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, December 19, 2005

"Zora and the Zombie" by Andy Duncan: An Appreciation by Andy Wolverton

"What is the truth?"

Those are the perfect words to open Andy Duncan's "Zora and the Zombie." Truth is exactly what writer Zora Neale Hurston is looking for in 1936 Haiti, any type of truth she can use as potential story material. When she learns of a woman thirty years dead wandering a local road, Hurston knows she's found her material. (Along the way, of course, she'll find a whole lot more.)

The stunning thing about the story is that it could all be true. We know from her non-fiction book Tell My Horse that Hurston did visit Haiti, did meet "zombie" Felicia Felix-Mentor, and did become the first person to photograph one of the living dead. As for the rest of the story, if it didn't happen the way Andy Duncan writes it, it sure feels like it did.

It feels true because Andy knows his setting and characters so well. Sure, all good writers know how to make setting and character come alive, but Duncan's stories don't feel researched, they feel lived in. For all I know, Andy Duncan has observed a drum-frenzied truth ceremony, has ridden in a crowded tap-tap bumping along a dusty, pothole-ridden highway, and has probably met a coven of red-robed cannibals on an abandoned moonlit road.

Duncan latches onto historical details, savors them, and sprinkles them in exactly the right places. Even if you can't find Haiti on a map, as you read the story, you know exactly what it feels like to be there. If Andy had been around in the 1940's, I Walked with a Zombie producer Val Lewton would have no doubt hired him as a consultant.

Duncan also understands the essential relationship between setting and character. The arrogant doctor, the frightened housekeeper, the temptress Erzulie-–they're all perfect extensions of the Haitian setting. But it's Zora who's the stranger, and the story's most fascinating character. With masterful strokes, Duncan shows us Hurston's brazen confidence in the presence of the arrogant Dr. Legros, her boldness in standing toe-to-toe with a goddess, and her subtle use of sexuality to get what she wants. By the end of the story, you know this character.

Writing historical figures into fiction can be dangerous, but Duncan has previously done so in expert fashion with Abraham Lincoln ("Lincoln in Frogmore"), General George S. Patton "Fortitude"), and several others. With Zora Neale Hurston, the results are just as impressive. In the introduction to "Zora and the Zombie" in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror Eighteenth Annual Collection, Duncan states, "If this story inspires others to seek out her work, I'm happy."

Anytime a historical figure appears in a work of fiction and leaves the reader hungering to learn more, the writer has done his job. Duncan has done that and told a great story in the process. Thanks, Andy. And thanks, Ellen, for sharing it with us.

Link to story

"Light of Other Days" by Bob Shaw: An Appreciation by Graham Sleight

Dr. Manhattan, looking up at the Martian sky in Alan Moore's Watchmen (1987) reflects that all we ever see of stars are their old photographs. All sight is nostalgia; everything you know about the world is old news. You wonder if Moore, when he wrote that, was thinking of Bob Shaw's "Light of Other Days", first published in 1966, and republished on SCI FICTION after the author's death in 1996.

Many writers' work disappears from view after their death, but the speed and extent to which this has happened to Bob Shaw is particularly unjust. Shaw was a Northern Irish author whose sf career was firmly traditional; he was never drawn by the stylistic experiments of the New Wave. But he produced some of the most memorable images that modern sf has to offer: the ghostly neutrino planet within our own in A Wreath of Stars (1976), the immensities of Orbitsville (1975), and the extraordinary balloon flight between planets in The Ragged Astronauts (1986). Perhaps most famous is the opening line of "Light of Other Days": "Leaving the village behind, we followed the heady sweeps of the road up into a land of slow glass."

In a sense, this is a story that could have appeared in Galaxy a decade or two earlier. A single innovation is posited, explored, and its effects on a small group of people are described. The extrapolation-on-all-fronts that one associates with cyberpunk is not present-–and, given the story's isolated setting, nor does it need to be. The narrator and his wife are on holiday, driving through rural Scotland. The arrays of slow glass they see are there for commercial purposes. Slow glass is, simply, glass which light takes months or years to pass through. A sheet set up in the Scottish Highlands can therefore be sold to a city-dweller and provide them with years of beautiful views.

