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.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

"Floating in Lindrethool" by Jeffrey Ford: An Appreciation by Trent Hergenrader

Imagine Tony Soprano as an eloquent philosophy professor.

That was my first impression of Jeff Ford when I met him in June of 2004, when he and Kelly Link taught the last two weeks of the Clarion Writers Workshop. Jeff arrived in the midst of a critique session Monday morning and wasted no time in sharing his honest, intellectual, and astute observations on our stories.

In a thick Jersey accent. Punctuated with plenty of colorful language.

That morning was the first time I'd heard "Gabriel García Márquez" and "fuck" used in the same sentence. The amazing part? He made it work. I learned a lot those last two weeks, and I laughed a lot. I hadn't read a lot Jeff's stuff back then and I think I could be forgiven for assuming that most of his stories were both unapologetically crude and hilarious.

And I would have been flat out wrong.

Because if I had to use a single word to describe Jeff's stories, that word would be "delicate." Not in sense of being weak or fragile--far from it. Rather because his stories are characterized by fine workmanship and great sensitivity. He is as exacting and precise with his words as a master surgeon is with a scalpel. When he cuts, he cuts deep. But it's for our own good. Really.

I could blather like this all day but luckily for you I'm supposed to talk about a story: Floating in Lindrethool. I couldn't have picked a better one for an aspiring writer to take a turn at the knife. So let's slice into it and study the entrails, shall we?

Perhaps you're wondering what makes it worth studying. The answer is stuff like this, taken from the story's opening:

Eight men in black rain coats, white shirts and ties, and the company issued, indicative, derbies. They fanned out across the grim industrial cityscape, the soot falling like black snow around them. Each carried a valise in one hand and a large case with a handle in the other.

Forty-nine words, three sentences, and a world is born.

Soon we meet the dispirited, pantsless Slackwell sitting in his hotel room with a bourbon and cigarette, practicing his spiel that has, as his boss describes it, "all the allure of a drooping erection." We pity the aptly-named Slackwell, but no one wants to read a story about a door-to-door salesman crying in his beer. Ford knows this all too well, and we immediately see what Slackwell is selling:

The black metal carrier bulged at the sides as if it housed an oversized bowling ball. The front panel opened on hinges, and he reached in and brought forth a large glass globe with a circular metal base. The base had dials and buttons on it, two jacks, a small speaker, and, in the back, a wound up thin electrical cord was attached. Thinktank, the name of the company was written across the metal in red letters and after it the model number 256-B. The globe above was filled with clear liquid and suspended at its center was a human brain.

Yes, that's right. A human brain.

If you're interested in the technical aspects of writing, take a look at the last sentence in the paragraph cited above. You could be a "good" writer and eliminate the use of the passive "was," rewriting the sentence as: A human brain floated in the globe, suspended by clear liquid."

Yet this sentence is clearly inferior. Look how the sentence structure--hell, the whole paragraph--draws you, like being caught in a whirlpool, to the stunning conclusion. I don't know how many times I've admired this piece of craftsmanship, but it's more than a few. A good paragraph flows into the next one; a great paragraph catapults you through the end of the story. This is a great paragraph.

Writers, it has been said, need to hook the reader early. At this point in "Floating in Lindrethool," this reader was grabbed hook, line, and sinker. We're not even 700 words into the story, yet I'm ready to follow Ford off the edge of a cliff if that's where he takes me.

And off the cliff is about where the story goes. If you thought Steve Martin had the whole "falling in love with a brain in a jar" market wrapped up with "The Man With Two Brains," think again. Despite the absurdity of the conceit, you can't help rooting for Slackwell as he fights to escape the prison of his life--and to help liberate the brain from its prison as well.

I've performed similar vivisections on some of Ford's other stories, yet "Floating in Lindrethool" remains one of my favorites, probably because of its off-the-wall weirdness from start to finish. But no matter how many pieces I break it into, no matter how closely I study the sentences and paragraphs, it remains unique, inimitable, and 100% pure Jeff Ford. And as I've found in my research, that's always worth the price of admission.

