The Town Drunk, Nov. 2006-Jan. 2007

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"One Million Years B.F.E.: Diary of an Anthropologist in Exile" by Merrie Haskell
"Cable and the Sword of Destiny" by Mikal Trimm
"Authorities Concerned Over Rise of Teen Linux Gangs" by Lucy A. Snyder
"Hell’s Bells" by Chuck Wendig
"Hot Fudge and Whipped Cream" by Tarl Roger Kudrick

In "Cable and the Possible God" by Mikal Trimm, Cable is a hero with an ugly but endearing dog whose name changes daily.  When he and Mother’s Favourite Dancer (who later becomes Hero of Awesome Proportions, surely one of the greatest dog names ever) encounter an old man who’s sure he’s a god but is less clear on exactly what he’s a god of, the intrepid duo find themselves caught up in man’s endless struggle to define himself against the world, to find a place within it and, of course, to find dinner.

Trimm takes a serious gamble here, echoing sources as diverse as Harlan Ellison, Tom Stoppard, and Samuel Beckett, and it pays off in spades.  He’s got a good ear for dialogue, and the slightly metaphysical, specifically vague banter between the old man, Cable, and Hero of Awesome Proportion (later, Swifty the Wonder Dog) is erudite, snappy, and very funny. 

If there’s a problem here, it’s that the story is a little too brief.  The concept and payoff are great, but this reviewer, for one, would have liked to spend a little more time with Cable and his name-swapping dog.  Nonetheless, this is a witty little story which will put a smile on your face and make you think seriously about changing your dog’s name. 

As a quintet of late twentieth century female philosophers once sang:  "Ain’t nobody perfect.  We all gotta work it."  But perhaps, not work it too much.  Because if Merrie Haskell in "One Million Years B.F.E.: Diary of an Anthropologist in Exile" is to be believed, altering the time stream to fix your relationship is thinking way too far out of the box.

Presented as a diary written by a female anthropologist who has been exiled to the Pleistocene for making "alterations," the story explores the widening gap between knowledge and skill.  After all, anyone can make a stone axe right?  If South African Bushmen can survive on twenty hours of work a week, how hard can it be to survive the Pleistocene?

Very, as it turns out, and Haskell’s deadpan prose does a great job of showing not only how far out of her depth the unnamed heroine is, but also the basic problems of survival.  Done wrong, this would have led the plot into an untenable morass of survivalist dirge, but Haskell keeps it light, her fine comic timing leading to several laugh-out-loud moments along with raising some genuine questions about how she’s going to survive.  The eventual reveal provides some genuinely surprising symmetry, a moment of genuine sweetness, and two more big laughs.  Which is quite an achievement in a story this length. 

Haskell’s strong character voice, her long suffering delivery, and choice of format make this a light but immensely entertaining read.  Just remember, in case the worst happens, digging stick technology leaves a lot to be desired.

In is a welcome return to the world’s oldest boy and the world’s ugliest dog (who, today, is known as Tripod) "Cable and the Sword of Destiny" by Mikal Trimm sees them facing that problem all heroes will face at some time in their lives—the small matter of a sword and what to do to go about getting one.

This second outing for the (sort of) heroic duo maintains the same lightness of touch as the first, with Trimm’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-esque heroes finding themselves faced with an angry mob, a barbarian hero, and an honest to goodness quest.  The mob is due to a small problem Cable has with the concept of payment, the barbarian is called Clot, and the quest is for the Sword of Destiny, the ultimate weapon to be used by the Final Hero.  Or Cable, whichever turns up first.

There’s a strong sense of the absurd running through this story, and it works beautifully.  Cable and Tripod never quite connect with the world and at times don’t seem able to. Trimm hints at something both darker and more poignant than we see at the heart of their relationship.  He also, as before, teams them up with a third character and, in Clot, hits the comedy mother lode.  Swaggering, arrogant, and bright enough to know how dangerous Cable could be with a sword, Clot nearly steals the show—quite an achievement when paired with these two.  Similarly, Cable and Tripod’s interaction with that old fantasy staple "the incredibly powerful weapon guarded by an evil wizard" is tremendous fun, especially the moment where Tripod admires the sheer workmanship that’s gone into the spells ranged against them.

Another strong entry from Trimm, this is fun, smart, and utterly unique. Thoroughly recommended.

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, a joke can be taken too far, and under no circumstances should you ever make a squirrel angry.  These three aphorisms lie at the center of Lucy A. Snyder’s "Authorities Concerned Over Rise of Teen Linux Gangs," a story of dead badgers, Linux, and the latest threat to the establishment.

Springing from the now famous "Installing Linux on a Dead Badger: User’s Notes," Snyder’s story explores what happens when animals become hackable.  Presented as a news story, it explores the consequences of Teen Linux Gangs combining the world’s most versatile programming language with, well…roadkill.  Sophomoric pranks abound, ranging from sending a rat with an eye camera attached into a strip joint to perhaps most impressively, rigging a dead Chihuahua to sing along to Kid Rock songs.

