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, March 23, 2006

"Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons" by Cordwainer Smith: An Appreciation by Alan Deniro

"Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons" is one of the greatest science fiction horror stories of all time. It might not be readily apparent that this story is horror; other stories by Cordwainer Smith such as "A Planet Named Shayol" may play up this element more on the surface. But this is a story that seemingly does the impossible--have a sprightly, almost jovial tone; and at the same time incorporate a creeping and creepy sense of inevitability about its protagonist.

That protagonist is quite the villain. Benjamin Bozart was "sworn to rob Old North Australia [Norstrilia] or to die in the attempt, and he had no intention of dying." From Viola Siderea, a planet of thieves, he was the best of their thieves, kept alive for centuries to rob Norstrilia blind. They have gained their wealth through the refinement of "stroon." A dollop can add decades to life; Norstrilia deals in stroon by the ton. Needless to say, Norstrilia has developed unreal defenses in order to protect its investment and its people.

The story has a masterful approach to voice and pacing. Fairly early in the story, when Bozart's plans start to fall apart, it's readily apparent to the reader (though not to Bozart) how the story is going to turn out. The thief, surely, is going to die in an unpleasant way. Cordwainer Smith has given away the "secret" as such. But how, then, does Smith keep the narrative crackling, edgy, fun, and terrifying all at once?

For one, we just don't know how horrible Bozart's untimely end is going to be. He is the greatest thief on a planet of thieves, but this means nothing. He is going to fail. There is no disputing this. The devil is in the details--we know the mouse is confidently striding to his doom, but are surprised to see that the cheese is actually in the middle of a bear trap.

Secondly, it comes down to his style, which solders together these disparate elements. In the first section of the story one comes across this sentence: "One of her weapons snored. She turned it over." Again, the devil is in the details--Cordwainer Smith poses odd juxtapositions of the senses, and our sense of what technology does and how it feels to its users is depicted in an almost dreamlike fashion.

All of this would have been masterful if its sole purpose was to provide effect, to show the machinations of a kind of wind-up-toy story. But there is more. Smith is always searching for more with his stories. What the reader is left with is a sense of the Norstrilian people's own connectiveness and openness with each other; not in any political or military sense--for in that realm they cannot be assailed--but rather in their inner lives. They are both powerful and tender toward each other. But, to anyone who would threaten that--or murder a Norstrilian child, as Bozart did to attain information--they unleash the fearsome kittons, unleashing a psychic onslaught from decidedly non-cuddly "kittens" in the name of safety. The epigraph states: "Poor communications deter theft; good communications promote theft; perfect communications stop theft. --Van Braam." This is a sharp encapsulation of the issues at stake in this story, and yet also reveals the koan-like nature of the story's resolution. What constitutes "perfect communications" in the first place? Who controls these communications? There are certainly no easy answers to these questions, but with the Norstrilian's power comes a strange innocence that is both hard to understand and dislike. It's Mother Hitton, the "weapon mistress," who takes danger upon herself and allows Norstrilian lives to go on peacefully.

The story reads as fresh and timely as I imagine it did in 1961, when it first appeared in Galaxy. Issues of national (OK, galactic) security, data theft, small tragedies, and some really nasty minks all add up into an intoxicating concoction. It has remained the only story of Cordwainer Smith's available online. I couldn't think of a better gateway drug to the wild, incantatory worlds of Cordwainer Smith and the Instrumentality than this gem of a story.

Link to story.

Monday, March 13, 2006

"To Bell the Cat" by Joan Vinge: An Appreciation by Sarah Prineas

Joan Vinge's novelette "To Bell the Cat" was first published in Asimov's in 1977, but I can see why Ellen Datlow chose to republish it in SCI FICTION, because it is a terrific read. On the intellectual level, the reader is confronted by uncomfortable questions about about humanity, animality, punishment and redemption, individual agency, cruelty, and, maybe, an odd kind of love.

It's also a very moving story about a lost man who manages to find himself, or perhaps the self he has become, through an act of hope in the midst of devastating hopelessness.

And this is also a skiffy story about first-contact and cute scaly aliens.

Thanks, Ellen, for giving this reader the chance to read a story she would otherwise have missed.

Link to story.

Friday, March 10, 2006

"God's Hooks!" by Howard Waldrop: An Appreciation by Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon

There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who ask "Who the hell is Howard Waldrop?" And those who already love to read anything by Howard.

