Abyss & Apex, Issue 21: 1st Quarter 2007

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“Walking the Valley” by Jeremy Minton
“Bittersweet” by N. K. Jemisin
“The Memory of Touch” by Karen Swanberg
“The Man Behind The Curtain” by Joseph Paul Haines
“Fading Away” by Jay Lake
Issue 21 of Abyss & Apex is a strong one. The overriding theme is the transient nature of human life, and most of the stories question what makes it worthwhile. While a thread of optimism pervades several of the offerings, there are no easy answers or solutions. In some, flights of fancy collide head-on with cold, hard reality, and conclusions are left to settle somewhere in between.  In others, there is no room for whimsy, just the fallout when different paths collide. Whatever your story preference may be, 2007 is off to a fine start.

In “Stories of the Alien Invasion” by Manek Mistry, visitors come to earth in ships resembling ordinary objects like easy chairs and toasters. They travel in packs and resemble bundles of kindling, insinuating themselves into all walks of life and never explaining their purpose. If questioned, they laugh. Eventually, the timbre of the visitation changes, played out over five different passages. Over time, one man, Nick, comes to learn there is more to the aliens than meets the eye as well as more to him than he imagined.
Several elements of Mistry’s story stand out. The characters are easy to empathize with and feel “real.” The story flows smoothly, and the visitation’s change in tone which occurs with the passage of time rings true. What comes across best is the fragility of the characters and the temporal nature of life: the importance of small things and silly acts, the importance of kindness. Simply put, “Stories of the Alien Invasion” is a beautiful tale, well worth the time and thought a reader is willing to put into it.

In “Walking the Valley” by Jeremy Minton, the scientists who created the connector between Earth and the World Tree have decided to destroy it. Initially, the Node was meant to be a point of transition, a simple link between Earth and the numberless virtual habitats of the World Tree, but in the fifty years since its construction, the Node, like many other things, has taken on a life of its own. Trev, one of the original engineers, has been chosen to do the dirty job, while the other side has chosen his mother, Anna, to try and stop him.

Trev and Anna’s relationship is a complicated one. The story establishes upfront that their rivalry is well-established. Trev has chosen to experience a natural life and to eventually die—"walk in the valley"—and Anna has chosen the path of eternal life. Trev wants to experience life as it was meant to be, life with a purpose, while Anna has chosen to create the illusion of life, the one she imagines. While both points of view seem valid, they are also diametrically opposed, making the story similar to a chess match that has reached its endgame.

Minton uses lush imagery, especially towards the end of the story, when things become more abstract. I can’t really say that “Walking the Valley” was my cup of tea, but it was definitely interesting, and it fits in wonderfully with all the other offerings in this issue.

N. K. Jemisin’s “Bittersweet” examines a mining town on the verge of disaster. The lifestone that protects the denizens of Bittersweet from the planet’s harsh conditions is wearing out. They contact the Lifestone Guild, and the guild sends stonetalker Honorii Turner. Atlehina Delgado, the mayor’s daughter, is assigned as his host during his stay.  From that point, the story is less about Bittersweet and more about Turner and Delgado.

The story moves along at a good clip and the characterization is strong. From the outset, Turner is unique; unlike the townsfolk who communally rely on one lifestone, Turner has a personal one he wears around his neck.  He prefers people to stone, and he has a life philosophy indicative of someone who has seen much. As a resident of an isolated mining town, Delgado is initially limited in her vision and suitably bitter. The real focus of the story is what Turner has to teach Delgado about the stone and about life. In the process, he offers her an opportunity she never knew she had.

Jemisin crafts a world that is both familiar—a la the inhospitable mining locales found in The Crystal Singer series by Anne McCaffrey—and not. I enjoyed “Bittersweet,” although I admit I’m still a bit confused by the middle. I don’t know if was the use of lingo like “low-pop” and “gendiversity,” or the idea that the stonetalker needs to repay the town in some way. But the story is aptly named, and the characters and world building are well-done.

In “The Memory of Touch” by Karen Swanberg, something goes horribly wrong when Wern Leeds finally makes the switch to a silicate body. Simple things he once enjoyed, like drinking a cup of coffee or kissing, are now nightmarish experiences. Everything seems too loud, too bright, or too artificial. Worse still, what’s happening to him is never supposed to happen. No one wants to discuss his problem or even admit that there might be one. Wern becomes more and more isolated, lying underwater in the tub or going flying for hours at a time, avoiding interaction. Only therapist Nothe Ihar seems to have an idea of what the problem really is and what might help him.

It’s hard to come up with words to describe this story. From a characterization point of view, this is a difficult story. Swanberg lays careful groundwork for her plot, describing a world that is strikingly similar to ours, but not. Several ominous hints peppered throughout go unheeded by the protagonist, such as the increase in murders on Mars and the extent of power the Switching Board seems to yield. So the reader can definitely get a sense of Wern’s growing frustration and desperation, but the protagonist is totally self-absorbed. While the reader is aware of his isolation, they can’t really share it. Since all the other characters are filtered through him, they are also hard to empathize with.

What really intrigues in “The Memory of Touch” are the ideas presented. Just the notion of transferring human consciousness to a machine sparks debate, but there’s more to consider here: the role government should play in our lives, whether or not we should do something technologically just because we can, and what price society is willing to pay for immortality. Swanberg has delivered a thought-provoking piece that asks more questions that it answers, the hallmark of the best kind of speculative fiction.

In “The Man Behind The Curtain” by Joseph Paul Haines, Davie goes to his mother’s general store hoping to see his older sister, Suzie. When he was small, she paid for a piano for him out of a meager salary and protected him from their abusive mother until the day she left for good. Paul’s marriage is crumbling, and his life’s a mess. He hopes that by finding his sister—and his Superman picture—he can get back to the place in his life where it was possible to fly.

At its heart, “The Man Behind The Curtain” is about tapping into your inner magic and creating your own happiness. This can be a tall order, especially if you’re not sure you believe in magic. Davie is a lost soul who latches onto the one bright spot in his memory and runs with it, even though he isn’t completely sure why. The supporting characters, most notably Bernard and Donna, are strong and add an extra dimension to this story. The elusive older sister is both more and less than the reader might expect.

Haines takes some of the harsh realities of life, like alcoholism, cancer, and child abuse, and juxtaposes them with the magic of childhood, Oz, and the Emerald City to create a story with substance and its own unique charm.

“Ten New Metaphors For Cyberspace” by Cat Rambo is full of tantalizing discourse and imagery. The author has done an excellent job of weaving the language of cyberspace into everyday life, fancifully and abstractly. For example, she describes a carpet that has “old e-mail messages woven into the warp and weft of its threads” and a quilt that is “a wooly blanket of processes scratchy to the touch.” The title says it all; this piece of flash fiction doesn’t so much have a plot as a connecting theme. Plotless or not, I thoroughly enjoyed “Ten New Metaphors For Cyberspace.” 

In “Fading Away” by Jay Lake, the ghost of Elvis helps a small boy’s dying mother find her heart again. The characterization is excellent in this excellent piece of flash fiction that strikes right at the heart. Aaron is old enough to know the fat man is a ghost and young enough to believe he can help him. The part I loved most was that the boy had no idea who the fat man in the spangled white suit was, he just knew his mother loved music and the fat man had offered to sing to her. Highly recommended.