Abyss & Apex, #19, 3rd Quarter 2006

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"Nine Thousand Four Hundred Ninety-Four Days" by Vylar Kaftan
"New Spectacles" by Will McIntosh
"Ageless" by Aaron Callow
"Interfaith" by Lisa Mantchev
"The Ghosts of Los Hellas" by RJ Astruc
"Goddess" by Jon Hansen
"Small Change" by Mikal Trimm

Opening this issue of Abyss & Apex is Vylar Kaftan‘s tale of solitude, guilt, and religious belief, "Nine Thousand Four Hundred Ninety-Four Days."  Set on the planet Krokh, it follows an alien as he’s released after twenty-six years of imprisonment for a crime he didn’t commit.  With no way off world for two days, he’s given free reign of the prison and spends the time reflecting on why he was put there and the different world views of his race and humanity.

At the center of this story is the concept of fairness, the belief that we get back from life what we put in, that we get in a very real sense what we deserve.  It’s a concept that lies at the heart of most ethical and religious moral structures in play today, and Kaftan does an excellent job of presenting an entirely different viewpoint on it.  The protagonist’s race believes in Dhrianya, a concept which states in simple terms that your life is what you deserve for your actions within it.  This is balanced and challenged by the human staff’s concept of unfairness, and the protagonist is fascinated and increasingly disturbed by the idea that something could be unfair, that the universe could not in fact be this perfectly balanced and ordered machine.

This is heady philosophical ground, and Kaftan lays out both well and in a unique voice.  The main character is a clearly defined alien, not only through their worldview, but their language.  A simple modification to sentence structure means that the worldview of the character is driven home in a unique way, and the complex moral viewpoint they take is both clearly explained and clearly different to humanity’s own.

In the end, Kaftan’s story combines this philosophical debate with a distinctly fatalistic outlook.  The main character discovers which belief is in true control of the universe but finds himself punished for his crisis of faith in a way which is both fitting and poignant.  It’s not an easy end to the story, but a fitting one, making this a remarkably tidy, coherent piece of storytelling.  It’s not an uplifting piece by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s certainly a memorable one.

Will McIntosh‘s story, "New Spectacles," is superficially about one of the moments everyone will face in their lives: the death of a family member.  As Tristan waits for his grandfather to pass away, McIntosh paints a painfully accurate and mordantly funny portrait of the vague sense of unease that surrounds the almost dead.  There’s a sense, whether you want to admit it or not, of the whole thing taking a little too long, rather like waiting for a delayed train, and McIntosh captures that perfectly.  He’s also brave enough to have Tristan’s grandfather be a far from pleasant man, his major effect on Tristan’s life being an overwhelming, intimidating presence and a childhood insult that he still smarts over in adult life.

Were the story focused on this by itself, it would be perfectly acceptable.  McIntosh has a keen ear for dialogue and incident, and the interaction between the characters is both funny and poignant.  However, McIntosh merely uses this as the start of a story which is both more intimate and far bleaker than it initially appears to be.  Tristan works in Insurance and uses a Poly-Layer Voice Analyser (PLVA) to tell whether his clients are lying to him or not.  Built into a set of glasses, the PLVA gives him an absolutely accurate readout of whether someone’s telling the truth or hiding something.  One day, Tristan forgets to leave the glasses at work, and the way is paved for him to find out far more than he should about his family.

McIntosh marries the remarkably neat, science fiction concept of the PLVA glasses with the interpersonal relationships of Tristan’s family to tremendous effect.  With them, Tristan peels away the layers of things people say just to fill the gaps and reveals the truth behind them all.  He shows that death is not something to be feared or run from, but is simply something that happens.  Behind all the big emotions of life is the simple, basic knowledge that things will continue much as they did before.  It’s only when Tristan uses the glasses on people close to him that he discovers exactly how true that is.  The ending is both uniquely brave and uniquely plausible, giving a much needed base line of authenticity to the story that places it as close to the likes of Raymond Carver and Alan Aykbourne as to Arthur C. Clarke.  With a strong narrative, well realized characters, and an unflinching look at human nature, this is a very strong story indeed.

The more things change the more they stay the same is both a stereotype and truism.  I grew up in the late ’80s, and the news was filled with images of unrest in the Middle East, growing unemployment, and increasing concerns over the morality and ethical practices of the government.  Now, with my 30th birthday less than two months away, I get an overwhelming sense of deja vu whenever I watch the news.  This basic idea, this feeling that history is not only cyclical, but cyclical on a very small scale, lies at the heart of Aaron Callow‘s story, "Ageless."  In a world where it’s possible to live forever, how do you amuse yourself?  What do you do with your time?  How do you react when it becomes clear you’ve seen everything and done everything?

Like McIntosh’s story, Callow’s is a character piece first and a science fiction piece second.  Its focus is kept relentlessly on Henry as he has a blazing row with Audrey, a woman he met the previous night, and prepares for his final appointment.  Henry is an elegantly sketched character; Callow shows how tired he’s become simply by living as long as he has.  There’s a neat mirror here between Henry’s unforced, weary cynicism and the studied and false worldliness of an associate, and it does wonders for Henry’s character.  It’s coupled with the fact that the central premise, that people live as long as they need to, is never explained—a simple, subtle change in the social fabric, and Callow does a fantastic job of exploring what it means for the individual.

