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, January 30, 2006

A Note on Progress

As those of you who visit us regularly will have noticed, the pace at which new pieces are appearing here has slowed considerably. (We're still waiting to hear from some of you: hint, hint.) We are also still at around the halfway point for sign-ups. With that in mind, and with the hope of completing the Project as it was conceived, we're opening things up a bit. If you've already done (or signed on to do) an appreciation, you're now welcome to sign on for another. Several of you had previously expressed interest in doing multiple appreciations before; now's your chance. As before, leave a comment on the List or send an email to me at snurri2000 @ Thanks for all your help, everyone!

"Guys Day Out" by Ellen Klages: An Appreciation by Robert Cook

Guys Day Out is a simple story, beautifully written, well-intended and heartfelt, sentimental, timely, potentially controversial, predictable, outrageous and yet deeply touching, quite enjoyable while being extremely disappointing, a mainstream realist horror story with a morally repugnant ending, and quite definitely not science fiction, fantasy, or speculation in any way, shape or fashion whatsoever . . . . Or so, at least, according to a variety of reviews and opinions excerpted from a quick Google. Disagreement! Provocation! Controversy indeed. All the symptoms of a first-rate story then.

Which, indeed, it is. "Guys Day Out" is a powerful story full of truth--fictional truth about what lives can mean, and so one of the few truths left, or ever, that really resonates--and in that sense belongs exactly with the rest of the SCI FICTION archive. But--horrors!--it doesn't have spaceships, or ray-guns, or talking squid piloting spaceships while toting ray-guns, and so it can't be science fiction, it just can't! And no dragons/elves/wizards/magic/royalty/vampires/swords either. "No genre content" said Best SF, rather huffily and reductively. Long live the ghetto.

The fact that it's a "contemporary realist" fairy tale seems to have either passed its critics entirely by or just not been enough, somehow, to justify branding it with FantasyTM or HorrorTM or any kind of GenreTM label at all.* Too real. Not enough disbelief generated to bother willingly suspending it. Alas, poor reader (and we'll come back to that).

"Guys Day Out" is about a man who can see fairies, told from the point of view of a man who can't. (In that respect it's a bit like Iain M. Banks' Inversions, a Culture novel told from the point of view of people who've never heard of the Culture and spend the entire novel continuing to not hear of it.) Tommy Clemens (and that surname is no accident) is born with Downs Syndrome. The doctor wants to put him in a home before his mother, Helen, has even recovered from the anaesthetic ("They're fine places, really. It's 1960, not the dark ages."). Tommy's father, Andrew, doesn't even pause to think about it, though. He takes his family home.

We jump forward: Tommy is ten years old and going fishing with his dad for the first time--not their first Guys Day Out, we infer, but their first time on the water with hooks and worms and flies and everything else. Tommy wants to bring along some of his friends--his "invisible" friends according to Andrew--of whom there are twenty-six, from Amy to Zelda. Only Tommy can see them, as he explains, because he is special: "Like special ed, you know." The boat rental guy doesn't want Tommy rowing. Andrew bites his lip.

On that first fishing trip, the cognitive aspects of Tommy's condition are teased out to us, mostly through dialogue between father and son. Tommy is pedantic, fussy, squeamish: he insists that lunch is at twelve noon, that people cannot make flies, that worms are icky. He is eminently realistic in his interaction with the world. And then--unrealistically, from our point of view, and therefore surprising--he lets his invisible friends have a swim in the lake, to try to catch a real fairy, and then helps them back into the boat:

The boy reached over the side and rapped his knuckles on the bobber, jiggling it. He cupped his hands below the surface, as if waiting for underwater communion, then brought them up, thumbs tight together. He breathed gently into the hollow.

"They are dry now. Can you open my backsack for me?"

So careful with those imaginary friends, so pragmatic and detailed. Realistic, even.

Forward again: fishing every summer, sometimes with Helen, though usually not. Through Tommy's teens and twenties the Guys Days Out continue--and then somewhere in the middle of that long run, Helen dies. Not suddenly, we infer, but quickly dealt with in story time:

The year Helen got sick, he went to work at the McDonald's on Archer Avenue, twenty minutes on the bus. His red nametag said TOM in white letters, his grown-up name. He smiled at every customer, filled the ketchup-packet bin, and wiped tables with green disinfectant that smelled like the hospital he was afraid to visit again.

"Just us now, Buddy," Andrew said after the funeral.

This was a little too quick for some readers (Bewildering Stories, for example, "certainly would have asked the author why she concentrates exclusively on the boy and his father without having the courtesy to kill off the boy's mother"). But what a marvellous, efficiently dense paragraph: a year of pain in the first five words, that short last line with Andrew's terrible, yearning understatement, and in the middle Tommy--Tom, grown up, which is what happens when you watch death at work for the first time--wiping the tables "with green disinfectant that smelled like the hospital he was afraid to visit again." Horror in a beautiful line.

Between his mother's death and his early forties where Tommy runs suddenly into the wall of Alzheimer's, the Guys Days Out have dried up. The Alzheimer's quickly takes control of both Tommy's and Andrew's life. Again, the doctor offers a home placement. Again, Andrew declines.

