Fantasy & Science Fiction, Jan./Feb. 2010

Tuesday, 12 January 2010 19:35 KJ Hannah Greenberg

Bait” by Robin Aurelian

Songwood” by Marc Laidlaw

City of the Dog” by John Langan

Writers of the Future” by Charles Oberndorf

Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance” by Paul Park

The Secret Lives of Fairy Tales” by Steven Popkes

The Long Retreat” by Robert Reed

Nanosferatu” by Dean Whitlock

The Late Night Train” by Kate Wilhelm

Reviewed by KJ Hannah Greenberg

Reviewing a collection of stories can be fun. Reading and remarking on Fantasy and Science Fiction’s January/February 2010 issue, for instance, has been a joy. This wide-ranging collection of well-executed tales constitutes an agreeable speculative experience. From gnomes and cannibalistic, but well-intentioned, siblings to specters that ought to have lain down with the dogs, per se, to troubled historians and noble swains, this assemblage is worth its purchase price as it upholds the tradition of quality literature for which this publication is noted.

Consider, for example, the first story, “Bait,” by Robin Aurelian, in which sibling rivalry takes on a potentially fatal dimension. In Aurelian’s world, hunting expeditions are designed for bringing in the prey used to appease household machines and for establishing and maintaining local hegemonies. Per the former, Aurelian suggests that car trolls, house trolls and the like need to be regularly pacified with chunks of supernatural creatures. Per the latter, Spike, the main character’s sister, is celebrated so extensively by her family and lovers, specifically, and by their predators’ collective, in general, given her prowess in slaying water dragons, angels, and howlets, that she is excused for murdering a fellow woodsman.

Nivan, her brother and the story’s protagonist, does not benefit from the same kismet. He is constantly being chewed on by critters large and small and often unwittingly finds himself serving as an incubator for those aliens’ young. What’s more, he suffers Spike’s harangues, including her often articulated idea that he should stop rendering her catches and start offering himself up as bait. Hence, it’s almost profound, that at this tale’s end, it is Spike, not Nivan, who becomes the lure for an otherworldly being.

Bait” could have been grisly, but since it is spun full of spoof, this tale lacks dread. That is, Aurelian trounces horror and fantasy’s’ unfortunate stereotypes, fortunately substituting joviality for alarm during grim moments. Accordingly, her players seem more vapid than does their quarry. This story is so directionally obscuring that like riders on an amusement park whirly twirly, readers will need to get reoriented when the music stops and will then rush to ride again.

This issue’s next story, “Songwood,” by Marc Laidlaw, also delights. In this short story, a stone gargoyle, Spar, possessed of the powers of speech, of locomotion, and of much more, develops a deep feeling of attachment for an animated tree-turned-ship’s-figurehead, Spirit. The two lovers commiserate over the beauty of natural climes lost to them and over the brutality of the bandits who caused them, unintentionally, and purposefully, respectfully, to be located out at sea.

As this tale expands, the awful humans discover their stone stowaway and discern his connection to the carving on their vessel’s prow. With little hesitation, those cutthroats cast both the inamorato and his inamorata into the sea. As expected, Spar sinks and Spirit floats. A long span later, stone again encounters wood and the guilty bipeds receive their comeuppance.

Although this story’s plot is fluid and its characters well developed, what charmed me most about this telling was its lyrical quality. I can easily picture this tale’s sentiments woven into a ballad. Laidlaw’s poetic probing into the improbabilities conjured by love is at once fresh and classic. His words easily aid readers in visualizing seafaring ruffians, wise sentient trees, and loyal earthen monsters. I hope this wonderful fable gets nominated for significant awards.

If “light” is defined as “the absence of complete darkness,” and if “inspiration” is defined as “that which stimulates the mind to higher functions,” then “City of the Dog,” by John Langan, ought to be defined as “the encapsulation of a very bad dream.” Among all of the renderings in this issue, to Langan’s credit, I found his story the most disturbing.