The wrap-up is equally impressive, ending on a note which is both fitting and surprising.  This is a world very close to our own, and Callow succeeds in making it somewhere the reader wants to spend time in.  Subtle, intelligent, and involving, this is an extremely strong piece.

Lisa Mantchev‘s piece, "’Interfaith," uses a similar idea, the juxtaposition of modern society with a fantastic element, but does it in a way which is, if anything, even more personal.  Here the social element is provided by a separated marriage.  The mother lives alone with the teenage daughter, both still smarting over the collapse of the marriage, and both trying to deal with the changes it’s wrought in their relationship—the difference being that the mother is a Greek goddess and the father is the Catholic God.

Done wrong, this could have split into the worst excesses of religious extremism or whimsy, but Mantchev refuses to bow to either.  Instead, again, the focus here is on the relationship between the three main characters and the choices they make.  Mantchev does a wonderful job of combining the need for self-assertiveness with religious worship, and there are several wryly funny moments, especially when the Catholic God makes time for a brief visit to his daughter.  Crucially, these moments are as honest as they are funny, Mantchev’s keen ear for dialogue giving the interaction between all three characters a real pace and energy.

This is further emphasised by the wonderful interaction between the mother and daughter figures.  There’s an easy, familiar quality to their scenes together, which drives home how close these people are.  The final sequence in particular is a moment which combines the familial affection and irritation of the earlier scenes with the divine nature of the characters to wonderful and moving effect.  Modern fantasy is undergoing something of a renaissance at the moment, and when looking at stories of this calibre, it’s easy to see why.

The final long form piece this issue, "The Ghosts of Los Hellas" by RJ Astruc, is a welcome change of both pace and style.  It follows Felix Mcguiggan, a tailored human dispatched to the island of Los Hellas at the behest of the SwiftWater corporation.  SwiftWater has a problem, the natives are claiming to see ghosts and are far from happy with the renovations the company is making to the island.  Felix is called in, ostensibly as a PR move, but against the express wishes of his superiors, he investigates fully. 

Whilst Astruc’s story is a definite change of pace from the previous offerings, it actually has a great deal in common with them.  Much like McIntosh and Mantchev, Astruc uses science fiction elements to explore a very real, contemporary social concern.  In this case, it’s the contamination of indigenous societies by the global monoculture and the effect that erasing local culture has on people.  It’s both a current and remarkably bleak subject matter, and Astruc manages to present it in a way which never comes across as preachy or sanctimonious.  This is largely due to the central character, Felix Mcguiggan, a slightly distant and cerebral investigator.  He’s laconic, romantic, blackly funny, and intimidatingly smart, playing like a cross between Philip Marlowe and The Doctor.  Felix’s investigation is reminiscent of the work of both William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, as Astruc brings Los Hellas to life in all its humid, sweaty glory.  Down these mean streets, a genetically tailored man must walk, and the end result is a remarkable combination of social commentary and detective fiction.  The payoff is equally impressive, balancing a redemptive element with the same realistic approach that makes Aaron Callow’s entry in this issue of Abyss & Apex so impressive.  Timely, well written and unusual, this is a world and main character you’ll both enjoy and want to see more of.  Hopefully, Astruc isn’t quite finished with Felix Mcguiggan.

The best, and worst, thing about working in retail are the customers.  I spent seven years managing a shop in my hometown, and in that time made some of the best friends it’s ever been my good fortune to meet, was hurt in ways I didn’t think possible, and saw the most unnecessary tattoo I’ve ever been exposed to.  The customers are the wildcard, the element that can’t be predicted or managed.  You just have to roll with the punches.  Jon Hansen‘s flash piece, "Goddess," takes this to the next level and follows Ben, a coffee shop employee, in a world where deities will accept a cup of coffee as a worthy offering.  His prose is richly descriptive, and the interaction between Ben and the goddess who comes in one morning crackles with threat and passion in equal proportions.  You get a real sense of the palpable danger that the goddess presents, and the center of the story is almost unbearably tense as a result.

However, for me, the real heart of the story lies in its final few lines.  There’s an old-fashioned romantic streak which resonates with several of the longer pieces here and, without having to try, is intensely moving.  This is a story about how sometimes what you have is better than the best you can get, and it’s my favorite piece in this entire issue.  Read it. You won’t regret it.

Mikal Trimm‘s story, "Small Change," continues the extremely strong run of flash fiction Abyss & Apex has enjoyed recently but takes a very different approach to previous entries.  It’s a slice-of-life, a single inexplicable incident in the life of married couple Donald and Brenda.  Every coin Donald flips comes up heads, and the story’s focus is the different reactions he and Brenda have to this.  Again, there’s an easy intimacy to the dialogue as it becomes clear these two people have known one another for years.  Brenda is terrified that it means something larger for the world, while Donald is simply caught up in the moment.  There’s no context, no payoff, just a single moment in an old man’s life where he does something absolutely wondrous.  It’s powerful, simply written, and leaves you wanting more.  I can think of no higher recommendation.