After a solid week of changing diapers, Andrew, now seventy-six, takes forty-three year old Tommy on a final fishing trip, a last Guys Day Out. He finds an isolated shore, drops sleeping tablets in Tommy's beer, and gets Tommy to count fireflies until his head begins to droop. Then:

"Oh." Tommy's eyes opened wide, his face creased into a wide grin. He cupped both hands around a secret, fragile cargo for just a moment [hear the echo: He cupped his hands below the surface, as if waiting for underwater communion], then slid boneless down the willow.

This is the "morally repugnant" ending (for given definitions of "moral" and "repugnant"). Except it's not:

Andrew settled next to him, hugged him tight, and drank the second bitter beer . . .

"Sweet dreams," he whispered, and he closed his eyes.

Bitter, that second beer.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote:

Something that seems quite new, or that seems insolently false or very dangerous, is the test of a reader. If he tries to see what it means, what truth excuses it, he has the gift, and let him read. If he is merely hurt, or offended, or exclaims upon his author's folly, he had better take to the daily papers; he will never be a reader.

Ellen Klages is a very careful writer--which is to say that she is full of care for her craft, and allows her readers the intelligence to take care of themselves. To take care, for instance, of the differences and resonances and contingencies between reality and fantasy, between real life and fairy tale; and to take care of what one can say to and about the other.

* Not that I would wish it to be so branded, just that not being able to so brand it seemed to be what pissed off so many people about this story. Which is a whole other essay . . .

Link to story.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

"Cordle to Onion to Carrot" by Robert Sheckley: An Appreciation by Georgiana Lee

Do you ever find yourself wondering why people like to fight online? Do you ask why the argumentative threads get the most hit counts? Have you ever been in a flame war and been baffled by the fact that you just couldn't stop with the witty insults even though you knew your mother would frown on your behavior? Although it was written in 1955, well before the internet became popular and takes place in meat space, Robert Sheckley's Cordle To Onion To Carrot does an excellent job explaining the motivation behind the art of the snark.

It's the story of the thrill that comes to Howard Cordle who learns to be obnoxious and aggressive after years of "being pushed around by Fuller Brush men, fund solicitors, headwaiters, and other imposing figures of authority." The hyperbole used to describe his encounters is wonderful and makes this story even more of a pleasure to read. I particularly enjoyed the escalating pressure brought to bear on a Milanese businessman who makes the mistake of honking at Cordle because he isn't stepping on the gas fast enough at a traffic light in Rome. "Traffic was now backed up as far south as Naples. A crowd of ten thousand had gathered. Carabinieri units in Viterbo and Genoa had been called into a state of alert." And moments later, "There was a thundering sound to the east: Thousands of Soviet tanks were moving into battle formation across the plains of Hungary, ready to resist the long-expected NATO thrust into Transylvania. The water supply was cut off in Foggia, Brindisi, Bari. The Swiss closed their frontiers and stood ready to dynamite the passes." It's beautiful stuff.

But my family's all time favorite line, oft repeated when we want to make a ludicrous point about how manly (and womanly) we are, comes when Cordle dons his girlfriend's raincoat in an effort to circumvent a butler who won't let them into an exhibition unless he's wearing a coat and tie. When the butler points out that the new attire isn't quite up to snuff, saying "You are wearing a woman's waterproof and a soiled handkerchief . . . I think there is no more to say." Cordle responds by saying, "A woman's coat, you say? Hombre, when I wear a coat, it becomes a man's coat." And who can argue with that?

Link to story.

"Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death" by James Tiptree, Jr.: An Appreciation by Alex Saltman

It may seem to be taking the easy way out to write an appreciation of a story that everyone already appreciates. But the best stories mean something different to each reader, so by sharing my perspective, perhaps I can add to another's enjoyment.

When I read Tiptree, I am overwhelmed by her virtuosity, by the way things that should be hard to write about seem perfectly natural in her hands. As a general principle, most of us like to feel comfortable when we read. While we expect more oddity in our science fiction than in other literature, and sometimes we read it to make ourselves uncomfortable, we still need some familiar things to hold onto. As a corollary, it is exceptionally hard to write a story from the viewpoint of an alien. If the mind of the alien is too alien, cognitive dissonance overwhelms us, but if the mind of the alien is unremarkable, we feel like a man in a rubber suit. Luckily, Tiptree showed future generations of writers how to walk that tightrope. She was fascinated by the alien point of view and wrote several stories with memorable aliens—-"Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death" is one of the best. It begins:


Do you hear, my little red? Hold me softly. The cold grows.

I remember:

-—I am hugely black and hopeful, I bounce on six legs along the mountains in the new warm! . . . Sing the changer, Sing the stranger! Will the changes change forever? . . . All my hums have words now. Another change!

Eagerly I bound sunward following the tiny thrill in the air. The forests have been shrinking again. Then I see. It is me! Me--Myself, MOGGADEET—-I have grown bigger more in the winter cold! I astonish myself, Moggadeet-the-small!