When I first stumbled onto Howard's work, it was "The Ugly Chickens" and I nearly cried for the main character and his doomed search for dodoes, long after the dodo was extinct. What made Howard's writing so outstanding was a combination of meticulous detail--I saw the old photograph, I saw the book of birds on that bus with the old lady, and I saw and sweated as the protag fought his way through the overgrown old farm . . .

Alas, someone else claimed "The Ugly Chickens" first. But now that we're doing seconds, I was immediately drawn to "God's Hooks", which I read on the SCI FICTION site for the first time just a few weeks ago. Amazing how many stories I've (re)discovered on SCI FICTION since this Appreciation business began.

The story "God's Hooks" concerns a number of men who meet after the Great London Fire of 1666 to reestablish their friendship, toast their fortunes and mourn their losses--and pine for getting away for some serious fishing. Then they get wind of a monstrous fish away from the city which is attacking people. That's enough to give them a mission to catch this fish. Tied up in this is some superstition and some good old fashioned Biblical end-of-the-world paranoia. So far, you might be left scratching your head as to where the spec fic element is hiding, but fear not, gentle reader--things are going to get downright weird from here. There's a sense of evil and doom where the great fish hides, and then there's the stranger. I'm not sure what really happens at the end and I don't care! This is a fish story to end all fish stories--the one that got away (and thank God for that!).

What can I say about Howard's meticulous research on The Great London Fire? It's like some lurking iceberg--no matter how many details creep into the story, you can be assured that there's ten times the detail hiding in his notes. With some writers, James Michener comes to mind, the research fills long thick novels. Howard plays his research notes as if they were a fine instrument--just the right leitmotif to perfect a short story. Star-gazey pie indeed!

High and thick, it smelled of fresh-baked dough, meat and savories. It looked like a cooked pond. In a line around the outside, halves of whole pilchards stuck out, looking up at them with wide eyes, as if they had been struggling to escape being cooked.

What better feast for a group of men obsessed with The End of the World and fishing?

Ah, the fishing . . . if Norman Maclean hadn't written "And A River Runs Through It" then Howard Waldrop might've had to. I have read that friends of Howard get wind of his various projects and so know about "the bicycle story" or "the dodo" story for months or years before he gets them written. I remember someone talking about "the fishing story" and methinks it has to be "God's Hooks." And a what a fishing story it is!

There's a brotherhood of ironmongers, of whom one of our group is a member. For a great task against a leviathan, a great fishhook is required--and the metal used once fell from the sky. There's a mysterious "prophet" who accompanies them on their quest, even though he doesn't believe in their mission. It's Modern Men (at least for 1666) up against ancient fears. It's a ghost story, a tale of a doomed quest (is there any other kind?), perhaps even a tale of unrequited love. It's a tale of salvation and damnation.

It's the damnedest story I've read in a long time--probably since I read Howard's "bicycle story."

You know, I attended Clarion in the summer of 2004--and deliberately not in 2003 when Howard taught. I didn't want to go to Clarion just to be a fan--I wanted to learn to be a better writer. But oh it was a hard decision, mediated only by the fact that I wasn't yet ready for Clarion in 2003, and didn't have the money that year either. So I've yet to meet Howard. But through his writing and stories like "God's Hooks", I am happy to know Howard. And I hope you have (or will) discovered him, too. Thanks to the efforts of Ellen Datlow and SCI FICTION--you can.

Dr. Phil

Link to story.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

"The Starry Night" by Barry N. Malzberg and Jack Dann: An Appreciation by E. Sedia

"The Starry Night" by Barry N. Malzberg and Jack Dann is a complex story of art and the end of the world, and is as strange and meditative as the painting that inspired it.

In the past, Vincent Van Gogh struggles with mental illness as he paints "Starry Night", one of his strangest and most haunting paintings, over and over again, unable to get away from the image of the unraveling firmament. In the present, Rachel, a little girl suffering from epilepsy, copies Van Gogh's painting, and notices things that nobody else does. In the future, a Jesuit priest inhabiting a terminal space probe watches from too-close distance as the stars explode and die. These exploding stars are the link between the three of them.