Other good news: in case you hadn't noticed, wherever Ellen Datlow pops up as editor, Jeff Ford usually shows up as a contributor. So keep a keen eye out for where Ellen pops up next, because another Jeff Ford classic won't be far behind.

With affection,
Trent Hergenrader

Link to story.

PS - "Floating in Lindrethool" can be found in Jeff's first collection, The Fantasy Writer's Assistant and Other Stories. Also, check out his newest collection, The Empire of Ice Cream, now available.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

"The Yellow Pill" by Rog Phillips: An Appreciation by Sheila Williams

"The Yellow Pill" in Rog Phillips's classic 1958 Astounding story strengthens the user's perception of reality so that "reality practically shouts down any fantasy insertions." Clearly, anyone under the influence of the yellow pill would have a hard time trying to read, understand, enjoy, and validate science fiction and fantasy.

The school year at my high school carried on for about a week past final exams and graduation. The underclass students' work during that week wouldn't count for a grade so the school offered a number of mini pass/fail courses. One of the subjects offered my senior year was science fiction. The teacher responsible for the class invited me back after graduation to help him teach it. I found it fun and rewarding to be a "teacher" at my own school, but the experience was also enlightening.

Rog Phillips's story was included in the syllabus. To me it was a fairly traditional SF story, filled with third-class freighters and blue-scaled Venusian space pirates. To the students, it was something completely different. For all of them, and perhaps even the teacher, it was a story about a psychiatrist treating an unstable person who thought he was on a spaceship. When the psychiatrist began to think he was on a spaceship, the class was convinced the doctor had gone insane, too. Admittedly, Phillips has fun playing with the reader's perception of reality, but the story was first published in a science fiction magazine in the fifties and repeatedly anthologized in SF books. These are fairly strong clues that the story probably contains some straightforward science fiction concepts. As I recall, though, I failed to sway a single person in the room.

At the time, I assumed that the readers simply hadn't yet acquired their science fiction "legs." Like the kids I knew who'd moved north from Florida and who had had to learn how to walk on snow, I figured the students would get it once they had a little more exposure to the subject. That may have been true for most of them. They must have appreciated some aspects of SF and/or fantasy or they wouldn't have signed up for the course. But I believed that, once exposed to the "good stuff," everyone would be capable of appreciating fantastic literature. Alas, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.

In a March 3, 1996, New York Times review of an Ursula K. Le Guin collection, Francine Prose lamented that some of the fiction in Unlocking the Air and Other Stories was full of the tired ideas only a science fiction reader could love. She compared some of Ms. Le Guin's stories about aliens to the work of college freshmen, and suggested that perhaps the author would have been better served if her stories had been split into two books that would have appealed more to each of her separate audiences. Then, taking the flip side of my own position, she suggested that perhaps it was better that the book hadn't been divided up after all because science fiction readers might accidentally stumble upon "the many-layered story 'Ether, OR,'" and by encountering Ms. Le Guin's "deft tricks with narrative techniques," "light-handed sureness," and "genuinely intriguing ideas" those readers might start to take pleasure in the author's complex fiction as well. Interestingly, Ms. Prose did not seem to realize that "Ether, OR" was first published in the November 1995 issue of Asimov's. Noting this fact, though, might have undermined her apparent assumption that people who enjoyed science fiction and fantasy had to be completely ignorant. If only we'd snap out of it, she seemed to imply, and take that yellow pill, it's possible we could actually be taught how to read English, too.

Well, that was years ago, you might say, and in a fuddy-duddy old newspaper, too. And even if Ms. Prose and her ilk haven't discovered the antidote to that pill, surely younger readers are more open to the wild subjects that pervade today's SF and fantasy. After all, 2005 brought broad recognition to authors whose work has also appeared in such SF venues as SCI FICTION and Asimov's. Jonathan Lethem won the MacArthur "genius grant." Maureen McHugh's Mothers and Other Monsters was nominated for The Story Prize. The 2005 Best American Short Stories anthology included stories by Cory Doctorow, Tim Pratt, and recent Hugo- and Nebula-award-winner, Kelly Link. Both Time and chose Ms. Link's Magic for Beginners for their top-ten lists of 2005 books. Yet a review of the same collection in the August/September issue of Bust, a magazine with a young feminist following, maintained that only those who could swallow an absurd premise would be taken with the book. Admitting her own strong preference for realistic fiction, the reviewer indicated that the author's stories had confused her and that only a writer guilty of a certain intellectual laziness would place "such absolutely human, flawed characters inside such baffling, uncanny plotlines."