Already we have a strange and somewhat insectile character with an immediately appealing voice. Moggadeet is excitable and inarticulate in a way that is reminiscent of a child; that similarity quickly engages our sympathy. Throughout the rest of the story, we remain remarkably comfortable with Moggadeet's voice, partly because Tiptree has respected our need for the familiar and made Moggadeet's story a coming-of-age tale. Even though Moggadeet's species does not get much of an adulthood, and his short life is dominated by biological imperatives, there is enough of the human condition here to empathize with. By the end, Tiptree has convinced us that this is precisely how it is to be him, to be something so strange that it walks on six legs, wraps it lovers up in silk, and sleeps the winter away. In understanding Moggadeet, we not only understand what it would be like to be different, but because of our rapport with him, we gain insight into how the conflict between self-awareness and biological determinism plays out in our own lives.

The writers who have tried and failed to communicate an alien perspective are legion (even Tiptree, in other works), but this story is a tour de force. I can only feel grateful that SCI FICTION gave us such triumphs weekly for more than five years.

(NOTE: This story is no longer archived at SCI FICTION, but it can be found in the collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever)

"The Pottawatomie Giant" by Andy Duncan: An Appreciation by Jason Erik Lundberg

I first met Andy Duncan in the spring of 1995, just about ten years ago now. I was taking an undergraduate fiction-writing class at North Carolina State University under novelist Angela Davis-Gardner, and Andy happened to be there in graduate school at the time. One afternoon, Angela's son was sick and she had to take him to the doctor; she asked if Andy might cover her class that afternoon, and, being the Southern gentleman that he is, he said sure. At the beginning of class, he had all of us students gather our desks in a circle, Clarion-style, and after plunking down in his own chair, he grinned and said, "So, what have y'all been learning lately?" I don't remember any of the rest of that class, what we covered or what Andy might have taught us, but that unforgettable entrance has never left my mind.

In the years since, I've been delighted to see Andy gain the success he's seen, and as I struggled to become a published author myself, he always had a kind word at conventions and conferences (while surrounded by admirers), and a way of talking as if he were imparting some secret knowledge, layered over with his immense storyteller's charm. I was there, at a small North Carolina science fiction convention, the weekend his collection Beluthahatchie and Other Stories was released.

One thing that you know right away upon reading one of Andy's stories is what a history nut the guy is. Many of his tales take place in the American South, though certainly not all, and his love of place is evident; any setting, whether in South Carolina, Paris, a suburb of Hell, or the Soviet Union, is fully realized under Andy's controlled pen. He writes with self-assurance that comes from someone comfortable with his own style and a wealth of historical research.

In November 2000, Ellen Datlow published "The Pottawatomie Giant" at SCI FICTION. I remember reading the story while on my lunch break at work, and I was amazed that he could invoke not only Jess Willard, the 1915 heavyweight boxing champion of the world, but also master illusionist Ehrich Weiss (aka Harry Houdini). It was a story that really spoke to me, a tale of missed opportunities, of racial tensions, of second chances. A few months afterward, Andy drove up from his home in Tuscaloosa to give a reading at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, one of the best (if not the best) independent bookstores in the country, a place that was and is a frequent hangout of mine, a place that had employed Andy while he was finishing his M.A. at NCSU. The reading was to promote the publication of Beluthahatchie, and afterward, I had him sign my copy of "The Pottawatomie Giant," which I had printed out from the website. He laughed at this strange juxtaposition, and signed it anyway, adding a doodle of a snake wearing a hat. Later that year, both "The Pottawatomie Giant" and Beluthahatchie and Other Stories won the World Fantasy Award.

The defining incident in "The Pottawatomie Giant," Andy explains in the afterword to the story, is a true one. Jess Willard, the "Great White Hope," did indeed have words with Harry Houdini in the Los Angeles Orpheum in November 1915, and nearly caused a riot through his unwillingness to join Houdini on the stage. In fact, the first half of the story, up until Willard dies in his Los Angeles home in 1968, can be read as an embroidered biographical account of the former heavyweight. A speculative one to be sure, with specific dialogue that Andy could not have been privy to in his research, but a credible one all the same. The words may have been different, but it certainly could have happened in the way Andy describes.

But the story doesn't end with Willard's death. He opens his eyes to find himself back in that famous theater, with some vague memory that this has happened before, but instead of haranguing Houdini and calling him a phoney, this time he agrees to Houdini's request and joins the other volunteers on stage. He takes the other path, and earns admiration instead of scorn. Willard is offered a chance at redemption, and he takes it.

There are some wonderful paired opposites here: the hugeness of Jess Willard's frame versus Houdini's small stature; Willard's discomfort with his fame versus Houdini's revelry in his; Willard's reliance on his physical strength versus Houdini's reliance on sleight of hand and misdirection. And, as with Andy's other stories, he sprinkles in just the right details to give that lived-in feel to his 1915 Los Angeles: the derby hats, the cuspidors, peanuts sold in paper sacks, the combined "reek of horseshit and automobiles."

It's unclear whether Willard's second chance is a version of the afterlife or a form of time travel, but that's really beside the point. Just as with the fiction of Kelly Link or Aimee Bender, the fantastical element is unexplained, and is not the focus of the story anyway; it's what Willard does with that second chance that matters. And in this, Andy has proved to be a bit of an illusionist himself, first through the medium of written communication, and then through the slight alteration of events.

