SCI FICTION, July 14, 2004

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"The Anatomist's Apprentice" by Matthew Claxton

According to his Sci-Fiction bio, Matthew Claxton's novelette, "The Anatomist's Apprentice," is his debut story. I, for one, am eagerly anticipating his subsequent works. 

"The Anatomist's Apprentice" is a poignantly moving love story with unlikely players.  Molly, once a normal girl, after contracting a wasting disease is now a severed head, a singing, talking freak.  The organs that sustain her, suspended in a glass jar, aren't even her own: a dog's heart, a pig's liver, and a black bear's kidney.  She owes what there is of her life to the surgeon who created her–a coldly clinical, stingy man, who loves only his science.  Her sole value to him is as an experimental subject in his laboratory.  Jack is a young man of New Amsterdam, desperate and impoverished, suffering from an affliction only the surgeon can cure.  But Jack can't pay the price for the treatment, so he agrees to become the surgeon's apprentice to work off his debt. And so the characters meet. 

The stage, Claxton's New Amsterdam, is a fascinating, Dickensonian vision of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century.  It is a society undergoing the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution where alchemy and magic fuse with science. The exotic and the extraordinary dwell side-by-side with the desolate and downtrodden. 

The storytelling in "The Anatomist's Apprentice" is deft with clean prose, unornamented by superfluous curlicues.  While the concept of a brain in a jar isn't new in fiction or philosophy–Orson Scott Card's Wyrms sprang first to my mind, followed immediately by the Matrix movies–Claxton draws the reader into Molly's world of imprisoned sorrow and lost freedom with finesse and skill.  Both lovers are fully three-dimensional and realized. Molly's soulful serenades are heartrending just as Jack's thoughtful consideration when he scrubs clean her grimy window–the only link she has with the world outside–is heart warming. 

From intriguing beginning to wholly satisfying ending, I have nothing but praise for "The Anatomist's Apprentice," and urge one and all to read it.