So the Times reviewer and the supposedly hip Bust reviewer have had the chance to read SF and fantasy by some of the best writers of our day. Yet they still haven't acquired their science fiction legs. They're still confused by zombies and fairies and aliens. They still don't have much tolerance for stories that veer far from everyday reality, and they can't imagine why anyone professing any level of intelligence does. Well, I'll continue to read Rog Phillips and other SF and fantasy writers for fun, and maybe even for their "light-handed sureness," "intriguing ideas," and absurd premises, but I intend to keep Rog's medicine cabinet nailed shut. My sense of reality is just fine, thank you, but I don't intend to let it interfere with my sense of the fantastic.

Link to story.

Monday, April 17, 2006

"Humpty Dumpty Had a Great Fall" by Frank Belknap Long: An Appreciation by Nicholas Ozment

"Nothing cruel about poor old Humpty Dumpty. He'd tear your heart out. A lovely goofy old egg. Where's the cruelty then? I'll tell you. The picture that devilish fantasy conjures up is the essence of cruelty. A smashed, quivering, alive egg, in torment, scattered, spilling its yolk." --from "Humpty Dumpty Had a Great Fall" by Frank Belknap Long.

I am here to sing the praises of Frank Belknap Long's science-fiction story "Humpty Dumpty Had a Great Fall" (1948). But before we praise its merits, let's be clear about one thing: the Orban boy's loop--the "loop of hollow metal, twisted into a perfect arch like a gigantic croquet wicket [. . .] riddled with holes and an eerie radiance was spilling out of it"--is what we in the storytelling biz call a MacGuffin. It functions to get the plot rolling, much like the serum that transforms Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde. As Stephen King points out in Danse Macabre (1981), Robert Louis Stevenson's serum wouldn't bear up under scrutiny, but it is not the main point of interest anyway--the reader is interested in Jekyll's transformation, and the potion Stevenson throws in merely to provide a pseudo-scientific basis, a sop to those readers who need such rationale to aid their suspension of disbelief. Much the same can be said for the Orban boy's gizmo--it's there to get our protagonists over into the blue world.

"Humpty Dumpty" does contain science-fictional elements, but they are not what the story is about. Plain and simple, "Humpty Dumpty" is a horror tale that posits a What If. What if those cruel nursery rhymes were true? What if we found ourselves inhabiting their twisted logic and demented outcomes? It is a scary story for precisely the reason one of Arthur Machen's characters in "The White People" (1899, 1922) famously argues, "What would your feelings be, seriously, if your cat or your dog began to talk to you, and to dispute with you in human accents? You would be overwhelmed with horror. [. . .] And if the roses in your garden sang a weird song, you would go mad." In other words, fairy-tale fancies that we took for granted as children would, if we were to encounter them as sober and sane adults, put sharp blades to the tethers of our sanity. Long's story is a story about madness.

I first came across "Humpty Dumpty" as a young boy perusing my father's bookcase. It was in Robert Silverberg's anthology Strange Gifts (1975). The story was a strange gift indeed to my budding imagination, opening up whole new realms of possibility to me. It was one of the first stories that taught me to ask, "What if?" And the pursuit of that ability is why, twenty-odd (very odd) years later, I am a writer primarily of fantasy and horror. What if you looked in the mirror one day and it was not your face looking back at you? What if you bumped into a wall and instead of bouncing off, you slipped through it into another place? What if you were walking up the stair and met a man who wasn't there? Or, as Long asks in his disturbing little story, what if Humpty Dumpty really did have a great fall?