Andy's superb vision, combined with Ellen Datlow's uncompromising desire for literary excellence, has made this such a wonderful and lasting tale of the fantastic. This story most likely would have been published anyway, but without Ellen's careful editorial style, it may not have had the impact it did, or won the World Fantasy Award. Oh, what a horrible world that would be . . .

Link to story.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

"This Tragic Glass" by Elizabeth Bear: An Appreciation by Heather K Ward

Over the years, SCI FICTION has provided us with much in the way of quality stories. I came to the wonders of this online magazine somewhat late, and yet I have come to treasure each of the stories in its archives for very different reasons. One of my favourites is "This Tragic Glass", by Elizabeth Bear.

"This Tragic Glass" is something of a dream for this science fiction-loving English Major. In the story, Bear imagines a world of our own, a world of the future, where the great minds and writers of yesterday are retrieved, before their premature deaths, via time travel. One such is John Keats, now continuing his work and chairman of the Poet Emeritus project in Las Vegas, where Dr Satyavati Brahmaptura has just written a software program.

Dr Brahmaptura's software identifies "the biological gender of the writer of a given passage of text". Here, it is used to analyse the prose of Elizabethan poets and thus makes the conclusion that Christopher (Kit) Marlowe was, in fact, a woman. In order to prove that her software works, Dr Brahmaptura acquires permission to retrieve Marlowe.

"This Tragic Glass" juxtaposes the lyrical and evocative world of the Elizabethan era and the cold, cultural shock of the modern world. In doing so, Bear places the reader in the same position as Marlowe herself--jolted between two separate times, two very different worlds, never fully belonging to either. It's a clever effect, and one which works well.

The action alternates between the last moments of Marlowe's life and the events leading up to--and beyond--her extraction. We witness the arguments and prevailing theories for and against Marlowe's influence upon (and contribution to) much of Shakespeare's works; the ethics of temporal relocation and, of course, the impact of Marlowe's revealed gender on the contemporary world. It makes for enlightening reading for the English Major, for those who enjoy Elizabethan poetry and prose, or for those who bonded with Virginia Woolf's Orlando.

The language is expansive and expressive, the theme--that of the social pressure to be who we're not--is handled deftly and with compassionate care. This comes skilfully, toward the end of the piece, in Dr Brahmaptura's comment, "You are what you are . . . Someone will have to appreciate that."

Perhaps, indeed, that is all each of us can ever hope for.

Link to story

"Bulldozer" by Laird Barron: An Appreciation by John Langan

Laird Barron keeps me honest. There are other writers whose work I admire: Elizabeth Hand, Lucius Shepard, Peter Straub. But if a story I'm working on fails to clear the bar they've set, I can rationalize its shortcomings by telling myself that Hand, Shepard, and Straub have years, even decades more experience than I have. With Laird, I can make no such claims. His first story in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, "Shiva, Open Your Eye," appeared the month after my first appearance in the magazine. What's more, we're roughly the same age. Since that story in F&SF, Laird's fiction has continued to improve. Every time I read one of his stories, it reminds me how much a writer of our generation (whichever one that is) can accomplish.

I wasn't prepared for "Bulldozer," Laird's first story for SCI FICTION. Gordon Van Gelder had called my attention to "Shiva, Open Your Eye," which I had found lyrical and ominous. It had placed Laird Barron in my "To Read" column. "Old Virginia," his next appearance in F&SF, was taut and suspenseful, the story of CIA agents encountering a terrifying creature. I was struck by its narrator's voice, hard-edged and compelling, and by the fact that this horror story actually was frightening. When I learned that Laird's third story was up at SCI FICTION, (which, for reasons of exposure, prestige, and, yes, money had become a personal grail), I printed it out.

Here's the beginning of "Bulldozer":

Then he bites off my shooting hand.

Christ on a pony, here's a new dimension of pain.

The universe flares white. A storm of dandelion seeds, a cyclone of fire. That's the Coliseum on its feet, a full-blown German orchestra, a cannon blast inside my skull, the top of my skull coming off.

I better suck it up or I'm done for.

I'm a Pinkerton man. That means something. I've got the gun, a cold blue Colt, and a card with my name engraved beneath the unblinking eye. I'm a dead shot, a deadeye Dick. I was on the mark in Baltimore when assassins went for Honest Abe. I skinned my iron and plugged them varmints. Abe should've treated me to the theater. Might still be here. Might be in a rocker scribbling how the South was won.

The more I consider this opening, the more I find to admire in it. The first sentence, for example. Don't begin a sentence with "then": at what point in grade school was that maxim hammered into me? Laird cheerfully disregards it, and in doing so announces his story's concern with varieties of time. But there's more to that sentence than adverbial daring. We come into the story not just in the middle of the action, but at its height. Really, we begin with the as-yet-unnamed narrator's defeat. Who/whatever he is facing has disarmed him (sorry), and in doing so dealt him a potentially fatal wound.

