"The Better to See You With" by Allison Francisco
"Precious Metal" by Aaron Polson
"The Nature of Bees" by Priya Sharma
"The Hot Chocolate Rocket" by Martin Belderson
"The Child" by Matthew F. Perry
"Heart of Hearts" by Bruce McAllister
Reviewed by Dave Truesdale
In Allison Francisco's "The Better to See You With," a pedophile known to children only as The Polaroid Man, stalks playgrounds taking photos of children. He papers his house with them. He also takes them upstairs alone and though never explicitly stated, we know what happens there. Richmond and Marquez are close friends. Marquez is the Polaroid Man's new favorite subject. One afternoon and against his better judgment, Richmond follows Marquez into the Polaroid Man's house and, while Marquez and the Man go upstairs, Richmond discovers secrets within the photos, a portion of wall opening to a small dark room, and stairs leading down to the Man's well-hidden and eerily cave-like developing room.
Through story circumstance Richmond's father learns of the horror being perpetrated on young children by The Polaroid Man and takes matters into his own hands (all offstage). Though the fantastical element is peripheral and slight, it can be rationalized as metaphor for the trapped feeling children must feel when in this most terrible of situations. The heart of the story is, of course (besides the pedophilia), the relationship between Richmond and his best friend Marquez, and how Marquez is drawn away from Richmond by the Polaroid Man, and how the two are brought together again following the "disappearance" of the Polaroid Man—an ugly beast to his very core.
This short story was honored with a third place finish for the Aeon Award in 2008. It is published here for the first time.
At two and a half pages, Aaron Polson's "Precious Metal" gives a snapshot of a post-collapse world where professional gangs ravage the countryside for anything of value, in this case scrap metal of any sort. Using mob tactics, they regularly extort from one old man who lives in a junkyard and who, on the sly, makes the most wonderful creations. His pride and joy is a mechanical owl who can think (think steampunk here). When the mobsters visit the kindly old man in what turns out to be their final visit, the tragedy turns poignant as we learn the mechanical owl has been imbued with feelings as well as thought. Though reminiscent of the devotion flesh and blood animals feel for their owners/masters (especially dogs), this—for want of a better decription—"emotional vignette" achieves its purpose. The final image is well drawn.
Priya Sharma's "The Nature of Bees" is a story in which the reader can see what is coming almost from the start. To say story events are telegraphed is an understatement. That said, the execution builds to a most satisfying conclusion even though we've guessed the denouement far in advance. In essence, there are direct parallels with the social hive organization of bees—especially the queen—and one strange family inhabiting a large old mansion whose matriarch is dying, and the new female guest renting the adjoining cottage.
"The Hot Chocolate Rocket" by Martin Belderson is a goofy, bizarre sendup, a fun spoof on the Men in Black, corny—if wildly imagined--Space Opera tales from the 1920s and 30s, and if taken with this in mind and tongue in cheek, is a pleasant diversion. Two precocious youths—one the engineer and the other the thinker, figure out a way to fuel a rocket using sugar and flour, get the proper financial backing, and the fun begins.
Matthew F. Perry's "The Child," another short tale at just over two pages, isn't much of a story really, and didn't do much for me. A stockboy stacking shelves in a supermarket is interrupted when a mother dragging an obviously mentally deficient little boy down the aisle asks the stockboy to watch her son for a moment while she grabs a few items. He reluctantly agrees. What takes place in the scant few minutes they are left alone is the story, as it is revealed that there is more to the little boy than meets the eye—something inside that is pure evil. He threatens to find the stockboy if his secret is revealed. Mother returns to take her (once again) vacant-eyed son. End of story.
"Heart of Hearts" by Bruce McAllister (photo at right) is by far the best story in this issue. No surprise this, as McAllister is a consummate craftsman who has been writing excellent stories for something close to forty years, and whose work has been nominated for the Nebula, and the Hugo more than once. His recent stories in F&SF ("Blue Fire," March/April 2010) and Asimov's ("The Woman Who Waited Forever," February 2010) are both superb. "Heart of Hearts" reads like it is set in the same early-1960s, post-WW II Mediterranean/Italian locale as "The Woman Who Waited Forever," both seeming to be sections from a forthcoming novel.
As in "The Woman Who Waited Forever," "Heart of Hearts" details the experiences of the son of a Naval officer stationed in Italy following WW II, and shows the teenaged boy's adventures, his life attending school with his Italian classmates, and in this story a strange young Italian girl he spys in a cove by the sea, and the beautiful patterns she makes in the sand with seashells. What makes the story special—and without providing spoilers which would absolutely ruin this fine tale—is that McAllister opens his story with a quote from a letter written to Mary Shelley by her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1822 upon his arrival in the Italian city of Lerici, where McAllister sets this story.
We all know that Percy Shelley died of drowning, but there were rumors he had fathered a child with someone other than Mary—but what we don't know about this historical bit of gossip forms this beautiful, and at the same time sad, story—a tale of love and death McAllister now carries forward from this bit of historical gossip. Is this pale young girl who suffers from narcolepsy, who must be watched at all times lest she wander into the waters of the cove and drown during a seizure, more than she appears? Is there a method to her madness connected to the patterns of the shells, and is there something even more fantastical to their patterning? And how does the young American boy who loves nothing better than collecting seashells—except for perhaps this alluring young girl—figure in this unknown slice of fantasmagoria? Even from these obvious-seeming questions I doubt you'll figure the answers beforehand. "Heart of Hearts" has one of the most beautifully rendered fantasy scenes I can remember reading in short fiction in quite some time, its effect expertly enhanced from the fact that the rest of the story is told in realistic, everyday, straightforward prose which sets up the contrasting fantasy images, and thereby insures the story-ending payoff to be well worth the wait. Highly recommended, and an excellent finish to this issue of Ireland's premiere SF/F magazine.
Albedo One's website can be found here.
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