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, August 21, 2006

"The Dope Fiend" by Lavie Tidhar: An Appreciation by Jason Sizemore

Lavie Tidhar will tell you he's not British. No matter the Cockney that paints his voice. And I believe him.

As a writer, Lavie culls from the rich histories of the Jewish religion, African voodoo magic, and the dark secrets of London to build complex, fascinating stories that he describes as "HebrewPunk." A mixture of British Steampunk and religious mythology, HebrewPunk is quite unlike anything you'll find in the short fiction world.

Ellen Datlow introduces the concept of HebrewPunk to the masses with the story "The Dope Fiend." The work is dense with plot, arcane references to mysterious religious entities, and drugs . . . lots and lots of drugs. We're introduced to a fallen Guardian called Tzaddik, a fascinating figure who maintains a taste for the darker aspects of London. Through the machinations of a desperate man and the power of an African hougan, a dark angel is unleashed that looks to make a sinister trade
for Tzaddik's immortal life.

Though I could go into an extended review of Tidhar's tour-de-force, such reviews have already been written in multitudes. Instead, let me extoll an appreciation of Ellen Datlow's knack for recognizing the unique talents and voices of writers such as Lavie Tidhar. How many times has Ms. Datlow done this over her career? Or simply in the five and one-half years at SCI FICTION? No doubt, many others would have passed on "The Dope Fiend." Too dark, they'd say. Audiences won't connect to this.

Sadly, "The Dope Fiend" was the last story published by SCI FICTION under Ms. Datlow's editorial direction. A fine parting shot to the world.

I miss her stories. I miss her visionary influence on the short-fiction world.


Link to story

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

"Long Cold Day" by Elizabeth Bear: An Appreciation by Haddayr Copley-Woods

When I think of Elizabeth Bear, I think of a large, ginger-colored creature waiting at the river as the salmon begin their run: muscular, determined, keenly intelligent, but also--even as she plots the deaths of the massive and brilliant fish--a little playful.

Has she ever hugged you? I only ask because she is not stingy with the hugs, and there's a good chance she has. I am a vague, dim acquaintance of hers she has seen a few times at cons, and she's hugged even me.

To be hugged by a bear is an astounding thing. A genial bear, of course--a happy bear, an all-encompassing radiant Sun Bear--one feels embraced by Wildness Herself--thrilled, happier, yet also deeply grateful to have ribs intact.

I got the feeling, all wrapped up in Bear, that her benevolence could turn at any moment, should I threaten anyone she holds dear. Bear could be very dangerous.

Which is why I found "Long Cold Day" so uniquely fascinating--her women, although equally dangerous, are anti-Bears: thin, angular, skeletal hounds with slathering fangs and talons.

As comfortable as Elizabeth Bear seems to be in her own skin, sinew, and flesh, these aliens are uncomfortable: miserable in the envelopes of meat they wear in order to hunt their quarry and serve their master: "She shuffled through the crowd, trying not to brush up against too many of the slimy-soft, grub-squirmy humans. The restroom was crowded with females fixing their makeup and inhaling narcotics. She didn't blame them for wanting to distance themselves from their flesh. Raw, greasy flesh. Meat for worms."

These are thin flesh envelopes which show their stark, thin angles: "She was small, slight to boniness, her little titties poking sharp triangles through her sweater and her jeans slung off hip bones you could cut yourself on. Her elbows and knees and shoulder blades were all angles, and her eyes--green and amber in the light over the bar--were luminescent, huge. Some trick of the dimness made her pupils look weird, lens-shaped like an alligator's."

Our hero Christian Whittaker is uncomfortable in his own body, too: ". . . jowls and a double chin that fell over his throat and collar and two thick cushions on either side of his spine below his ears, like the hams on a hog. He wore a wedding ring because his hands were spongy with retained fluid; he could never take it off." His clothes are ill-fitting, his physical discomfort in who he is so enormous that he cannot even fit behind the wheel of a car he has briefly considers stealing. He doesn't seem particularly surprised by this.

Adding to everyone's discomfort is the constant, numbing, agonizing cold that envelops everyone painfully. Each person or alien who encounters it feels slapped across the soul with the misery of cold, cold, cold. And even the reason for the damaging and unnatural cold--a son's love for and inability to let go of his mother--is a wonderful surprising contrast in itself.

Our hero: lumpy, drunk, bumbling--saves his son and saves the day, which is of course heartwarming and I'm a sucker for that sort of thing. But that's not why I chose to appreciate this particular piece. It's because it made me really wonder, which I don't often do: what was going through her head when she wrote this?