From there, the story gallops along, carrying us full-tilt into its narrator's interior monologue. After the colloquial oath of its second line, we careen into its first full paragraph, a constellation of images, sounds, and tactile sensations designed to convey the explosive agony of having your hand bitten off. They do more, as well; there's a good deal to unpack in them. The white that bursts across the narrator’s consciousness is visualized first as a plethora of dandelion seeds—small, natural, suggestive of rebirth—-then a storm of fire—-large, inventive, suggestive of destruction. Though both drawn from nature, the images oppose one another, as do the pair of sounds that follow. The roar of the Coliseum's audience, (presumably on its feet to watch the climax of a mortal combat), and the thunder of a German orchestra, (playing Beethoven? Wagner?), originate in European culture, yet the one invokes bloodsport and the bloodlust of the crowd, the other music and aesthetic experience. The paragraph's final pairing is of tactile sensations: the first of a cannon firing inside the narrator's head, the second of the top of his head blowing off. Migraine meets gun-wound, both presage the story's concern with the disintegration of the self.

(And, in the interest of my own obsessive-compulsive tendencies, may I point out the pair of allusions to nineteenth century American literature I read in this paragraph? The first is to Melville and Moby Dick; I find it in the paragraph's concern with whiteness. The second is to Dickinson's poetry; I find it in the phrase, "the top of my skull coming off," which echoes her famous description of poetry as that which makes her feel as if the top of her head were being taken off. Given the story's setting in the late eighteen hundreds American west, the allusions are at least historically accurate—-and since we'll learn that the narrator is a Harvard graduate, they're psychologically plausible-—but they add to the story's thematic concerns in ways it would take a short paper to map out.)

The story's next line highlights the immediacy and desperation of the narrator's plight, and then we're plunged into a brief precis of his personal history. Interestingly, we still don't know his name; instead, he identifies himself by his profession, that of Pinkerton man. He's a detective, albeit of the corporate, as opposed to the individual, variety. His markers are his gun and his card, with its "unblinking eye." Unhesitating violence and unwavering vision distinguish him. Yes, this is a mystery story, but less it the sense of whodunnit and more in the sense of whatdunnit, and what that hints of larger matters. While such adjectives as "Lovecraftian" and "cosmic" have become so overused they tend to obscure rather than clarify, they are not out of place here. This is not the faux-cosmicism of Lovecraft-derived role playing games; what Laird accomplishes shares more with the work of such writers as Caitlin Kiernan.

Before we lose ourselves in unutterable unspeakableness, however, there's the end of this paragraph to consider. Through its reference to Lincoln and its slang, it places the story historically. This is another of "Bulldozer's" strengths, and perhaps the most unexpected: its firm grasp of the historical milieu in which it occurs. The narrator's voice is so convincing, so of its time and place, that my first time through, there was only one turn of phrase whose historical accuracy I questioned; given how accurate the rest of the story was, I gave Laird the benefit of the doubt.

I suppose I could have condensed all of the above discussion into the statement that Laird Barron is a poet. The problem with such a description is that, all too often, it indicates a style that's vague, cliched, flowery as bad wallpaper. What it should point to is an attention to language that's condensed, nuanced, and allusive. The jagged edges of the narrator's voice unfold into phrases of startlingly beautiful geometry.

If I say I could go on and on discussing "Bulldozer," this look at its opening lines offers some explanation why. Of course, my first encounter with the story, I didn't engage in any of this analysis, (not consciously, anyway). I was too caught up in the relentless forward drive of its narrative, in the complexities of its narrator, (Jonah Koenig, just for the record), and in the monstrousness of the man he has pursued to a California mining town that might have been imagined by Gustave Dore. I was busy following the story's leaps back and forth in Koenig's personal history, in the connections it was drawing among a multitude of late-nineteenth century figures and events. I was caught in the way the plot unfolded, to quote the story's end, like "a terrible flower." I won't say I had no appreciation of its accomplishments before I re-read it; it was more a case of my re-reading expanding that appreciation in ways I wouldn't have guessed.

I'm tempted to say that "Bulldozer" kicked off the story-cycle that would include "Proboscis" (my favorite of Laird's stories) and "The Imago Sequence" (a brilliant, condensed novel). That isn't true, though; the cycle had started with "Shiva, Open Your Eye." What "Bulldozer" did was announce, more dramatically than either of its predecessors, that this writer was upping the stakes, that his ambitions were larger than we thought, and that he owned the talent to make good on them.

Like everyone else who's heard the news of SCI FICTION's demise, I've railed at the crass ignorance of the decision. In some ways, my consideration of a story like "Bulldozer" makes me feel the loss of such a venue-—and of Ellen Datlow's fine, perceptive editing-—even more acutely. However sharp that loss may be, however, there's no denying the magnitude of what Ellen has been able to accomplish on the site. Laird Barron's story is only one example of the quality of fiction we have been privileged to read. There's no doubting Ellen has a bright future, any more than there is for Laird Barron. All the same, it's nice to be able to recognize both their accomplishments, and thank them for them.

Link to story.

"The Golem" by Avram Davidson: An Appreciation by E.C. Myers

I didn't frequent SCI FICTION until it had already been around for a few years. I had poked around the site idly on occasion, but I never committed myself to reading a full story because I wasn't accustomed to reading stories online. After repeated recommendations from friends I was determined to give SCI FICTION a try, so I visited it on my lunch break one day to see what it had to offer.