"Starry Night" is one of my favorite paintings; I am amazed that a story can do it justice. Like the painting, the essence of this tale is difficult to describe, haunting and visceral, and just as open to interpretation. I read it as a tale of a singular spectacle – exploding stars, unraveling skies, the end of the universe – passed back in time, from a witness to an artist, through means less crude than a traditional time machine that allows actual time travel. Instead, there's a meeting of minds ravaged by illness and loneliness, centered around this single image. Their interpretations of the image lend a richness of imagery and meaning to the story, and each of the three point of view characters possesses a unique voice, sensibilities, and understanding of the world.

This is not an easy story, but with each rereading something new opens up, a new meaning, a new possibility. The fractured manner of telling serves the story well, and it is worth the effort.

Link to story.

Editor's Note: A slightly different version of this appreciation appeared originally at Tangent Online.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

"Q" by John Grant: An Appreciation by Martin Lewis

Political fiction gets a bad rap, and political science fiction even more so. Readers hate to be preached to and are hyper- (even over-) sensitive to any sign of this most hated of authorial habits. If a story must be political then at least the writer could have the good grace to disguise it through allegory or the like. So it is always slightly brave for a writer to put forth a strident, contemporary political view and then for an editor to give that work a platform.

There is more than enough hatred for the George W. Bush administration to go round and John Grant's "Q" is not the only story to fuel itself on this anger. It might well be the best though. Although its rage is ungloved and there is no doubt about the real world targets that Grant is aiming at, there is enough ambiguity to the story to carry even the sceptical reader over the hurdle. Considering he paints the Department of Homeland Security as the Stazi this is no mean feat.

Immediately prior to the opening of the story the President of the United States of America has been assassinated. Bush is never mentioned by name, but it is clear who the president who "seemed to be heading confidently toward a fourth term of office thanks to the increasingly obvious manipulation of computer-recorded votes" is based on. In keeping with the general tone of the story he is murdered his own Vice President, although the blame is levelled at--who else?--al-Qaeda.

Dr. Cello Prestranta is the new Deputy Director of Operations for the CIA. The post became vacant when the previous DDO, Prestranta's sometime lover, was killed by same bomb as the President. His posthumous briefing to her tells her to go to visit Dr. Tim Heatherton at the Center for Neuronic Research before doing anything else.

The Center is a secure and secret CIA installation so the story takes place in a bubble of free speech in what is otherwise a police state. This is just as well because these characters don't see eye to eye with the Administration. As Heatherton puts it: "Strange times when we've come to regard the CIA as the torchbearers of liberty." Grant has clearly had an eye on the CIA's ongoing battle with the Bush Administration to try and place empiricism above ideology.

Heatherton has been researching dreams and subconscious thoughts, originally as an interrogation tool but with increasingly esoteric results. Until about half way through this still seems to be a near future SF story where the experiments will have some bearing on the political situation, but then it unexpectedly moves off in a remorselessly bleak cosmological direction. Heatherton's dream machine has uncovered deep subconscious thoughts that are common to all people and reveal humanity's origins.

Reading the story I was reminded of Terry Bison's "Dear Abbey," a pessimistic novella that suggested all human endeavour was futile. "Q" multiplies this pessimism: in Bisson's novella humanity is "a single bright idea in a dead universe," here the universe is teeming with life, however all the myriad intelligent species are isolated from each other. In fact the universe itself acts to stop them from coming into contact with each other, it is not merely implacable but hostile:

Every time the human species has looked as if it might break its current bounds, might not just approach the limit but possibly, just possibly, be able to peer beyond it, there's been a Hell-bringer waiting ready to bring an iron-soled boot stamping down to crush the groping fingers of the venture . . . . For all of the universe's countless species, there will always be that stamping boot.

Hell-bringers like Bush are an inevitability; they are the universe's jailers, necessary to enforce a strict regime of solitary confinement. The reason for this is that life is not native to the universe but was brought here by Q, a God-like being who is explicitly not God and who is unable to integrate its creations. (It is a little unfortunate that Q itself cannot help but conjure up images of the irritating Loki-figure from "Star Trek," but what can you do?) It's a great piece of radical philosophical cosmology of the type Greg Egan likes to spring on his readers.

Perstranta decides this knowledge is too dangerous and must be violently suppressed for the greater good. Again this sort of consequentialism ties in with the current political climate. Increasingly we are being told that the end justifies the means and that there are classes of knowledge that by their nature are more important than people's basic rights. Obviously this is by no means a new development, but we do live in a time where such things are increasingly common and even extreme thought experiments, along the lines of "would you torture a terrorist to stop a nuclear bomb going off?" are part of the general discourse.

