Aeon, #5

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“Waiting for Citizen Gödel” by Howard V. Hendrix
“Appeal,” “Adrift on the Mare Commutatio,” and “The Visitors on the Fourth” by Dana William Paxson
“Gypsy Wings” by Justin Stanchfield
“Tribes” by Craig English 
“Fire and Ice” by Renee Stern
“The Nature of the Beast” by Mark Bourne
“Green” by Jay Lake
When an issue opens with a story by Howard V. Hendrix and ends with one by Jay Lake, my anticipation sharpens.  I expect the warp of ideas, humor, and character, and the weft of insight and even poignance.  This issue is strong all the way through—a series of stand-out stories that should appeal to a wide spectrum of readers.

First up is “Waiting for Citizen Gödel” by Howard V. Hendrix. This story—featuring Albert Einstein, Kurt Gödel, and Oskar Morgenstern on a quest away from the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, jokes, and the US Constitution—matched my entertainment expectations.  Hendrix weaves us skillfully back in forth in time, the story constructed in tight little scenelets strung together like beads leading to a powerful finish.

Dana William Paxson offers three very short pieces:  “Appeal,” “Adrift on the Mare Commutatio,” and “The Visitors on the Fourth.”  When pieces are that short, giving a synopsis is almost guaranteed to spoil the effect, so I confine myself to observing that they all have to do with aliens. Each a different approach, different mood, different purpose.  The first one seemed a distilled version of many alien encounter stories, well-told but not surprising.  The second read more arch, almost brittle—a ship of fools story, only our ship is a lifeboat—that telegraphed the surprise with one line.  (In a longer story that might not have tipped me off, but in something so short, every word adds up.) In both stories, though I suspected what was to happen, the prose made the journey enjoyable.  The third story was my favorite, lyrical as poetry and cinematic in image—and takes off into surprise at the very end.

“Gypsy Wings” by Justin Stanchfield is a gripping story featuring the idiosyncratic, wildly individualistic, and (some said) crazy guys who flew biplanes in WW I.  Encountering them in his father’s back field is the protagonist, a fourteen-year-old boy named Jerry, who lives on a failing farm, doing unending chores but dreaming about flying in the sky.  The world isn’t quite ours—the President is named Bryant, and America didn’t enter the war, which was been dragging on fifteen years—but that’s almost irrelevant.  The story is about Jerry, who is poised between Les Gitans, the wild-gypsy flyers who left the war and landed in the back field like a bunch of laughing, whiskey-swigging locusts, and his grim father whose despair has turned to violence—against his family, as he is against the war.  The man Jerry befriends, called The Preacher, is the second best pilot in the skies, but he’s apparently being chased by the number one.  A needle-flash weaving in and out of the contrasting threads of Jerry’s life is his strange little brother Wes, who claims to see ghosts.  The story is filled with convincing detail—what a farm during that time was like, the planes in their amazing variety of designs, the characters of the pilots, of Jerry’s grim father.

“Tribes” by Craig English assumes a future in which gigantic mega-corporations have split into warring tribes.  The funny idea seems to promise a funny story, but by the time our seventeen year old protagonist has left the massacre of his tribe and family and goes to see his aunt and uncle to live with and finds their heads posted on their picket fence, we realize this is not quite a laff-a-minute tale.  Even so, the idea of a Goddess-worshiping boy with his magic beans that he sniffs to kill headaches is not without humor as he attempts to make sense of a very weird world by reminding himself, as he was taught, that everything is to the Goddess’s purpose.  Especially when we suspect who the Goddess is.  Some scenes verge on the comedic, but it’s a dark humor indeed—such as the heavy weapon-toting old people of the Winnebago tribe.

Our protagonist is driven by the old folks to visit a “witch” at a lighthouse.  What she reveals isn’t very surprising; what makes nice reading is the gradual building of a relationship between these two.  The story seems to veer between the humorous possibilities and a more serious purpose—but other than the constant violence, that latter purpose never quite coalesces.  The "witch’s" memory of what all the mythic symbols "really" were is well-trodden SFnal ground.  Meanwhile, we have no idea why the familiar world turned into warring factions that include workgroups from the Microsoft kingdom, to the extent that the Whole Earth catalog carries as a sale item personal rocket launchers. The idea of "tribes" with their careful and binding rituals carries connotations of generations of isolation, but this radical change appears to be more recent, lying as it does in the memory of the old woman.  Further, if there is a catalog, there must be a way to order, and that implies computers—and information.  That aside, it was a zoom of a read—the pacing never flags.

Renee Stern’s “Fire and Ice” has only two characters, a djinn and a Christian knight.  The djinn is flying, worshiping creation and the star; the man is struggling up a mountain path, sent on a terrible penance.  The man stubbornly holds to his narrow view of what Christianity means—the djinn wants to save him but avoid the power of his crucifix—the snow is heavy.  The story is beautifully written, full of exquisite detail.

“The Nature of the Beast” by Mark Bourne is my favorite story.  It opens with an old woman watching yet again the black-and-white film of a maiden chained between pillars, rescued by a beast . . . and we discover that Ann Darrow is a real person, that she has refused to talk to the journalists for seventy years.  But after today’s showing in New York, she tells the truth to the audience gathered to celebrate the film.

The story intercuts between the real past, the movie’s world, and the present.  A bonus, perhaps, is the memory-overlay of the current Kong film by Jackson, but the story does not require those added images for its polysemous effect.  Bourne’s writing—his ear for thirties dialogue, his splendid transitions between film, present, past, layers of different realities and fantasies—is strong enough on its own.   

“Green” by Jay Lake is strong enough to follow Bourne’s powerful novelette.  The first person narrator loved the freedom of her island life, sometimes avoiding the sun by hiding under the belly of the wise white ox Endurance, other times exploring the danger-infested waters until called back by Endurance’s gruff bellow.  She reflects on how women’s lives are measured out by tiny bells sewn onto silk every day of life, but before her own life can follow the usual pattern she is sold to a man with green eyes and maggot-colored skin, and taken via ship to Copper Downs, to be trained in what we assume is a harem, to be visited when she’s deemed ready, by the mysterious Factor.  This is not our world—there is magic and mystery in the seas, in the history, and in the other cultures’ lives—and anything can happen.  Especially when she decides, after being stripped and then approved by the dead-eyed Factor, that beauty is not a lifestyle . . . but it can be a weapon.

Lake is so strong on character in his stories—character bolstered by rich world building and just the right detail.  This story makes an excellent end to an excellent issue.