"The Golem" was the classic reprint of that week. The title caught my eye because of my growing interest in Jewish literature (via my then-girlfriend, who was a graduate student studying Yiddish), and the opening line promptly drew me in:

"The grey-faced person came along the street where old Mr. and Mrs. Gumbeiner lived."

I flew through the rest of the story. When I reached "The End," all too soon, I was actually shocked at how deeply it had engaged me in so few pages. I immediately read it again.

As a beginning writer, I was in awe of Davidson's brevity, his vivid descriptions, and his skillful use of language. I also was charmed by the simple but clever plot, and envious of the witty dialogue and characterization. In his introduction to "The Golem" in The Avram Davidson Treasury, Damon Knight calls it "a perfect story"; I'm inclined to agree.

To me "The Golem" is a model for everything that can go right in fiction; it demonstrates the power of the short story to provide a full emotional and literary experience despite a limited word count. By extension, this is the function that SCI FICTION fulfilled for many of us. It offered the very best of short fiction every week, stories that succeed or surpass the early success of "The Golem"--stories that regularly challenged us as readers and writers. Through the classics and originals Ellen shared with us, she gave new readers like myself a valuable glimpse of the origins of sf and fantasy, while also driving the future of our genre.

When I read Avram Davidson's biographical notes on SCI FICTION, it seemed impossible that I hadn't heard of him before, given how prolific and influential he was in his career as a writer and later as an editor at F&SF. (I was surprised and pleased to discover that Davidson grew up in my hometown; as silly as it may sound, that connection encouraged me in my own writing.) This is something else SCI FICTION accomplished: it provided an entry point into the work of authors we likely would not have encountered otherwise. It allowed us to expand our interests and sample a variety of new voices in a truly diverse field.

I'll always be grateful to SCI FICTION for introducing me to the work of Avram Davidson, along with the countless other authors I have discovered since, but I owe "The Golem" for introducing me to SCI FICTION, because that was the story that kept me coming back week after week for more.

Link to story.

Friday, January 06, 2006

"Bad Medicine" by Robert Sheckley: An Appreciation by Jason Boog

I heard my first Robert Sheckley story on the old-time radio drama, X Minus One. Even though it was recorded twenty-five years before I was born, Sheckley's exuberant adjectives, alliterative phrases and deadpan delivery inspired my Star Wars-saturated imagination. Re-reading "Bad Medicine" this week, I could still hear Sheckley's radio voice booming:

Caswell was a choleric little man with fierce red eyes, bulldog jowls and ginger-red hair. He was the sort you would expect to find perched on a detergent box, orating to a crowd of lunching businessmen and amused students, shouting, "Mars for the Martians, Venus for the Venusians!"

But in truth, Caswell was uninterested in the deplorable social conditions of extraterrestrials. He was a jetbus conductor for the New York Rapid Transit Corporation. He minded his own business. And he was quite mad.

With pulp-fiction syntax and brassy vocabulary, "Bad Medicine" tells the story of a homicidal maniac named Caswell who ends up seeing a robot psychiatrist-—a special Martian "mechanotherapist" he bought from a hapless computer store employee. In this story, corporations like General Motors and IBM rule the world, paying a separate police department to enforce brand loyalty. Instead of Orwell's 1984, Sheckley sketches a hyper-consumerist, more familiar nightmare: a place where bad publicity can land employees in the dreaded "General Motors Reformatory" and consumers are addicted to fashionable machines that cure psychological defects.

In the science fiction pantheon, Sheckley's stories strike an odd balance between Philip K. Dick's paranoia and Ray Bradbury's sermonizing. Only Sheckley was cynical enough to imagine the science of psychological recovery commanded by robots; but conversely, only Sheckley was naive enough to imagine that Martian society could exist without a word for "murder."

Sheckley died last December, and was memorialized in quiet tributes. He never enjoyed the cult following (nor the cinematic success) of Phillip K. Dick, even though his stories counterpoint psychological fantasies like "Minority Report" or A Scanner Darkly. Even on X Minus One, the producers smothered his social satire with zany music and slapstick sound effects.

Still, Sheckley's stories beg to be re-read in this age of reality television and digital consumers, as John Kessel pointed out here. If you don't believe Kessel, just substitute the word "I-Pod" for "machine" in this passage. This crazy world will be emptier without Robert Sheckley . . .

The search for the missing customer had been brief and useless. He was nowhere to be found on the teeming New York streets and no one could remember seeing a red-haired, red-eyed little man lugging a black therapeutic machine.

It was all too common a sight.

Link to story.

Jason Boog is a
writer living in Brooklyn.

"Charlie's Angels" by Terry Bisson: An Appreciation by John Borneman

I am not always a fan of Terry Bisson's work--many of his stories tend to use the "smack the reader upside the head with a message" school of writing. However, no one can deny the impact he has had on the world of the speculative fiction short story. After all, "Bears Discover Fire" managed, in 1990/1991, to win the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon and World Fantasy Awards.

Fortunately, Ellen Datlow obviously enjoys Terry's work. She has given us many opportunities to read Bisson's stories on the virtual pages of SCI FICTION. Five
stories, if my count is correct.

But "Charlie's Angels" is my favorite. It not only appeals to my love of the 'hard boiled detective story' but it also appeals to me as a writer. Simply stated, Charlie's Angels is Writing 101.

