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 23, 2005

"The Sea Was Wet as Wet Can Be" by Gahan Wilson: An Appreciation by Lynda E. Rucker

Like Gahan Wilson, I never trusted the Alice books. There was something terrifying, in particular, about the ways in which Sir John Tenniel realized The World According to Lewis Carroll. I remember being particularly frightened, even repulsed, by an illustration of Alice who, in following the cake's instructions to eat me, had grown so that her neck was horrifically elongated till she looked more like a monster than a little girl. So it's no surprise that someone of Gahan Wilson's sensibilities finally concocted such a nasty little tribute to one of Carroll's crueler poems.

Wilson's succeeded here in doing something many beginning writers in the horror genre wrongheadedly attempt (or that many unfamiliar with the genre mistakenly think is appropriate): he's populated his story with a cast of thoroughly unpleasant characters who seem bound to get their comeuppance by the story's end. Here, of course, it works, first of all because he's Gahan Wilson, but also because the motley partiers at this fateful picnic seem no more shrill and unpleasant than the attendees of a mad tea party or croquet match in Carroll's Wonderland. As the story progresses, of course, the little party the narrator describes as "a contamination" and "a crowd of bored and boring drunks" begin to seem not so much revolting as simply pathetic; but by then, of course, it's too late. They've made the acquaintance of the charming, even lovable, walrus and his sidekick the carpenter, and as is the case in much of Carroll's universe, what seems so whimsical on the surface of things disguises something much more menacing.

Though "The Sea Was Wet as Wet Can Be" made its debut in a 1967 issue of Playboy, I first discovered it in Ellen Datlow's 1989 anthology Blood is Not Enough, probably the same year the anthology was published. The story never left me, but I couldn't remember who had written it, what the title was, or where I'd read it--only Carroll's avuncular walrus and carpenter, every bit as sinister as I'd always suspected they were. I searched in a desultory way for the story once in a while (though I thought the title was something like "The Walrus and the Carpenter") but it wasn't until a friend of mind coincidentally mentioned having read it this past year that I got the title and author again (but of course! I should have realized that only Gahan Wilson could have written such a perfectly macabre take on Lewis Carroll!), and I found the story online at SCI FICTION.

Reuniting with old favorites has been only one of many pleasures the site has given me, and I intend to spend the final year of its life reading or rereading 300+ of the best short stories writers in the field of speculative fiction have produced, not just since the site's inception in 2000, but over more than fifty years. You should do the same.

Link to story.

"A Walk in the Garden" by Lucius Shepard: An Appreciation by David Moles

Wilson loves his helmet forever and happily ever after. It looks dangerous-robot slick with the tiger stripes he painted on the sides. It has a TV mounted above the visor so he can watch his favorite shows. It feeds him, dopes him, keeps him cool, plays his tunes, tells him when to fire, where to hide. An hour before, it reminded him to record messages for family and friends. He sent love to his parents, talked dirty to his girlfriend, Laura Witherspoon, and to his best friend back in Greeley, he said, "Yo, Mackie! I am the magic! My boots store energy — I can jump twenty-five feet straight fucking up, dude! Tomorrow we're gonna kick some brutal ass! Talk to ya later!" Now he's in a more reflective mood. The thought of invading Paradise is fresh, but he's not too sure, you know.

I must have been thirteen when Lucius Shepard first blew my mind. The story was called "R&R," and if you haven't read it you might have read Life During Wartime, the novel it grew into, or grew out of. I was a kid in love with the war toys my folks wouldn’t let me have, in love with Starship Troopers and Hammer's Slammers, in love with brotherhood and sacrifice and most of all in love with the unutterable coolness of kicking ass. And then along comes Lucius Shepard, with this story that's like the Deer Hunter to those other stories' Hogan's Heroes, and rips the lid off of all that, shines a light down into it like the harsh illumination of a parachute flare, revealing a landscape of beauty and terror and sex and drugs and madness and humor and despair.