The story's pulp-era science, with its "Seral blaster," its rocketry and gadgets, is pretty dated now and didn't make much of an impression on me the first time I read it. In fact, when I revisited it years later, I had completely forgotten it was ostensibly a sci-fi story! What I remembered was that image of the broken egg-man, "completely bashed in, a flattish horror swimming in its yolk." That's what got under my skin. That, and the clockwork blue world where the headless bowmen periodically unleash death according to some unvarying, incomprehensible program . . . and the crooked man who ran a crooked mile: literally a "jigsaw giant, bent nearly double" who goes "reeling and stumbling over the plain, as if in unendurable agony" . . . and the floating "gear-and-wheel-filled spheroid" that swings down out of the sky—the only thing in the world that speaks, but merely to repeat and amplify whatever you say in "a vibrant echo that means absolutely nothing." It has no discernable purpose--one of the characters comes up with a rather elaborate hunch that "it's simply a weird regulatory mechanism that sweeps down at long intervals. A kind of cog in the clockwork setup--a stabilizing flying pendulum that's needed here to keep things moving on an even keel." Whatever it is, it, like everything in this world, has some analogue in nursery rhymes, as if this is a world glimpsed into by children--"but the author of the Mother Goose rhymes remembered his dreams of childhood more vividly than most men."

In case you have not yet read it, I will not give away the ending. I will say that Long demonstrates what can be done when one carries a "What if?" to its logical extreme. And "Humpty Dumpty Had a Great Fall" I submit to you as exhibit A for why asking such questions is a spellbinding pursuit. The science fiction here is, as I noted earlier, dated and pedestrian. But the dread, awe, and wonder that Long evokes is timeless.

And you'll never read Mother Goose the same way again.

Link to story.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

"Boz" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch: An Appreciation by Paul Oppenheimer

Rusch's "Boz" reminds of the more recent coup d'imagination of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

How does one love an autistic child (whether called "Captain" or not)? How does one delicately slip into the interstices of the hyperdeveloped, hyperconnected brain (v. "Nature via Nurture") a human, empathetic touch, such as those of us whose brains are not entirely occupied with their inner activity crave?

Softly, slowly, secretly, a discreet love slips in.

Link to story.

Monday, April 10, 2006

"At the Mouth of the River of Bees" by Kij Johnson: An Appreciation by Hannah Wolf Bowen

I've been working towards this appreciation, on and off, for months. I didn't expect it to be this hard. A few paragraphs about the story that I knew, when I first heard about this project, I wanted for my own? Piece of cake!

Only not. I've been reading and rereading the story. Starting and restarting the appreciation. And here I am starting it all over again.

There are science fiction stories that work from the outside in, that tackle the entire world on some grand sweeping scale, and there are stories that have plenty to say, but it's all personal. "At the Mouth of the River of Bees" is a story about love and loyalty and loneliness, and about hope and about when to say when, and about magic sliding sideways into the world, about how something as small as a bee sting can be part of something else.

And "At the Mouth of the River of Bees" is a story about one woman and one aged dog. Part of the beauty of science fiction is not having to choose.

The western states that Linna drives through are as strange and magical as the river of bees. Linna "...drives as fast as the little Subaru will go, the purple highway drawing her east. Late sun floods the car. The honey-colored light flattens the brush and rock of the badlands into abrupt gold and violet, shapes as unreal as a hallucination. It's late May and the air is hot and dry during the day, the nights cold with the memory of winter. She hates the air-conditioner, so she doesn't use it, and the air thrumming in the open window smells like hot dust and metal and, distant as a dream, ozone and rain." It's a strange landscape, and one full of potential, and the river of bees can flow through it as naturally as a river of water might.

Despite all this, the characters know that the river of bees is impossible, and so the only ones to follow it are the ones seeking impossible things. Linna's bee sting draws her on; it's not the thing that's breaking her, but it's a hurt that she can stand to recognize. She chases down the river and her grand old dog is along for the ride. He's dying, and he may be ready, but she's not.