Looking for hints on writing tight snappy dialogue? How can you miss with phrases like:

"The moon doesn't come up until after midnight," I said. "If I'm staying the night, you're paying expenses. And I don't eat pizza plain."

"Make it pepperoni on one side and mushrooms on the other," said Prang, as she tore open a new pack of Camels with her teeth. "I'm a vegetarian."

I love the juxtaposition of a name like "Prang," ripping open cigarettes with her teeth, while asserting herself as a vegetarian. Priceless!

Or are you wondering about how to create pacing and carry the reader from scene to scene to scene? No problem. Professor Bisson instructs:

"Two uniformed cops wearing rubber gloves were standing over a crumpled wad of clothing and flesh by the door. Two forensics in white coats were taking pictures and making notes on handheld computers.

I joined them, curiosity and nausea fighting within me. As a private eye you see a lot of things, but rarely a man with his head pinched off.

Nausea won.


"Our former Security Exec," said Prang, nodding toward the headless body on the floor as I returned from throwing up in the men's room. . . "

But maybe your style tends toward the subtle. In that case, maybe this scene transition appeals to you more:

She closed her purse and walked out the door without answering, but not before handing me two reasons to follow her. Each was printed with a picture of a President I had never had the good fortune to encounter before.


"Now that I'm on retainer," I said, folding the bills as I followed her out onto Bourbon Street, "perhaps you can tell me what this is all about."

But seriously, "Charlie's Angels" propels the reader through the story, fast and furiously, without sacrificing understanding or enjoyment. This is not a story
that slowly and gently unfolds. It is not a story to savor, but devour. Unless, that is, you want to linger over phrases such as: "We parked in front of Starbucks where the BMW wouldn't be so conspicuous"

The finish slows the reader down, artfully and without notice. Terry begins to get to the point--and not in an aggressive or in your face way--he develops the reasons for the story and mankind's dilemma elegantly and without unneeded drama.

This story opened my eyes to what writing could be. It was written in a style I enjoyed and gave me a goal in my journey toward personal writing success.

If you haven't read this one yet, go read it now. But wear your seatbelt, it's a wild ride.

Link to Story

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

"More Adventures on Other Planets" by Michael Cassutt: An Appreciation by Rich Horton

Ellen Datlow has published a tremendous variety of wonderful short fiction at the site, and elsewhere, including perhaps my favorite story of the 21st Century, Ian MacLeod's "New Light on the Drake Equation", and other delights such as Christopher Rowe's "The Voluntary State", Jeffrey Ford's "The Empire of Ice Cream", Karen Joy Fowler's "What I Didn't See", Linda Nagata's "Goddesses", and many more great original stories. I'm also inordinately proud of having discovered Chan Davis's "It Walks in Beauty" in the only issue of Star Science Fiction magazine (January 1958) and of having brought the story to Ellen's attention--a reminder of a sometimes neglected aspect of SCI FICTION: the biweekly "classics" that brought many outstanding old SF stories, some well-known, some obscure, to a wider audience.

But for this project in celebration of SCI FICTION, I thought to write about a story that has gotten less notice than some of my other favorites. Michael Cassutt is a successful television writer who has published a moderate amount of print SF, always interesting, and, it seems to me, not quite as well known as it might be. He published two fine stories at SCI FICTION, "Beyond the End of Time" (6/20/2001) and "More Adventures on Other Planets" (1/10/2001), one of my favorite SCI FICTION stories.

I'm a sucker for stories that seamlessly combine wonder-inducing science-fictional ideas with affectingly realized characters whose personal stories would fit in any "mainstream" character study. This is one such. It's set in 2026. Space exploration is conducted by remotely-controlled robots: manned space travel has proven to be simply too difficult, too hard on astronauts. The robot controllers interact via a much-faster-than-light virtual link. Each controller tends to handle only one robot, and it is rumored (though the techies deny it) that the robots take on the personality of their controllers.

The main characters are two somewhat battered late middle-age folks. Earl Nolan is a former aerospace engineer for Lockheed Martin, spending his last few working years (he's in his late 50s) controlling a robot on Jupiter's moon Europa. Rebecca Marceau is a French-Canadian woman who joins the program to control a robot intended to help in the search for life on Europa. Both the robotic Earl and Rebecca and the organic Earl and Rebecca "meet cute". And so the story follows the rocky but mostly sweet path of both relationships, and their inevitable bittersweet endings.

The heart of the story, really, is the careful portrayal of Earl. He's a crusty old man, used to always being right, which has often been true in an engineering sense, but not in a personal sense. He's been through two marriages, and he has three children, only one of whom tolerates him. Rebecca is somewhat similarly built, it would seem, so it is natural that they first meet unpromisingly. And it is mostly contingence--or perhaps the "intervention" of their robotic other selves--that leads them to a closer relationship. Which then plays out against the backdrop of Earl's discovery that he has cancer and won't likely live long.

But perhaps the heart of the story is the depiction of Europa's landscape, and the hard work and danger encountered by the robots and their controllers. And the ambiguous hope of discovering some hint of another sort of life on this distant moon.

