Abyss & Apex, 4th Quarter 2005, #16

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“The Dream of Rain” by Constance Cooper
“Sumo21” by Daniel Braum
“Relativity Prison” by Igor Teper
“Zeno’s Last Paradox” by Tony Pi
“American Gothic” by Douglas Clark

According to the editors, you can find a “forces of nature” theme in issue #16 of the E-zine Abyss & Apex. I personally didn’t see one. Instead, this issue explores all aspects of dreams, from the nostalgia of “A Dream of Rain” to the nightmare of “American Gothic.” In all cases, the world of dreams, though it may seem surreal, ends up revealing the truth about waking life.

Constance Cooper’s “The Dream of Rain” stars archaeologist Agna as the only member of a terraforming crew who bothers to befriend the native species of a desert planet. The four remaining natives, or Dwellers, fascinate her because their vivid reports of a water-drenched planet contrast sharply with the planet’s current drought. Patiently befriending the Dwellers, Agna eventually discovers the secret to their aquatic dreams.

“Dream” works best as a set piece; Cooper’s often precise prose (she describes an abandoned city as resembling “a clutch of fossilized eggs”) reads like a love letter to the dry climes of the world. The story could benefit from less telling and more showing; Cooper’s prose loses its edge and becomes less personal when she describes the human/Dweller interactions at the center of the stories. The ending’s twist—Agna’s pro-Dweller activism—would certainly be more effective if I cared about the characters.

With echoes of LeGuin’s careful world-building and the nostalgia of all that YA time-travel fiction I read in my teens (am I the only one who read J. Allison James’ lyrical Sing for a Gentle Rain?), “Dream” wafts lightly through your consciousness like a fleeting rain cloud or like a
dream itself.

Dreams surface again, literally this time, in Daniel Braum’s “Sumo21,” which takes place in a communal lucid dream. One possible Japan is trying to take over the emperor of another possible Japan, so an elite cadre of sumo wrestlers, proxies for the emperor, must enter a
dream world and duke it out for precedence. Underdog Asashoryu, fighting for the emperor’s honor, discovers that his opponents—and even his trainers— are not all they seem.

Braum animates Ye Olde Straightforward Quest nicely by fusing the stately rituals of sumo, the Japanese mythology of death and dreams, and a bit of possible-worlds theory. The story’s unusual setting buoys it. However, the prose, full of long tortured sentences, drags the work down. Braum clearly knows his Japanese source material, but lacks the stylistic confidence needed to transform the old tales into something truly rich and strange.

Two stories in this issue of Abyss & Apex feature Zeno, ancient Greek philosopher, whose mathematical paradoxes seem weird and dream-like to this day. One is a clever prose poem, “The Relativity Paradox,” in which the narrator watches his life being done to him in an absurd realization of determinism. Flirting with Borges-like insight, Igor Teper’s “Relativity Prison” does make an intriguing vignette, like an odd, amusing image from sleep.

The other Zeno tale, Tony Pi’s “Zeno’s Last Paradox,” is the best piece of short fiction in the issue. Zeno himself narrates. Intending to rid the city of Elea from the rule of the Gorgon, whose eyes turn all to stone, he ends up falling in love with her and helping her with a quest of his own.

Pi’s stilted, formal cadences come off as overwrought in the beginning, but, as soon as the narrator, Zeno, gets into his element, the wit and the pace pick up considerably. You know it’s a rewrite of a Greek myth; you know it’s a variation on a Trickster tale, but Pi’s skillful twisting of mythic and Trickster tropes carry you along—especially when he sends the Gorgon on a heroic quest for her own mortality. I especially appreciate Pi’s characterization of the Gorgon as an intelligent, sympathetic riddler, worthy of Zeno’s respect, even love.

“Paradox” reminds me of Ovid’s Metamorphoses—wry, grandiloquent, and intelligent. I wouldn’t be surprised if this tale ends up anthologized in a collection of modern myths; it’s a consummately crafted and entertaining gem.

The last piece of short fiction, exploring the dark side of dreams, is “American Gothic” by Douglas Clark. Unfortunately, it’s the weakest story of the issue. It starts off as the tale of an abuse survivor, but soon you realize that something more, uh, blood-sucking is going on.

I love a good vampire tale, especially because vampirism allows for such rich metaphors. The parallels between vampirism and sexual abuse have great potential for elaboration, but by someone much more skillful than Douglas. “American Gothic” depends on the evocation of the queasy love a victim may develop for a victimizer, but Douglas’ prose doesn’t go deep enough. He never gets inside the head of his protagonist, who keeps telling us things like, “I had learned to pity such terrible need,” but never makes the reader feel the ambivalent horror of being trapped in a nightmare, but knowing nowhere else to go.

The stories in this Abyss & Apex all explore altered states of consciousness that end up being stranger—and truer—than the truth.  All the short fiction is worth a look, especially “Zeno’s Last Paradox,” “Relativity Prison,” and “A Dream of Rain.” Go—warp your mind. Have twisted dreams.