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, 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.