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.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

"Small Houses" by James P. Blaylock: An Appreciation by Amy Sterling Casil

I might have overestimated Jim's sense of humor in the past. Or, it may just be that I'm older, and I see so much more clearly how immensely touching his writing is. How the words are laden with quiet emotion.

I might well be writing my first comments on a story that was reviewed previously by others online. According to one well-known SF/F reviewer, "Sci Fiction presents the wonderful and whimsical nostalgic reveries of a dying man in "Small Houses" by James P. Blaylock."

I can think of some words to describe the dying man Mr. Johnson and his reveries, but "wonderful" and "whimsical" aren't chief among them. Another reader, Jed Hartman, wrote that "'Small Houses' is a very nice, and sad, barely fantasy piece."

"Small Houses" is very nice, and it is a little sad, but not really. Maybe you have to have had a grandfather who was handy like Mr. Johnson, and also a fig tree in the back yard, in order to find a sense of order in the story, as opposed to sadness. I am not sure why Jed wanted to mention that the story was a "barely fantasy piece." I think it's fairly clear that Myrt (Mr. Johnson's deceased wife) is showing herself to her husband in the fish bowl. And, I wondered if Johnson had in fact not already died, and simply wasn't accepting it yet -- for he found the other sherry glass, and the anniversary card -- except he does sit down and "pass away" at the end of the story.

According to Flaubert, God was in the details.

The details collected in "Small Houses" pertain to Mr. Johnson's life. He has built a very small treehouse in an avocado tree in his back yard, into which he places his makeshift fish bowl and his fish, Septimus, and, if one reads carefully, himself. He has shut up his house after his wife's death -- and it's really not certain for how long, but probably a long time.

"As time passed and the foliage thickened, the natural light had dwindled, which was to be expected, since that was the way with everything."

"Small Houses" is a story about organizing one's life, the way it has to be in a small house. Today, I think people are sometimes surprised by the tiny spaces previous generations made-do with. Little 800 square foot houses with three bedrooms and a single bathroom were considered fine for families in years past. Today, a single person has trouble "making do" with that amount of space. I know how things were also precious to people as well. For forty years, Mr. Johnson has built a toolbox with compartments that he's always planned to convert to a coffin as the end draws near.

He envisioned compartments for hammers and saws and planes, for squares and levels and a set of bits and augers; cubbyholes for nails and screws and wood dough; slots and panels that could be arranged and rearranged over the passing years until, when the sun was setting at last, metaphorically speaking, he could remove the interior complications more or less altogether, leaving only a nook and a cranny for the few things, beside himself, that he wanted to take along to the afterlife.

As everyone knows, "You can't take it with you," and throughout the meditative, careful pace of Mr. Johnson's preparations, you know that he's not going to be able to take the sherry glasses, the sherry, the cribbage board, or the "Desert Island books." The story is more about his acceptance that he's dying, and how he finally comes to make his peace with his life and his death.

I knew a couple like this. More than one, actually. Sometimes when a couple has been married for many years, and one partner dies, the other one scarcely knows how to go on. I felt this about these two. The doorknob, the saved sherry label, the sherry glasses and garage sale bargain treasures. But people don't much build treehouses in avocado trees like that -- he set the redwood lumber in the tree branches themselves, putting the posts in concrete pilings. Over the years, the tree grew around the posts, shutting them in, closing down the light. And as the light dwindles, so does Mr. Johnson's life.

The details one might call "ordinary," but they are not. They are as unique as fingerprints, as the freckles on someone's nose, as the flecks in another one's eyes, as the pitch of a laugh, and the way one mother folds her daughter's t-shirts and sprinkles them with lavender.

I'll just close by saying, stories like this are their own reward. Everyone who reads it will receive it.

Link to story.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

"Hula Ville" by James P. Blaylock: An Appreciation by Amy Sterling Casil

Hula Ville was once a real landmark on the famous "Route 66" going to or from the High Desert in Southern California. It's not the kind of place any of my people would have been inclined to stop at when I was growing up. Although it's absolutely my kind of place, I never managed to stop there before it sank back into the desert sands.

So, I read "Hula Ville" by Jim Blaylock.

