Abyss & Apex, #18, 2nd Quarter (June) 2006

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"All the Wonder in the World" by Lavie Tidhar
"When Maxwell’s Demon Met Schrödinger’s Cat" by Jack Hillman
"Becoming" by Rae Dawn Carson
"Emmett, Joey & the Beelz" by Ralph Sevush
"Unicorn’s Rest" by Jill Knowles
"Nanoflakes" by James S. Dorr

It’s a source of continual fascination to me that religion, which at its most basic level attempts to be a positive influence on humanity, so often brings out our worst qualities.  The recent re-ignition of the creationism/evolution argument is one of the more benign examples of this and one which, as a "Cafeteria Catholic," I view from the sidelines with a mixture of bemusement, amusement, and horror.  Lavie Tidhar has different ideas in "All The Wonder In The World."
Here, the creationism/evolution conflict is taken at its most literal.  Set in Haifa, it follows Ibrahim, the city’s Alte-Zachen man as he realizes that a creationist storm is about to sweep over the city.  As plants grow from the sidewalks at impossible speed and history begins to pile up, Ibrahim finds himself forced to negotiate with a figure from his past for the future of his city.

Tidhar writes with absolute confidence, throwing the reader into the middle of a complex situation and giving them exactly the right amount of information.  This is a world torn apart, literally, by religion and Ibrahim’s struggles to protect his reality at the cost of his future happiness gives the story a very poignant tone.  It’s an elemental conflict, the individual against accepted wisdom, and Tidhar does it good service here.

The only problem with the story is that it doesn’t hang around long enough.  Ibrahim is tantalizingly drawn, and the concept of a world where different religious cosmologies and beliefs have a physical effect is too interesting to be left alone.  Intelligent, poignant, and fascinating, this leaves you wanting more in the best and worst way.

A welcome and complete change of pace, tone and subject is provided by Jack Hillman‘s highly enjoyable and resolutely old-fashioned science fiction piece, "When Maxwell’s Demon Met Schrödinger’s Cat."  There’s more than a hint of Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury to this story of scientists under pressure on a research station, nicely seasoned with some of the more interesting elements of Cyberpunk.

The story follows a "head-shrinker" sent to Trumbauer Station to assess the mental state of the science staff.  Tensions are running high, cutbacks are imminent, and one scientist has already killed himself.  As the story progresses, the protagonists’ concerns focus on Doctor Nathan Stamford, intent on developing a way of beating entropy.  Stamford is on the absolute edge, unable to perfect his research and positive it’ll be taken away from him at any moment until inspiration comes from a very unusual source…

Hillman marries old fashioned scientific enquiry with character to great effect here.  The growing relationship between Stamford and colleague Elizabeth Connors is both old fashioned and oddly sweet, especially filtered as it is through the amusement of the main character.  This well observed romance is neatly balanced by some high-end physics which are explained elegantly and simply.  The payoff is particularly good, establishing a fascinating status quo for the universe that would bear examination beyond this story.

Most of all though, what works here is the sense of a well-oiled future.  This is a world where everyone works towards the greater good, everyone is intent on finding out all they can, and the world is made a better place by everything learned.  It’s old fashioned, arguably naïve, and oddly comforting to read.  This is a brave new world we should all be hoping for.

Rae Dawn Carson‘s piece, "Becoming," is a far more intimate affair than Hillman’s, but its concerns are largely the same.  Where Hillman uses scientific endeavour as a means of character growth, Carson opts for magic, exploring the price of immortality for one perennially young woman.

The difficulties of living forever aren’t new ground, but Carson takes a very different approach to most and it really pays off.  Here, we learn about the main character not through her own actions, but through those of the women whose identities she absorbs.  The simple practicalities of getting a new social security and exactly how long one identity can be maintained are neatly contrasted with the betrayals they require.  Carson takes the reader through a real emotional journey as the main character’s motives are gradually revealed and the reasons for her actions are placed in context.  She isn’t named until the very end and never described, becoming a ghost within her own story, constantly looking for a new face.  The end result is that we feel the isolation she feels and Carson does a beautiful job of showing how lonely forever can really be.  Each time period is well drawn and realized, and crucially, especially given our journey backwards through them, the main character evolves but remains consistent throughout.  This is a portrait of a woman at different stages in her life, and the character work here is elegant and beautifully realized.  A story with a real emotional punch, "Becoming" is a highlight of this particularly strong issue of Abyss & Apex, and a contender for best story.