I won't say I got it. How the hell could I? I was thirteen. But it stayed with me for years. Some of the first pieces I wrote (let's hope no copies of the manuscripts survive) were, I only realized later, fumbling Shepard pastiches: stories about high-tech soldiers in love with their gear, coming to a bad end at the hand of forces they couldn't understand. At the time I had no idea what I was doing, but what I was doing was trying to come to terms with "R&R" and the sharp break it made in the way I understood the world.

Which brings us to August, 2003, and "A Walk in the Garden."

"Maybe you can reach Paradise from here, but I figure we might hafta pass through somewhere bad to get there. And even if we find it, what the fuck we supposed to do then? We're infidels, man. We're unbelievers."

"You may be taking this all too literally."

"Taking it metaphorically just makes you confused."

Maybe that's what "A Walk in the Garden" is really about: finding the truth by literalizing the metaphor of literalizing the metaphor.

The story's been called half-baked and it's been called dated. I prefer to think of it as a raw and angry and courageous expression of its time: six months and two hundred American casualties into a war built on ignorance and lies. In a broader sense it's the time we're still living in, a time when the world's Thomas "Lexus and the Olive Tree" Friedmans and Samuel "Clash of Civilizations" Huntingtons (not to mention its Ahmadinejads and bin Ladens) can blithely explain away the world's problems in terms of a monolithic West and monolithic Islam. "A Walk in the Garden" both encapsulates that world-view and skewers it, savagely.

And it doesn't hurt that it's a fuckin' riot to read. From the opening scene with Charlie and his helmet to the list of "10 Things Specialist Charles N. Wilson Wants You To Know" that ends the story, "A Walk in the Garden" is laced with black humor and dark insight. In many ways "A Walk in the Garden" is the story I was trying to write all through the late Eighties, but immeasurably better, and not only because it's written by an immeasurably better writer than Teenage Me could possibly have been. It's better because it's true, true in the sense that "R&R" was true, true in the sense that all the best fiction is true.

I hope that somewhere out there is a kid for whom "A Walk in the Garden" has done what "R&R" did for me, back when; some Fox News-watching kid who's had his eyes opened or some passionate Cassandra who's had her faith in the future restored.

Like the anonymous Marine put it in another mind-blowing war story, Dispatches: "Don't worry, baby, God'll think of something."

Till then all we can do is keep moving, like Charlie Wilson: keep crawling through shadow, looking for shade.

Link to story.

"The War of the Worlds" by James P. Blaylock: An Appreciation by Robert Burke Richardson

The first SCI FICTION story I read--and one of the first short stories I ever read, period (not counting the terrible ones they force you to read in school)--was James Blaylock's "The War of the Worlds." Not only did this story introduce me to the world of SCI FICTION (itself a brand new entity at the time) and all that it would eventually entail, but it also introduced me to Mr. Blaylock's fiction, a door I am very happy to have opened.

I read "The War of the Worlds" before developing a critical vocabulary for discussing fiction, and the unexpressed joy I find in it may be part of why it still lives so vividly in my mind after all these years--it's not a story I think about or remember, but one which I relive. I haven't so much as glanced at the story again, but I can watch pretty much the whole thing in my head (Blaylock's cinematic writing probably helps a lot here, too). I'm especially fond of the scene where the couple is loading the car for a desperate escape and, once it gets full, each starts dumping the other's things on the sidewalk to make room for their own.

The ending was something I absolutely did not expect, and I've had a certain fondness ever since for stories that are perhaps mainstream in nature, but told with a sensibility very much in tune with genre expectations. Inexperienced reader that I was, I didn't know that was something you could even do, and Blaylock opened
my eyes to it.

"War of the Worlds" was the first of many SCI FICTION stories to expand the horizons for me of what a story could be, and the first of many to introduce me to an author I might not otherwise have met. Many, many thanks!

Link to story