When I was 12, I woke and saw shining lights flickering at the foot of my bed and I was covered in electricity that made all my hair stand on end. For a long time I thought it was the spirits of Indians coming from their burial ground out in the wash. I have a hard time understanding why "Hula Ville" is in SCI FICTION. It's plain it's a true story. The problem is that most people don't understand what goes on out in these places. I guess they never heard that God does live in the desert. I know about those people that went out to Angel's Peak to get baptized. They all acted differently when they came back. Considering the pretty near total lack of what all went on in my town back in those days, it was a good thing.

As Jim writes about this fellow who went out to Hula Ville,

When I was twelve years old, I awoke in the night to find a strange man standing at the foot of my bed, regarding me as I slept. Moonlight through the window cast what appeared to be the shadow of wings against the wall behind him. Instead of being terrified, I was filled with a radiant joy, and as he faded from existence it came into my head that I had been visited by an angel.

Of course he was.

"Hula Ville" has some of Jim's most beautiful writing, and that's saying a lot. It's as stark and graceful as the Mojave itself, where the story is mostly-set. People might not understand that the fellow who visits Hula Ville and who made the desert trek to see what he could see, lives in a terrible place as the story begins. Not magical at all, and not much the kind of place you'd expect angels to visit. Open to wonder, the fellow journeys to Hula Ville and gets a map of the desert and all of its magical places. His journey starts and ends at the amazing Hula Ville--and the thing about places like Hula Ville, which to my knowledge you see only in the Mojave, is that they are testaments to human dreams. The dreams might not make sense to other people. They make sense to their single-minded creators. Scotty's Castle. That lady that has the Opera House in Death Valley. I saw a fellow who had surrounded his house with giant desert rocks, out by Baker.

This road that the fellow takes, where Hula Ville once was, was Route 66, and everyone knows what kind of road that was. It's I-15 now, and mostly, it's the way to Vegas. Thousands of people drive that way every day, chasing a certain kind of dream.

But real dreams are out there in the desert, hidden in crags--found by distant desert oases. Some people chased gold. Others--angels.

This is one of Jim Blaylock's most evocative stories. Do read it.

Link to story.

Amy Sterling Casil
8 January 2007
Redlands, California

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

"Gauging Moonlight" by E. Catherine Tobler: An Appreciation by Patrick Samphire

Sometimes, you think that all that can be done in a sub-genre has been done.

Sometimes, someone comes along and proves just how wrong you were.

E. Catherine Tobler's time-travel story is a fine example of one of those times. The narrator of the story is an immensely powerful time-traveler whose job is to observe sentient life but never to interfere. Although possessing the immense power to change history, to wipe people from history's stream, he is forbidden to do so.

Yet when he encounters an English woman, Alice Oxbridge, he cannot help himself, and he violates these rules to remove from her history the man who would break her heart and ruin her life. Over and over, the time-traveler visits the same parts of Alice's life, her birth and her death, and so her life becomes entwined with his. The time-traveler who looks down at the stupidity of the time-locked life-forms discovers himself to be as fallible and as human as they are.

"Gauging Moonlight" is both a tragedy and a love story. Again and again the time-traveler touches on Alice's life, revisiting the key events but unable to stay. Their relationship is a series of poignant and brief encounters, spread across Alice’s lifetime, each one experienced again and again by the time-traveler but not remembered by Alice. Now he returns to her at the end of her life, not for the first time for him, but certainly for the last.

When this moment passes, I can follow the thread backward to her beginning, to our beginning. But I won't.


"How many times have you been here, in this room at the end with me? How many times have you come to my garden? I fed you honey years ago, but it was not truly your first time, was it? You came to observe, Edward."

Alice draws the sleeve of her nightgown up to expose her arm. I look at the drawn and gray flesh, withered nearly to the bone. Her wrist seems the width of a bird's leg. I don't wish to observe this. Though I try to look away, Alice claims my chin in her hand and draws my gaze back to her. She forces me to observe the changes time has wrought upon her body. She is gray and growing hollow.

"This is what happens to us, Edward. Never you, though. How many times can you travel back? Did we talk in my garden just this morning?"

"I offered you a bracelet at noon." My voice cracks, uncertain. I have never sounded so afraid.

Alice lifts her opposite wrist. The slip of marcasite I gifted her with years ago and only this noon hangs loose upon her arm.