In "Emmett, Joey & The Beelz" by Ralph Sevush, Joey is an addict with a problem: Emmett.  Emmett is a sometime private eye, sometime thug who has a problem: Joey.  Together they both have a problem: The Beelz.  The doctor who they made a deal with—that neither can quite remember the details of—is back and he’s come to collect…something.

Ralph Sevush guides us into the grimy, violent world with a wonderful turn of phrase and a bravura approach to structure.  Combining conversations, first person narrative, and excerpts from texts, he weaves the story together through Emmett and Joey’s very different perspectives.  It’s a real high wire act and one which could sink the story at any time, but Sevush manages it wonderfully.  The two men speak completely differently, and the tone of their sections is both recognizable and unique.  That tone is maintained in the parts they share, and Sevush has an ear for easygoing banter and hard-boiled dialogue.  The rhythm of the piece is perfect here, bouncing the reader along and building momentum as it goes.  Combining elements of fantasy with hard bitten crime, the end result sits somewhere between Neil Gaiman and the late, great Mickey Spillane.

The payoff is no disappointment either as Sevush subverts the reader’s expectations in a highly entertaining way.  The end result is both funny, compassionate and a thousand miles away from where you expect it to be.  And it’s all done with absolute confidence and authority.  Laconic, witty, and unique, Sevush works some of the same themes as Tidhar but filters them through the conventions of hard-boiled crime and film noir.  The end result is blackly funny and hugely entertaining, one of the standouts in an extremely strong group of stories.

Superficially, Jill Knowles‘s story, "Unicorn’s Rest," has a major strike against it; the unicorn, and the sort of fantasy story that too often accompanies it, is one of the most common fantasy tropes and one I’m usually as pleased to see as short people with hairy feet, epic quests, and kings with broken swords.  However, Knowles is a far smarter, and far more human, writer than many of her predecessors.

This is not a story about a unicorn but rather a story about a woman named Jemma.  With her brother in trouble yet again, she is forced by her father into going unicorn hunting.  The exact nature of the hunt is both subtler and better thought out than many of Knowles’s predecessors, and Jemma is a supremely well drawn central character.  She’s a good woman in the worst possible position, stuck between loyalty to her family and the desire to do anything with her life other than spend it picking up after her brother.  She is, in many ways, the archetypal middle child, smarter than most and doomed to be looked over because of the antics of her younger sibling.  She’s a "safe pair of hands," the hardest type of character to write well but one which absolutely resonates here.  You care desperately for her because of the dilemma she finds herself in, and the interaction between Jemma and the unicorns is both subtle and surprisingly poignant.

Where the story really stands up, though, is in its final quarter.  Inevitably, Jemma is forced to make the choice between her family and herself.  However, because of the sort of person Jemma is, she finds a third way, a way which serves not only her own needs, but those of others.  It’s as quietly revolutionary a step for a story like this to take, akin to Snow White declaring the forest where she hid a wildlife sanctuary, and one which ends the story on a genuinely surprising and very humane note.  A pleasant surprise in every sense of the word, Knowles breathes new life into a tired fantasy staple just as the events of the story breathe new life into Jemma.  Recommended.

Few things speak to my childhood more than breakfast cereal and dinosaurs.  It was an absolute delight then to find them combined in James S. Dorr‘s flash story, "Nano Flakes."  Dorr has a quick eye for a neat idea, and this story of DNA-altering cereal would have been an impressive and entertaining vignette by itself.  The language and invention evoke early Ray Bradbury and there’s a real sense of wonder in the descriptions of what the Nano Flakes do and how they effect the people eating them.

The real gem here though is Dino, the main character.  Children have a uniquely logical and utterly alien view of the world, and Dorr captures it perfectly without once succumbing to needless sentimentality.  Ending on a note which is as logical as it is chilling, this is a great piece.  Make time for it.