Clarkesworld #1

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"A Light in Troy" by Sarah Monette

As one of the newest online venues for speculative fiction, Clarkesworld Magazine will feature two stories a month: one from an established author with books available on the Clarkesworld Books website, and one selected from submissions made to the slush pile.  If the first issue is any indication, we are in for a treat.

The October 2006 issue’s prominent author spot goes to "A Light in Troy" by Sarah Monette.  It is the story of an unnamed, middle-aged woman who is taken as a slave after conquerors murder her family.  She is put in the service of a blind librarian in a large fortress near the sea.

The woman begins the story in despair, without even a glimmer of the light referenced in the title.  She contemplates suicide and decides to live every morning on the beach below the fortress.  One morning, as she turns away from the ocean, she sees a feral child who she assumes is one of the fortress’s previous inhabitants.

At its heart, this story examines the necessity of relationships to survival.  The woman chooses to live every single morning, but remains withdrawn and alone.  Her status as a slave, as well as her despondency over the loss of her family, isolates her from the blind librarian, the only person who pays her any attention.  As she gradually coaxes the feral child out of hiding, she shares her progress with the blind librarian in spite of the fact that he is an enemy and with one word could have the child killed. 
Of special note is Monette’s immersive and effortless prose.  Even though the story is more introspective than action-packed, it completely holds the reader’s attention.

The calm tone set by Monette’s piece is completely upset by Lavie Tidhar‘s "304 Adolf Hitler Strasse." 

Tidhar opens with the main character, Hershele Ostropol—or his real name, Hanzi Himmler—taken from his home.  From there, the story shifts into an extended flashback that explains how Hershele/Hanzi came to be dragged from his home.  The first scene is a young Hanzi walking in on his elderly grandfather engaged in S&M with a prostitute wearing an old Nazi SS uniform.  She screams at the old man, calling him a dirty Jew while whipping him with a riding crop.

Hanzi, fascinated and aroused by what he has witnessed, begins reading as much as he can about the Jewish people, who in his world have been exterminated by the Nazis.  He discovers a community called the Judenhacker which fetishizes the extinct Jewish people by writing Jewish/Nazi slash.  Hanzi reads the stories, wearing a homemade yarmulke and side curls while he masturbates.  At seventeen, he takes on the Jewish name Hershele Ostropol and begins writing stories of his own.

In the hands of a less skilled writer, this story could have devolved into poorly written smut.  It never does, even when sections of the fictional writer’s fiction are included.  Those sections are more pulp than slash, but effective in the context of the story considering that Hershele becomes a popular writer of scholarly essays as well as fiction. 

The story tantalizes, but it also explores the idea that fetishizing a human being or ethnic group is also dehumanizing them.  Hanzi is fascinated by the Jews, but he is only given the stereotype.  As readers, we know that the stereotype is only a construct that is bent to its creator’s purpose.  The Nazis created a Jewish stereotype to disgust and frighten the German people.  The Judenhackers, and Hanzi, tweaked that stereotype in order to get off. 

Hershele/Hanzi’s fate at the end is one that is an old genre cliché.  Only this time, it feels more complex than usual.  Tidhar recycles it so it feels new and very appropriate to the story.