It would be very easy to do a story like this badly. It is as delicate as the connection between the two lovers. A single wrong step could tear it apart. The great triumph of Tobler's story is that she does not take that wrong step. Her writing is subtle and clever, and the story is full of beautiful images: "the golden dust of African plains", or the lilac branch the time-traveler carries from the garden where Alice is being born to her deathbed. It is an example of form perfectly fitting function. As the narrator skims across the surface of Alice's life, touching only lightly, never staying long, so Tobler passes over the story, touching lightly in turn and never lingering too long. In this, the story's form perfectly matches its function. The reader is left to imagine deeper and thereby understand the full tragedy of their lives, and the way their love transcends.

This is a beautiful, fragile story that remains long with the reader.

Link to story.

Monday, January 08, 2007

"The Thousand Cuts" by Ian Watson: An Appreciation by Mike Allen

Part comedy of manners, part apocalyptic horror story, "The Thousand Cuts" presents a perfect sample of Ian Watson's darkly puckish sensibility.

Fascination with the nature of consciousness and sentience runs throughout of Watson's work, from the hallucinatory alien encounters in early novels such as Miracle Visitors to the robots searching for identity in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.

In "The Thousand Cuts," all of mankind begins to experience forward leaps in time, as if some powerful meta-being is cutting and splicing reality in the manner in which a film editor edits a movie. Events happen during the cuts: newspaper articles are published, treaties are signed, but no one remembers what went on; frightened members of the populace gather around radios to wait for announcers to inform what happened during the missing time.

Sometimes the results are disastrous, as people suddenly find themselves at the wheel of a speeding truck, or worse, behind the controls of a plane about to land at a strange airport; other times the results are humorous, as when television director Hugh Carpenter and colleague Alison Samuels are caught up in a hostage situation at a Russian restaurant, and then abruptly find themselves in the midst of lovemaking at Carpenter's flat, with no memory of the week that passed between.

Only one clearly positive thread results from the cuts: nuclear disarmament talks are moving along splendidly. Negotiations among the nations have progressed smoothly, but it's all happened during the cuts, the time no one consciously remembers. (The story was published in the early 1980s, when fear of a full-scale nuclear war informed daily life in a way that it doesn't today — though one could argue there's still plenty to be afraid of.)

In Watson's stories, when confronted with mind-blowing phenomena, his erudite and worldly characters strive to make sense of it. What could be dry explication masquerading as dialogue fascinates because of the complexity of the ideas explored — and in the case of "Thousand Cuts," the droll wit of Carpenter and his circle of friends. Perhaps God has finally taken an active role in shaping mankind's fate. Or perhaps these jumps in time have been happening all along, and only now are people allowed to be in on the joke.

In fact, Carpenter decides that the only way humanity can learn to cope with this strange new circumstance is to learn to look on it with humor. He directs what critics call television's finest half-hour, a comedy show that makes light of what Alison calls "the Life of a Thousand Cuts." The show circulates around the world, and Carpenter becomes a hero of sorts. Until the Creator makes it clear that higher powers have no tolerance for mockery, leaving the terrified director to desperately shout "Cut! Cut! Cut!" as his death approaches, only to learn he won't be spared the experience of his own final scene.

It's interesting to note that recent advocates of fiction that blurs genre boundaries and defies plot conventions don't seem to have discovered Watson, who has gleefully committed such transgressions since his career began in the 1970s — perhaps because he works with labyrinthine ideas rather than labyrinthine prose. Critics sometimes take him to task for wildly shifting genre gears mid-story, for example from religious satire to futuristic alien invasion ("That's how my mind works," he once told me). In "Thousand Cuts" he breaks an unspoken pact with the reader by offering no solution to the mystery. Like the Knight in Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal," the people living the Life of a Thousand Cuts learn the only answer is the final one. Our director protagonist complains to his Creator-—perhaps the author himself?--"Post-holocaust scenes now, I presume. No damn sense of continuity—-"

"The Thousand Cuts" first appeared as an original story in Ben Bova and Don Myrus's The Best of Omni Science Fiction 3 (1982). Ellen Datlow reprinted it three years later in The Fourth Omni Book of Science Fiction, then brought it to light again as a SCI FICTION Classic.

Ellen provided an invaluable service to readers everywhere by making short fiction gems from throughout the genre's history available at the click of a mouse. I regret that it ended so soon, too soon. I hope that readers will take advantage of what riches are still to be found there.

Link to story.