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.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

"The Mouse" by Fredric Brown: An Appreciation by Gary Alan Wassner

Timelessness. The timelessness of the fantastic is what strikes me so profoundly. The mind can only bridge certain gaps, and those are so narrow in the scope of things that it's really quite scary. So what do we do when we can't make that leap from mystery to comprehension? We write science fiction and fantasy.

This story could have been written yesterday. We haven't come any closer today to understanding what form an extraterrestrial might take than we were in 1949 when Fredric Brown wrote this. But that's what so marvelous about this kind of writing. The imagination has to govern the way a story is shaped, not facts. And where do we get the food for these thoughts? We tap into what mystifies us all; how small we are. Writing about aliens reminds us of just how little we do know and it humbles us. Presidents and scientists, Prime Ministers and Generals, ordinary people, all blend into one another, lose their independence, their distinguishing characteristics, when juxtaposed against the unknown, the limitlessness of what we don't know. Stories like this one, simple, well told, personal stories just like this, serve as the great equalizers, the most effective means of leveling the playing field, egalitarian in all respects. In the face of the unknown, we are merely human. In the face of the unknown, we are tiny, tiny creatures, struggling to make sense out of a limitless universe that we can never truly embrace with our minds. In the face of the unknown we can only dance and sing . . . and write fantastic fiction.

Link to story.

Gary Alan Wassner

"You Go Where It Takes You" by Nathan Ballingrud: An Appreciation by Lucius Shepard

"He did not look like a man who would change her life. He was big, roped with muscles from working on offshore oil rigs, and tending to fat. His face was broad and inoffensively ugly, as though he had spent a lifetime taking blows and delivering them. He wore a brown raincoat against the light morning drizzle and against the threat of something more powerful held in abeyance. He breathed heavily, moved slowly, found a booth by the window overlooking the water, and collapsed into it. He picked up a syrup-smeared menu and studied it with his whole attention, like a student deciphering Middle English. He was like every man who ever walked into that little diner. He did not look like a beginning or an end."

This, the opening of "You Go Where It Takes You," is handled with such deft economy and elegance, it's easy to go right past it and not notice everything it achieves. Which is how things should be. You read a story, you don't analyze it. Nevertheless, for anyone interested in writing, the mechanics and structure of this superb paragraph merit some brief analysis.

As with many great openings, it is a story unto itself and has a circularity that mimicks and presages the circle drawn by the larger story. It is packed with information. It tells us who this man and woman are by describing the woman's observance of the man and her estimation of his worth in her eyes. We know at once that these are working people, people who have risen or sunk to, or were born into the working class; they have both been worn down by their experience of the world. We know the woman has a jaundiced view of men--the negative, distant manner with which she sums him up tells us that. They don't expect much of one another, yet we have the idea that their lack of expectation will lead to trouble, because they're the kind of people for whom trouble is an inevitablity, a break in the monotony, no more to be feared than the passage of another empty day.

The prose reads easily and we don't register that we know these things, but the knowledge is there, embedded in the words, released from them by the passage of our eyes across the page. It's there in the noirish tone and the sentences used to generate it. All the sentences but one begin with the word, "He"; the single anomalous sentence begins with "His." This gives unusual weight to the subjective pronouns and lends the sentences a rhythm and a punch they might not have without that repetition. It's as if the reader is being cautioned, as if the author, beneath the surface of the words, is warning through the medium of the stressed pronouns that, "You better beware. You better hang on, because this isn't going to be a smooth ride. You might just hear something you won't like, and learn something you don't want to." The sentences, their aggressive rhythms, have the effect of probing blows, like the jabs a fighter uses to set up his right hand. Indeed, the whole story is a big; it turns on an actual blow. And you, the reader, are being set up for the ending, which will--like a shot to the bundle of nerves in the solar plexus--leave you sagging and helpless, painfully aware.