I wonder if Bear meant it--to create antagonists who were quite specifically the polar opposites of her? One thing these jutting, angular mantis-like hounds made this reader long for: a firm, happy, radiant warmth to hold on to. Much like, well, a bear.

Or a magical blanket, or even the horrible mess of a father's awkward and stumbling love for his son.

So that's why I love this story: I found the juxtapositions between Bear's being and the beings in the story utterly delicious.

As delicious as a fresh-caught, river-chilled salmon.

Link to story.

Monday, August 14, 2006

"Flowers on Their Bridles, Hooves in the Air" by Glen Hirshberg: An Appreciation by John Langan

I'm a little embarrassed to admit that, until Stefan Dziemianowicz brought it to my attention, Glen Hirshberg's name had flown beneath my radar screen. Once I had Stefan's enthusiastic recommendation, I sought out Hirshberg's work, finding the astonishing "Struwwelpeter" in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. From the first paragraph, the narrator's voice seized hold of me and refused to let go; with pleasure, I realized that this was a story that would not release me until I had read every last word of it. And what a story--since Ray Bradbury, I suppose, and Something Wicked This Way Comes, and certainly since Stephen King, it's been almost de rigeur for writers of supernatural horror fiction to write about children and adolescents. Few, though, had limned the adolescent male perspective with as much skill, as much delicacy, as Hirshberg did in this story. Its ending, with its suggestion that everything we had been reading was in explanation of events even more terrible, was truly shocking.

So when I saw that there was a new story by Glen Hirshberg up at SCIFICTION (which, for the record, had published "Struwwelpeter" (which has received fine commentary here from Nathan Ballingrud)), I turned on the computer and printed it out. It was different from the earlier story; while the perspective still was male, this time the narrator was in his early thirties, married, the father of a year-old daughter. "Flowers on Their Bridles, Hooves in the Air" was about a reunion between the narrator, Eliot, and his wife, Rebecca, with Ash, their friend from college and, in Eliot's case, before. At Rebecca's suggestion, the three of them ventured to Long Beach, to a pier at the end of which was a rundown, somehow sinister arcade. The story was suffused with an air of menace, which was fulfilled by its climax, when one member of the trio was left behind at the sinister arcade, betrayed by their friends and their own worst impulses. Once again, the story ended powerfully, this time with a moving, lyric paean to the loss of hope and the death of desire.

I've re-read "Flowers on Their Bridles" over and over again since that first encounter, trying to figure out how it does what it does so well. I can't say that I've solved the riddle, but that's not a bad thing. In fact, I like the idea of stories whose full successes remain, finally, inexplicable to us. That said, I can offer a few observations about its strengths.

For one thing, there's Eliot. Hirshberg's handling of his voice is impressive. It's always clear, always advancing the narrative in some way, yet it's also a study in the subtleties of individual perception. Eliot fills in personal history for himself, his wife, and their friend; offers motivations for the three of them; and documents the various hues of his thoughts. Despite his observations and suppositions, he's not all-knowing; in fact, he readily admits the limits of his knowledge, the tentative nature of his narration. He is honest, though, to a fault. In his attention to the particularities of perception, Hirshberg reminds me--favorably--of Henry James.

If this were his only virtue, it still would be a considerable one. Yet Hirshberg's portrayal of character, of the relationships among Eliot, Rebecca, and Ash, is equally strong. The three of them are on the cusp of something, a kind of tectonic shift in attitude that I think marks your transition from early adulthood to another state, one whose name I'm leery about naming because I may be there myself. Maybe its name isn't important; what matters is that each of the characters is on the cusp. It's a time of death and disappointment. Rebecca's mother, to whom she was close, has died; the PAC for which she was working has folded; her c-section to deliver her daughter has left a scar that remains unfeeling. She and Eliot have realized, not that they don't love one another--it's more that their love has run up against the hard, recalcitrant parts of one another. Their friend's name assumes tremendous significance; he's a reminder of the way things used to be, all the thrill and excitement that has burnt out of their lives. Reconnecting with him is a chance for the three of them to touch, if not recover, their old fire.

To do so, the three of them make the drive to Long Beach. I can't remember who it was complained contemporary writers don't take enough advantage of landscape, but the complaint doesn't apply to Hirshberg. His evocation of Los Angeles, the 710, Long Beach and the pier waiting there, is deft and vivid. Like his other fiction, this story is placed, its sense of the Genius loci sure.

