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.

Friday, December 16, 2005

"Come On, Wagon" by Zenna Henderson: An Appreciation by Suzette Haden Elgin

Suppose your family includes a child with a talent that's not one of the standard culture-approved set--a talent that's inevitably going to get that child labeled with the dread word "different." Are you going to notice? If you do notice, are you going to understand that what you're perceving is a talent? Suppose you do understand; then what? What, if anything, should be done about it?

"Come On, Wagon" is a story that explores those questions. The narrator claims that he doesn't like children, but he pays enough attention to them to notice that one child--Thaddeus--is different. When Thaddeus walks away from his little toy wagon saying, "Come on, Wagon," the wagon does as it's told.

As happens all too often in this world, the other people in the story not only don't value and nurture this talent Thaddeus is gifted with, they all work together to make sure he "outgrows" it and turns out just like all the other kids. Which means that on the day years later when that talent is the one thing that could have prevented a tragedy, Thaddeus either doesn't remember how to use it, or has so thoroughly accepted the idea that what he does is impossible that he is no longer able to use it.

Unlike the narrator of "Come On, Wagon," I like children very much. And I have always valued Zenna Henderson's stories for their portrayal of the world of children (tweaked just a science-fictional tad) and of the children that inhabit that world.

It's easy to say that we human beings would like to have psibilities--talents that would let us manipulate the physical world without machines and tools. "If only I could just wiggle my fingertips and heal a broken leg . . . mend a broken chair or window . . . send a message to my friend and get one back . . . persuade a tornado to pass my household by." Those talents have a seductive allure, and we think how wonderful it would be to have them. But Zenna Henderson's stories show us clearly and vividly that with those talents would come new responsibilities and burdens and unpredictable consequences, and that perhaps our tendency to stamp out any signs of them in children is only another way of trying to protect the little ones.

"Come on, Wagon" drives home an important point: We can't arrange for those talents to be available only on the rare occasions when we suddenly perceive them as desirable. If we want them, we have to let them be there all the time, to be practiced and fine-tuned.

Many thanks to Zenna Henderson and to Ellen Datlow for this wonderful story.

Link to story.

"The Sliced-Crosswise Only-On-Tuesday World" by Philip José Farmer: An Appreciation by Danny Adams

"The Sliced-Crosswise Only-On-Tuesday World" is a simple story about . . .

Wait, this is a Philip José Farmer story we're talking about. There's nothing simple about it.

A Farmer story like this one may appear simple because there's no flashy cutting-edge-science notion(s) the narrative is built around (though it is built around a unique solution to the problem of an overcrowded population). There's no space opera, no convoluted multiple storylines requiring ten books to bring to a fireworks-filled conclusion. What it does give us is an interweave of human emotions and desires so primal we often try to pretend we are too sophisticated to have them any longer; but as we read they come just close enough to the surface for the story to grip our attention and refuse to let go.

Tom Pym lives in Tuesday. That is, he lives in a world so overcrowded that it created the need for "stoners," suspended animation chambers where you live six days out of seven so others can use your physical space during those days. Once you're set in a day, you're set. Almost. As the story's opening line says, "Getting into Wednesday was almost impossible." But it could be done—-one time only.

Tom is perfectly content with being a Tuesday until he meets the woman of his dreams-—"meets" being a relative term, considering that black-haired long-legged Jennie Marlowe is a Wednesday. Unattainable. Which, of course, makes Tom want to attain her that much more. Good sense, the restrictions of his society, having a lover already, the Brobdingnagian difficulties in having her-—even a message she leaves him saying any kind of communication between them is foolishly pointless—-make no difference to Tom. His mind is set and he will not give up on his quest.

Whether Phil Farmer intended this or not—-and I find it hard to believe he didn't, as he was too skilled a writer to place anything in his stories by accident—-several primal themes innate to humanity flow through this story like a swollen river. Lust is the most obvious—-no less for the fact that Tom knows little about Jennie save that she's an actress-—but his motivations go even more deeply than this.

There is the matter of territory. Tom has a whole planet to wander through, but only one day out of every week; and suddenly what he has, broad though it may be, is no longer big enough or good enough. He wants what is just beyond an iron veil, and the fact that he has no clue what awaits him not only is no obstacle, but a further enticement. Lust is only the first step; the next is his desire for conquest of a
forbidden land.

His desire blinds him and makes him unmindful. He has a lover he could be perfectly happy with—-or at least content—-but great heroes, for good or ill, are never content. And Tom is the archetype of the great hero in his desire for conquest, for exploration, for facing seemingly insurmountable challenges. He becomes a twisted Odysseus figure, seeking a home he has never had or known, seeking a mate who cannot be faithful to him for she was never bound to him in the first place. Tom further cripples himself when he succeeds in convincing his psycher, Doctor Sigmund Traurig, that Jennie is superior to all other women. Dr. Traurig becomes the catalyst for the undoing of Tom's designs.

Ultimately, what gives Tom the materials for being a hero—-strength, determination, perseverance—-also prove to be his tragic flaws. He succeeds in changing his life irrevocably but allows his world to be yanked out from under him. And in the end Farmer deals with the bitter theme of permanent exile, as Tom finds himself in a world that resembles his own almost exactly, yet is totally alien.

Anyone who has ever been lucky enough to enjoy a long conversation with Phil Farmer knows he will start his end with deceptive simplicity, then build onto it layer by layer-—but with practiced, almost hidden ease—-until you not only find yourself led by the skilled hand of a grand master, but also diving in far deeper waters than you ever imagined. This story, like most if not all of Farmer's other works, is the same way. When you are finished reading you realize you have experienced a great deal more of an adventure than the words on the surface of the pages initially revealed.

And of course, "The Sliced-Crosswise Only-On-Tuesday World" is the prequel for the Dayworld trilogy, set some thirteen-hundred (normal, not divided by seven) years later, a series that was one of my earliest and best exposures to Farmer's works . . . but that's another appreciation.

So thank you, Phil Farmer, for decades of wonderful storytelling that found something to grip in each and every one of us. And thanks to Ellen Datlow and the Sci Fi Channel for their years of bringing us the masters through SCI FICTION!

Link to story.