Wonderfully observed, concisely narrated, the story tells of Toni, a single mom, a waitress, and Alex, an ex-oil rig worker, now a drifter, who come together in a small Gulf Coast town in Louisiana. They meet, they become casual lovers, and then Alex shows Toni something that smacks of insanity, something to do with masks, with identity. Witnessing it sets a lit match to Toni's own desperation and craziness, and drives her to an almost unthinkable act. Beneath the honest, authentic, straightforward craft of the story's surface lies a scrambled circuitry of derangement and indifference . . . the fundamental indifference that permits us to live while around us, whether close at hand or far away, horrible crimes are perpetrated and terrible sins are being committed. Alex's crime, which seems at first to be implausible, an element in a horror movie, is given plausibility by the real horror and utter human-ness of Toni's sin, her indifference. The story ends abruptly. Too abruptly, you think. It's like listening to jukebox that gets accidentally unplugged before the song ends. There should be a fade, a crescendo, something. But then, as you think more about it--and you will continue to think about it--you realize that nothing meaningful can happen to Alex and Toni past the moment the story ends, and the ending, jagged, truncated, is dead-on perfect.

Nathan Ballingrud worked as a bartender in New Orleans, a platform that's a great vantage from which to view desperation and derangement, and he has used his experience to good end. I don't know how long it took him to write the story or, for that matter, the opening, Sometimes these things come as gifts to a writer and seem to flow from the brain fully formed; sometimes what appears effortless is the product of a month's grinding. Whichever, it was well worth the trouble. Reading "You Go Where It Takes You" reminded me of something I had lost track of in my own writing, and I'm grateful for that. But more pertinently, it's tremendous story and I'm priviledged to celebrate Nathan and his work. That he has written such an impressive piece so early in his career announces the arrival of a significant talent.

Link to story.

"Song of the Black Dog" by Kit Reed: An Appreciation by Gregory Frost

This is such an exemplary Kit Reed story, written in a kind of helix around the core idea, which shares certain characteristics with Philip K. Dick stories--in particular that man who doesn't know why he knows what he knows, doesn't know how to find out, and so becomes a displaced film-noir character who never manages to get ahead of the plot he's caught up in, and who is, in effect, always wrong.

"If the wonder dog is just a dog, then the police department are money-grubbing charlatans and the exposé will move him from unemployed to famous."

I had a character in a story a few years ago who approached things similarly—-with delusions of how he could expose something and make a big name for himself. He was likewise out of his depth. Perhaps that's part of the appeal for me.

Here, as she often does, Kit approaches the story obliquely, edge-on, in a kind of literary anamorphosis, in which you have to find the perspective, view it from the right vantage, and assemble the mosaic yourself, the final picture is greater, always greater, than the sum of the parts. It's all there but significant pieces are left out, selectively, and in such a way that the story will go on threading its pathway through your brain long after you reach the end. It's why I still seek out Kit Reed stories decades after I encountered my first one. How lovely is that?

It's also science fiction in a wrapper of mythological inference: a future not far from now but with hints, images and notions of Hades, of Cerberus, of Death personified. The dog that can identify who will live and who will die is Death; by pointing out the living, he defines the dead. Dog and man meet underground, in a labyrinth beneath a theater. The story, so invested, invites me, as engaged reader, to bring something to it--in this case, from a reading awhile back, a recollection of Ephyra in Greece, a place considered in antiquity to be one of the gateways to the realm of the dead, where archaeologists have uncovered a substantial subterranean labyrinth that conforms with Homer's description, in the Odyssey, of the Halls of Hades.

Siefert, the man, and the supernatural dog meet in the underworld, and become thus two figures out of myth—the one charged with knowing the dead, the other unaware that this power, like a torch, will pass to him, because he's too busy dreaming of fame and fortune to see what's really there. It's a wonderful encounter. The world assumes the dog is some genetic fluke, a mutation; it can’t imagine the truth of the animal that the author presents anymore than Siefert can.

"You're not the agent I would have chosen," the dog tells the man, understanding his power, his purpose, his fate; the human, on the cusp of inheriting all, still doesn't get it right up till the last paragraph. The epiphany in the story belongs to the dog. The man, in the end, has fallen into his fate but seems none the wiser for it.

"Siefert understands. Grimacing with unspeakable pain, he turns. Goes inside. Sits down in front of a network vice president."

In this one final paragraph, Kit delivers the killer blow. What the dog has known as its existence the man recognizes as almost unbearable. The death of his predecessor is added to his knowledge along with the power itself. Now, if we can just get him to sit in front of Rupert Murdoch . . . .

Link to story.

Gregory Frost is the author of the short story collection Attack of the Jazz Giants & Other Stories from Golden Gryphon Press.