"Back at the car, Linna watches Sam chase something in his sleep, paws twitching in the rhythm of running. Live forever, she thinks, and wills his twisted spine and legs straight and well."

It's a story, in a way, about choice. Because in the center of all this beauty and magic, we still have one woman and her dog, and then we have another woman who can perhaps help that dog and be helped by him in turn, if Linna can bear to let him go. And we have an ending that left me infuriated on first and second read, then thoughtful, and finally a bittersweet kind of glad.

I first met "At the Mouth of the River of Bees" two years and some months ago. I've thought about it since then, read it over and over, talked about it and argued and written my own story in response. And I suppose that part of my trouble in writing this appreciation has been that a few paragraphs aren't nearly enough to explain how well the story stands up to scrutiny and how fine and deep it is.

Link to story.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

"Two Weeks in August" by Frank Robinson: An Appreciation by Colleen Mondor

The first thing that struck me when I was reading Frank Robinson's "Two Weeks in August" was how timeless the story appeared to be. It is about one of the most common of 20th (or 21st) century pastimes--complaining about the people you work with at a job that is slowly sucking your soul away. The story's narrator is that all-round ordinary guy, someone who enjoys his moments at the office when he has something to tell--when he gets to share a personal triumph about home and family that makes him the momentary center of attention. The bane of his existence is a guy named McCleary, the classic obnoxious coworker who always has to prove he's better--his kids are smarter, his car is newer, his house is more glorious. Basically, if you walk in to work on Monday having spent the weekend finding a cure for cancer, McCleary will have brought about world peace in the same period.

We all know a guy like McCleary.

The big moment for our narrator, for all the guys at the office, is those two annual weeks of vacation they receive every year. Of course vacation destinations are another opportunity for McCleary to play his game of one-up-manship and the narrator is sick to death of the endless cycle. The situation is all the more frustrating for him this particular year becasue financial concerns mean that he will be spending his two weeks in the backyard. It's not a bad way to see part of the summer but he knows McCleary will be endlessly annoying about his own grand plans and this time our guy just can't take it. So he comes up with a plan to cut his competition off before he has the chance to brag--he decides to announce a vacation destination that is so outlandish, so amazing, so literally out of this world, that McCleary won't be able to compete. He's finally going to shut the other man up and enjoy just a little bit of peace and quiet.

He's finally going to win because frankly, there is just no way to beat him.

But then the story takes a turn, a sweetheart of a turn, and the narrator (and all the other guys) are dumbfounded by McCleary's achievement. They all smartly decide to make the most of it though, and peace finally comes to the office. The fact that McCleary is responsible really doesn't matter because everyone wins so big (really big). And besides, without McClearly none of it ever would have happened anyway so why complain. By the end of the story, the narrator is affectionately referring to his old rival as "Mac" and has come to appreciate him on a whole new level. Every office has a guy just like him, after all, and whether or not you use his competitive nature to everyone's advantage though is up to you, and how badly you want to enjoy those two weeks in August.

But that's not the end of my appreciation. I liked "Two Weeks in August" because it was so easy for me to identify with the characters. I knew the narrator (I have been the narrator) and I certainly have endured the presence of my share of McClearys. But when I saw the copyright at the end--when I saw that Frank Robinson wrote this story in 1951, I was totally blown away. I had no idea this was a fifty year old story, no idea at all. Robinson brought such an impressive air of timelessness to the tiny world he created, such a perfectly adaptable atmosphere that transends all generational or regional assignment, that it has easily stayed with me over the past couple of weeks. So much of our world has changed since 1951 that it is hard to believe how little of the narrator's world is different. But there are still the same offices, the same cubicle games, the same longing for vacation. Some things just might never change.

In crafting his story so effectively around the unchanging aspects of jobs and work Robinson shows one of the best things about science fiction--that it can be a timeless art, a forever art, that will appeal with ease to any reader of any age. He makes it all look easy with "Two Weeks in August," but don't be fooled by that. Give the story five minutes of your time and you will be mightily impressed by Robinson's talent for understatement. I know that I was, and I still can't get this story out of my head.

Link to story.