And, in the end, the final journey of the robot Earl . . .

Link to story.

"The Voluntary State" by Christopher Rowe: An Appreciation by Susan Marie Groppi

A couple of years ago, I heard Christopher Rowe do a reading at a convention. He started off by explaining to us that the piece he was going to read was a work-in-progress, the prologue to a novel he was working on. He also mentioned that the novel was set in the same world as "The Voluntary State", a novella that had been published at SCI FICTION. After setting all that up for us, he launched into reading the prologue, which was this incredible piece of writing, two kids riding bicycles in this hostile landscape full of semi-sentient semi-animate objects, and half the time I wasn't sure what was going on but I was fascinated anyway, and I swear to god I've never in my life found bicycles as interesting as I did that day. I left the reading with this near-desperate wish that he'd write the damn novel already so that I could read it.

After the convention was over, my curiosity about the novel and that setting led me to find the other story, "The Voluntary State." I pulled up the story from the SCI FICTION website, figuring that I'd just find it and bookmark it and come back to it later, but the first paragraph was kind of intriguing, and I told myself I'd just read a little bit, and instead I found it too compelling to stop, I had to keep reading. And then when I got to the end, I didn't want it to be over, so I stayed at the computer and read it again, and by the end of the second reading I realized almost in a daze that I was late for a meeting.

I'm starting to realize that I may not be up to the challenge of explaining why "The Voluntary State" is one of the most brilliant stories I've ever read. I'll try, but mostly you just need to read it for yourself, because all I'm doing here is trying to attach some kind of articulate explanation to a huge overwhelming feeling of "Oh, wow. This is . . . this is just perfect."

In the early parts of the story, I was pulled in by the strangeness of the world. The idea that these people live in a place where everything around them is alive to some degree, manifested artificial policement who fly in on bicycles, public works projects conducted by cranes (with "acres-broad leaves" that change color with the seasons) that are grown for special projects and go dormant in the winter, predators in the ocean shallows who grow prey lures that look like drowning children. Those kinds of things keep happening throughout the story--that lovely weirdness never lets up--but that's not all that's going on. If that were the extent of the appeal, then it would be a great one-time read, a single flashy thought experiment. But this isn't that kind of story. It's the kind of story that you can read and keep reading, because it's so deep and rich and tangled. It's the kind of story that makes me remember why I love science fiction in the first place.

Link to story.

"The Serial Murders" by Kim Newman: An Appreciation by Tansy Rayner Roberts

The first time I read a Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, I discovered a Diogenes Club story featuring professional psychic Richard Jeperson. I loved it because it was a spooky horror-fantasy piece that felt (and looked) very much like an episode of The New Avengers. Or, if not that, then an episode of a very cool British 1970's show that I had mysteriously never heard of, featuring supernatural crime. Imagine if "The X-Files" was actually done twenty-five years earlier, in Britain. With Carnaby Street fashions, a charismatic older leading man with a Shakespearean background, a young male co-star who went on to star in cop shows or cheesy eighties sit-coms, and a young female co-star who went on to be a Bond girl.

Every now and then, a Diogenes Club story appeared before me, mysteriously, in an anthology here or there. I always noted them and enjoyed them--but, strangely, never noticed the name of the author (of course I'd heard of Kim Newman, but somehow didn't identify him with these particular stories).

Then, a few weeks ago, I wandered past SCI FICTION and found "The Serial Murders." Not only a Diogenes Club story, but a whole novella, divided into three episodes. I read it voraciously, savouring every bit of witty dialogue and glam fashion. There's something joyously strange about these stories--in this case, a story about soap opera and voodoo, complete with hypertext "footnotes" that explain all the Seventies Britisms of the language. The plot starts out with absurdity and descends into stylish weirdness and yet it works. It doesn't have anything overly significant to say, but it's an entertaining romp and one of my favourite stories of the year. One of the rare short stories I come across that I would happily re-read just for sheer reading pleasure.

And here's the thing: in the early days of stunned shock and disappointment as the news of the death of SCI FICTION filtered through the blogosphere, I kept hearing people talk about the stories that wouldn't be published if not for SCI FICTION. My first reaction was impatience--surely if they're good enough to earn 20¢ a word, then they would pick up publication somewhere else? (I know, I know, I've since come to my senses.) But it's hard to imagine "The Serial Murders" finding a home somewhere else. It's a quirky, oddball novella–-and it's very rare for a print magazine to allow a novella-sized chunk of real estate to be filled by quirky and oddball. That's why SCI FICTION was special–-not only for the brave and challenging and downright strange stories that found its way onto those well-presented pages, but particularly for the novelettes and novellas that found a home there. The number of high quality pieces of long fiction that we get to read every year has just been drastically slashed, and it's hard not to feel seriously depressed about that.

Too late to add this to my list for Santa, but what I really want for the New Year is for someone to give Ellen Datlow a job, a budget and a publishing outlet. It doesn't even have to be free to readers. I'll pay my way.

Sigh. In the meantime, I can take heart from the fact that Monkeybrain Books are publishing a collection of Richard Jeperson stories (The Man from the Diogenes Club) in 2006. Cue the 1970's soundtrack, and grab your knee-high vinyl boots . . .

Link to story.