonist, allowing him the full share of tragedy is the sign of impressive authorial courage. Many thanks are due to Ms. Datlow for letting me read this story–-easily the funniest and the saddest short story ever written. For this, I am forever grateful.

("Space-time for Springers": First publication in Star Science Fiction Stories #4, ed. Frederik Pohl, Ballantine, 1958.)

Link to story.