Once at Long Beach, Rebecca directs Eliot to drive to a pier whose far end once held a carousel. The carousel, we'll learn, was a kind of memorial, built by its creator as a tribute to his dead business partner, friend, and probably lover. Long since removed from the pier, the carousel and its horses live brightly in Rebecca’s memory; she describes it in detail. Although absent from the story's present action, the carousel haunts it, a powerful symbol for the return of the past, for our inability to leave what was--especially what has damaged us--behind. It's the culmination of a series of circle-images that lie scattered throughout the rest of the story. The carousel, the story, are deeply nostalgic--not in a high-school-reunion, "Glory Days" sense, but in the word's root meaning of the pain of returning home, the pain of memory, the pain of coming back to our origins.

Rebecca's reasons for visiting the pier are the soul of nostalgia; it was where her father, an alcoholic who abandoned her, her sister, and their mother, used to take her and her sister to ride the carousel while he played in the adjacent arcade. She directs Eliot and Ash along the pier, through enormous sheets of canvas hung from a roof shaped like a magician's hat, to that same arcade. Suddenly, we're beyond the problems of being on the cusp; suddenly the characters and the story are dealing with much more, with damage that threads its way through a life, that warps and snarls its weave. The trio are accosted by homeless men; Eliot sees a man fishing off the pier hook a small ray that makes him think of his daughter; the pier groans and creaks beneath them. Everything feels fraught with meaning. Then the trio are through to the "Lite-Your-Line" parlor, a collection of pinball machines dominated by a pair of signs, one of which invites players to "Lite Your Line Lite Yours," the other of which displays a set of six numbers. The pinball machines are linked to one another; the goal is to sink your ball in numbered slots at the top of each machine in the order dictated by the numeric sign. When a player succeeds at this, the numeric sign congratulates them on becoming "liter" and they are awarded a red chip. What the chips buy, we never learn.

It's a sinister space, one dominated by repetition. The four players Eliot, Rebecca, and Ash find stationed throughout the parlor seem by their dress to represent the last half-century or so; when Ash moves to join them, the group is brought up to date. The change girl, who glides around the floor on roller skates, knows only one word, a question: "Change?" and with each utterance, the question grows more weighty. Do you want to change, or do you want to remain here, playing games, getting lit, recovering the old fire, leaving your cares, your responsibilities, behind, shuffling them off with each win, getting liter? It's a liminal space, to be sure, a place on the margins, but I think it’s also an antechamber of hell. (We are, after all, downtown . . .)

Once the story is done, it's clear that such a description may be more than a metaphor. Eliot and Rebecca have abandoned Ash to the parlor, left him to find his way to their home, if he can. He does not, and while Eliot speaks to him briefly on the phone thereafter, it will be the last time. Eliot and Rebecca's betrayal is too much, the last bucket of ice water on what used to burn among them. In the end, Eliot is unsure that Ash actually escaped the place. The story exists, in a sense, between the carousel and the arcade, between the never-ending return of the past and its pain, and the loss of the self in mindless repetition. Its ending is beautiful, devastating:

I stepped out of the car, felt the stagnant L.A. air settle around me. The rising sun caught in my neighbor's windows, releasing tiny prisms of colored light, and somewhere down the street, wind-chimes clinked, though there was little wind. And the feeling that whispered through me then was indeed magical, terrible, and also almost sweet. Because I realized I might be underestimating the power of Rooff's last carousel, even now. We could be on it, still; Rebecca, me, the whole crazy, homogenizing coast; bobbing up and down in our prescribed places as our parents die and our friends whirl past and away again and the places we love evaporate out of the world, the way everyone's favorite people and places inevitably do. Until, finally, we are just our faces, smiles frozen bright as we can make them, hands stretching for our children because we can't help but hope they'll join us, hope they'll understand before we did that there really may be no place else to go or at least forgive us for not finding it. Then they'll smile back at us. Climb aboard. And ride.

It wasn't until I read "Dancing Men," Hirshberg's story in Ellen Datlow's ghost-story anthology, The Dark, that I was sure of it, but this closing--and that of "Struwwelpeter" before it--strongly suggested to me that Hirshberg was one of the best writers of endings currently at work. Even without that last paragraph, "Flowers on Their Bridles, Hooves in the Air," would be a memorable story; with its closing lines, it moves from the memorable to the haunting.

Glen Hirshberg was only one of the writers Ellen Datlow brought us at SCIFICTION, "Flowers on Their Bridles" only one of the stories. But I take him and his story as an index of the level of talent Ellen featured on a weekly basis. I'm grateful to Hirshberg for having written such a story; I'm grateful to Ellen for having published it. I'm grateful for it all.

Link to story.