Clarkesworld #50, November 2010

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Clarkesworld #50
November 2010

“On the Banks of the River Lex” by N.K. Jemisin
“Seeing” by Genevieve Valentine

Reviewed by Bob Blough

Clarkesworld is an excellent SF e-zine.  The stories that its various editors – Sean Wallace, Nick Mamatas and now Neil Clarke – have published over the years are wonderful pieces of subterfuge and daring.  I believe that right now we are in the midst of a new renaissance of the genre short story. Clarkseworld is one of the magazines where this excitement has been consistent. The pair of stories published for November are no different – quirky, interesting, well written and exciting.

N.K. Jemisin, who is making quite a name for herself over the past two years, is back with this month’s first story.  A fantasy with Death as the protagonist is nothing new, but  the setting here is like none other I have yet encountered.  “Beside the River Lex” takes place in a transformed New York City after a great cataclysm has destroyed the human race.  But this isn’t your typical dystopia.  Mankind’s belief systems have somehow remained, without worshippers or believers to keep them vitalized.  So NYC is peopled with beings such as Sleep, Gabriel the Angel, the Dragon King and many lesser “deities” of the now vanished human race.  Lexington Avenue has become the River Lex of the title and these deities, without their worshippers, are hanging on as best they can in a vague sort of half-life, as they attempt to re-create human-like civilization (a Starbucks figures prominently in the story).  

Thus, the setting is truly of the fantastic, but the depth of the tale comes from the character of Death itself, and his growing ennui.  Yet he and the others keep holding on to their “lives” and come to see something new being born in their strange new world.  There is a lovely character arc for Death and I must say it is one of the most hopeful post-cataclysm stories I’ve ever read.  Somehow it is uplifting that, even though humanity is gone, their beliefs live after them (and by extension us) and eventually new life begins to take hold. This is a haunting, lyrical piece of fiction.  On the strength of this single story, I have bought Jemisin’s first two novels.  Ms. Jemisin, you have a convert.

The second is a different kettle of fish – and just as intriguing.  “Seeing” by Genevieve Valentine is pure quill SF. The author takes chances by using a literary style that, according to post-story reader comments, some did not like.  I for one really enjoyed it.  I admit to having read it twice to understand it all – the first read through was hasty and unfocused – but if given the proper undivided attention I am confident the careful reader will find it has much to offer. I found it a gem of story-telling.

The story relates the devastating events of a girl named Marika who has lived through war and poverty to become one of the first astronauts in search of a new planet able to support human life.  It details some personality shaping episodes from her past and takes her through two attempts to get to another planet.  The characterization of not just Marika but her captain and crewmates are compressed but vivid.

Valentine’s style is worthy of note, as it reminds me of some of Robert Silverberg’s early 70s work and the literary influences brought to the field at that time. It is convoluted and might be somewhat confusing to some, but the voices used, types of narration and authorial interchanges (set off with parentheses) are masterfully done, for attempting such stylistic methods to convey her story could have proved messy (overlong or annoying to the reader) if not handled well. Instead, Ms. Valentine gives us a character, métier, and puzzle wrapped neatly together in one short piece of fiction. I found it delicious.