As befits a story about free speech and ideas it is very dialogue heavy. The majority is a sustained conversation between Prestranta and Heatherton and since Heatherton is explicitly cast in the role of teacher it can be a little like a Socratic dialogue. Cutting against this is the filter of Prestranta's viewpoint, the subtle reminders that she has her own agenda. Likewise the intrusion of sexual desire for Heatherton breaks up the lecture-like feeling this sort of exposition heavy story can engender.

It is possible to see the story as a pointless exercise in nihilism but its success lies in its execution. It is an elegant cry of despair that saves one final dagger for its closing sentence.

Link to story.

"Shipbreaker" by Paul Di Filippo: An Appreciation by Jack Mierzwa

I admit it; I choose to read stories based on their titles. I pick up books based on the cover art.

Not always, of course. More often I read things because I know I like a particular author, or because people have been raving about a particular story or novel online. It's just sometimes, sometimes . . .

Sometimes you just gotta have spaceships. You know?

This impulse has inevitably led to disappointment. After all, there's a reason why choosing a book based on its cover art has gotten such a bad rap--just like there's a reason why choosing a mate based on their physical appearance is considered shallow. But sometimes it's not enough to hear the cliché; sometimes you have to learn the lesson firsthand for yourself. Sometimes you have to make the same mistake over and over and over and over . . .

Like those glossy color prints they always have on the covers of Asimov's and Analog? They always seem to pick pictures of spaceships orbiting distant worlds, battling in the cold depths of space . . . inevitably, the magazine itself contains plenty of fine stories, but the spaceships are few and far between. And typically disappointing.

I know this, but I still do it anyway. I did it with SCI FICTION . . . I did it a lot. Rockets, airships, pyramids, minotaurs! Mad scientists with pulp-fiction names! Vampires, aliens, ice cream! Hey, I like ice cream. Who doesn't like ice cream?

But you know, that was the weird, wonderful thing about SCI FICTION . . . I could choose a story any way I wanted, and it didn't matter. There were disappointments, of course: when I tried reading stories sequentially, I began noticing months where everything was fantastic, followed by months where I didn't really like anything. But all those stories I picked out based on their titles? All those rockets, pyramids, minotaurs, and ice cream shops? Worth the price of admission, every last one of them. Or they would have been, and I would have gladly paid, but it turned out that admission was free.

I wanted, I really wanted, to say something deep and . . . thoughtful about Di Fillipo's "Shipbreaker". For me, this story has come to represent an entire idea, a type of story that might be dying out now--a type of space opera that there was never enough of to go around in the first place. But every time I try to find the words to talk about this story, I seem to end up embarrassing myself. I start gesticulating a little too wildly, I start talking a little too loudly . . . then I
find I'm grabbing the person I'm talking to, shaking them by the shoulders and shouting in their face, something along the lines of:

"DUDE! This story is SO AWESOME! SHIPBREAKER! THEY BREAK SHIPS! SPACESHIPS! THEY BREAK APART SPACESHIPS FOR SCRAP! And these are big spaceships! Really, really big spaceships! Think BIG! No, bigger than that! Big, BIG, all-of-Manhattan-plus-most-of-the-Bronx BIG! They take these monster, luxury-starliner spaceships to this planet, THEY THROW THEM INTO THE OCEAN, and they have a BIG party. Then they all go out in boats, swarm up onto and over and into the starliner, and then they START RIPPING THE THING APART! It takes MONTHS! YEARS! It powers the entire economy of the planet! These ships are THAT BIG! Oh, and there are these super-intelligent god-like beings with floating clouds of super-intelligent nano-servants, and they have this complex caste system, and members of the higher castes often kill members of the lower castes like they're swatting at so many flies, and the ships are filled with mysterious alien artifacts, and you can pick up exotic diseases from working in them, like the protagonist has this silicate eczema that's constantly flaking off his hands . . . . Oh, and did I mention that THEY BREAK APART ENORMOUS SPACESHIPS AND TURN THEM INTO SCRAP?"


Sorry. I'm, uh, I'm doing it again, aren't I? Sorry about that.

Anyway, if spaceships are the medicine you think you need to cure whatever ails you today, then go read "Shipbreaker." You won't be disappointed.

Link to story.