The implications of this are fascinating enough in the abstract. Would having a slow glass window in a city home be a life-enhancing piece of beauty, or a retreat from what's really outside the window? What does it mean that society commoditises the beauty of its landscapes in this way? But Shaw deals with them in the specific through the narrator, his newly-pregnant wife, and Hagan, the man who tries to sell them some slow glass. We're told, to start with, that the pregnancy has caused tension for the narrator and his wife Selina: "We, who had thought ourselves so unique, had fallen into the same biological trap as every mindless rutting creature which had ever existed." They cannot afford a child, and nor do they want one. By contrast, looking in through Hagan's cottage window, they see his wife and son playing happily. But when Selina opens the door to the living-room, she finds it "a sickening clutter of shabby furniture, old newspapers, cast-off clothing and smeared dishes. It was damp, stinking, and utterly deserted." The window was slow glass; Hagan's wife and child died in a car accident six years ago; all he has of them is the old photographs in slow glass. Shaw leaves understated at the end the obvious conclusion: that the narrator and his wife have some perspective on their future child from someone who has lost his future. "Light of Other Days" is so restrained, perfectly constructed, and so devastatingly economical (a little over three thousand words long) that moralising would be clangingly unnecessary.

Shaw later used the story as the basis for a novel, Other Days, Other Eyes (1972), pushing the implications of slow glass further--for, say, murder investigations or surveillance. But the short story is perfect in itself, a character study that could only be achieved in SF. By making a metaphor concrete, by creating a device that captures nostalgia, he has done what all writers want to: he has made the ephemeral last.

Link to story.

"The Ugly Chickens" by Howard Waldrop: An Appreciation by Rose Fox

Once upon a time, I acquired and read my first speculative fiction anthology. I have no idea, at this point, which one it was. All I remember is that it was breathtaking, world-opening, awe-inspiring. After I finally, slowly put it down, I went out to every bookstore I could find and scoured the shelves for more. Somewhere in that binge or another soon after, I came across Terry Carr's The Best Science Fiction of the Year #10 and "The Ugly Chickens" by Howard Waldrop.

When I heard about the ED SF Project, I leaped to secure the "appreciation rights" for this story, which I remembered so vividly even though I hadn't read it in years; indeed, I hadn't read it in years because I remembered it so vividly. Then I sat around for a while, trying to put into words what made it so deeply special to me. It's hard. I have to think back to a time when I didn't have fifty or so cubic feet of anthologies, because "The Ugly Chickens" was one of the four tales that pulled me in to my glorious lifelong love affair with the short story. (The other three are John Varley's "Press Enter[]" and Charles Harness's "Summer Solstice" via Carr's Best SF of the Year #14, which is still the first book I would grab if my house was on fire, and Tom Reamy's "San Diego Lightfoot Sue" in Edward Ferman's Best of F&SF #22. Most of my hopes for an afterlife center around the chance to spend an eternity at the Harp 'n' Halo Bar 'n' Grill buying drinks for these fine gentlemen, and when describing writers and editors I do not use such a term lightly.)

It sneaks up on you, that story. I reread it, and even knowing the first line and the last line and all the major points in between, it still snuck up on me. You want to say, this isn't speculative fiction; this is biographical, this is history. This is what really happened. What's this doing in a science fiction collection? There's science in it, sure, but where's the fiction? And then you read it a few more times and slowly it sinks in that it is fiction and those huge grotesque birds that he writes about with such demented love never actually pecked their way across rural America, and you find yourself mad and upset because they should have, dammit. It almost doesn't matter that the dodos are still dead. What matters is that, as stupid and absurd as they were, they never got the chance to live.

It took me a long time to understand why "The Ugly Chickens" pulled me in so strongly because I usually read for fun and I wouldn't say that my first few reads through it were fun. I had to work hard at reading it. A lot of good stories make you work for it, but usually you have some sense of what you're working for. With this one I didn't know why it was so important to keep coming back to it, but I did anyway, because something in me said that I needed to. I was, I don't know, thirteen or fourteen or something, plowing through piles of fluffy juvies and giving no thought at all to challenging myself, and "The Ugly Chickens" came along and grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and shook me until I became a better reader. I didn't even know it until I started writing this essay, but there it is.

I'm deeply grateful to Ellen Datlow for making this amazing story available to a wider audience (and to me, when I didn't feel like digging through those triple-stacked shelves for my battered old copy of Best SF of the Year #10) and to Mr. Waldrop for giving permission to do so. I had to work hard for this too, and it was worth it.

Link to story.

- Rose Fox