Inevitably, the Linux gangs come under the scrutiny of the FBI, and Snyder injects a welcome note of darkness, albeit absurd darkness, with a story of how the FBI raided a library only to be seen off by a cloud of angry squirrels.  It‘s a beautifully handled scene, mixing the absurdity of a G-Men/Rodents face-off with the very real threat of the FBI demanding library records. 

Touches like this lift the story far above what could have been a pedestrian homage to an Internet in-joke.  Snyder, like her Linux gangs, has taken a dead body (in this case, cyberpunk) and fused it with the latest elements of science fiction to tell a story which is funny, dark, and cheerfully absurd.  Just watch out for the squirrels.

In "Hell’s Bells" by Chuck Wendig, Limbo is the waiting room of eternity.  Limbo is the place you go when you’re not quite good enough for heaven and not quite bad enough for Hell.  Limbo has good magazines, is run by Coyote, and is in serious trouble.  Because when your neighbor is Hell, asking them to keep the noise down is never a good idea.

Wendig has picked a great hero in Coyote.  The Native American trickster god is an easygoing, cheerfully amoral figure who has ended up running Limbo for, shall we say, certain indiscretions and really just wants a quiet life.  However, Coyote being Coyote, there are only two things more important than a quiet life: food and getting one over on people who think they’re better than him.

What follows is an elaborate con trick which Coyote makes up absolutely on the fly, taking in everything from Hell’s Canteen to the Pitchfork Inspection Department.  Getting by on little more than charm and good luck, he’s Danny Ocean with fur, a god with eyes too big for his stomach, and a mouth too fast for his own good.  The end result is, simply put, tremendous fun as Coyote, as usual, wins.  However, the journey’s the most important thing in stories like these, and Wendig ensures that it’s as much fun getting there as it is to arrive.  Assured, confident, very funny, and worth seeking out.

In "Hot Fudge and Whipped Cream" by Tarl Roger Kudrick, Skragg is bored.  When you’re a genie and will live forever, boredom is something of an occupational hazard, especially as no one asks for wishes anymore.  Instead, Skragg has to fill his days playing cards for rocks with imps who think it’s fun to make every card wild and cheat because it amuses them to.  Until Candace.  Candace is six.  Candace knows the rules, and Candace wants one thing and one thing only: an ice cream sundae with hot fudge sauce and whipped cream.

Skragg however, wants none of it.  He’s retired, he’s out of the game, and the only thing he wants to do is get one over on the imps.  But as the days go by and Candace becomes more persistent, Skragg begins to realize that something isn’t right, and that perhaps there’s more to life than cards and rocks.

In the wrong hands, this could have degenerated into the worst excesses of twee fantasy, but instead, under Kudrick’s guidance, the story becomes something altogether more rounded and interesting.  He explores the relationship between genie and lampholder, child and parent, and youth and age with a deftness of touch which allows the story to breathe and the points to be made with unusual subtlety.  No one is completely right, and no one is completely wrong.  He also makes some interesting points about the servitude inherent in relationships, how we’re defined by our jobs and how the smallest choice can have the biggest consequences.

He does this, it should be noted, in a style which never once feels preachy and allows several fantastic comedy moments to shine through.  Similarly, the characters are all inherently likable in some way, from the tenacious Candace to the curmudgeonly Skragg, and the reader soon finds themselves caring about what will happen to each and every one of them.  The ending, when it comes, is both slightly sinister and uplifting and will stay with the reader long after they’ve finished the story.  A neat entry in an old sub-genre; this is well worth seeking out.

Avast me hearties!  The world’s oldest boy and the world’s ugliest dog (Thunderations! to you) wash up on the deck of the Tosspot, an unfortunate ship with an unfortunate fate, in "Cable and the High Seas" by Mikal Trimm.  Cable, you see, wants to be a pirate.

The third of Trimm’s comedic fantasies is arguably the most ambitious and is based upon the fact that, for all his years, Cable is still just a boy.  His desire to be the best pirate he can be is both oddly sweet and frankly alarming, and he throws himself into the role with a vigor which would be laudable in one slightly less dangerous.  As it stands, Thunderations! soon finds himself forced to contend with the twin horrors of the most repulsive sea shanty ever sung and an entirely naked, and extremely angry, ship’s cat.

High absurdity is the order of the day here, and Trimm’s precise, detailed prose rises to the occasion perfectly.  As well as the usual intricate banter between our heroes, we’re also treated to a spectacularly bad sailor’s song, some full on pirate banter, and an ending which brings closure whilst leaving the door open for further adventures with the hapless pair.  The breeziest of the three stories, it’s a knockabout affair which is big on jokes and slightly short on plot, although never to the detriment of the reader. 

Witty, obscure, and remarkably odd, the Cable stories are among the best The Town Drunk has published to date.  Do yourself a favor and seek them out, hairless cats and all.