In this novelette about a young underachiever, about that underachiever’s relationship difficulties with Kaitlyn, a self-centered young lady, and about that underachiever’s interactions with Chris, Kaitlyn’s former lover, readers are introduced to the aptly named cult of the ghuls [sic] and to the transformational power of that cult’s keeper. A chase scene, a bar scene, a nighttime apartment scene, plus other worrisome incidents, are used to portend the main character’s doom. At story’s end, Kaitlyn and Chris, who are no longer recognizable as friends, once more edify the protagonist about the limits of love. At the same time as Kaitlyn seems eager to haunt the hero forever, Chris would rather, immortally, give his attentions to Kaitlyn.

City of the Dog” is not the sort of story squeamish types, like me, ought to read before tucking in for the night. Although some of this story’s settings are cliché and some of its descriptions are a bit wordy, its impact will nonetheless cause readers: to rethink rendezvous' in bookstores, in late night coffee houses, and in downtown clubs; to second guess involvements with fellows of oddly wan complexions, whose eyes’ hue can only be achieved via contact lens or via undead contact; and to reevaluate perusing literature any more disquieting than the Grimm Brothers’ “The Dog and the Sparrow.”

Fortunately, not all of the dark tales in this issue require the spilling of viscera. “Writers of the Future,” by Charles Oberndorf, which is at once a successful nihilist read and a credible dystopia, avoids buckets of gore and blatant savagery. Rather, this novelette illuminates the dry battle that occurs in men’s souls, by focusing on plausible answers to the ontological questions of: the meaning of life, the purpose of writing, and writers’ personal and social responsibilities.

More specifically, one of the principal characters, a heroically defiant young lady, who once rallied against social norms, is revealed to have embraced compromise, whereas the narrator and main character, originally understood as an ordinary fellow, somehow, over the length of his lifetime, proves uniquely stout in his resistance to cultural pressures. The former achieves professional glory, but the later retains moral grace.

To wit, this tale not only merits its slot in this prominent publication, but also merits placement in the bibliographies used for writing courses. The metarhetoric contained herein makes available useful topoi for leading beginning and emerging writers on explorations of their roles, as those roles can be understood relative to themselves, to their peers, to the world and to private and collective values.

Meanwhile, satisfaction remains relative. After enjoying “Writers of the Future,” readers confront this issue’s lone novella, “Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance,” by Paul Park. This fairly compelling, extremely layered tale of family histories and of one man’s evolving understanding of his identity is an acquired taste. Like “City of the Dog,” “Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance” will appeal to lovers of stories that try to overtly scare or that otherwise openly attempt to unsettle their audience. Further, this narrative will appeal to folk practiced in creating genealogies and to people who can relate to the relatively friendless, isolated life of academics.

In this story, a mild mannered professor, who is taken over by both a penchant for sleuthing and by a loneliness deeper than his ancestors’ dust, uses many methods, including hermeneutics, field work, and imagination to unearth the roots of his family tree. He discovers that like most clans, his is a mixture of virtuous as well as abominable and regular kinds of people. Although his line, on both sides, has prolifically produced volumes in both science and art, it nevertheless failed to issue full warnings to its offshoots about certain probable, intergenerational spiritual mishaps. Consequently, the main character’s make-believe lover and his eventual dispersal to the realm of his family’s ghosts exist as eventualities rather than as surprises.

Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance” is a vast work covering centuries, continents, and many conceits about personality. Among the pages of diaries, the sheafs of papers locked in neglected valises, and the tints used to fashion an heirloom painting, Park hints to his readers about the dubious nature of truth. Though I would have preferred a more succinct telling of his hypothesis, Park’s complex story is worth a grapple.

Given the aforementioned generously-sized dose of gloomy prose, I appreciated reading the seemingly frothy “The Secret Lives of Fairy Tales,” by Steven Popkes. This collection of enchanting vignettes is so quirky, so charming, and so full of color and whimsy that were it not for the adult-rated nature of many of its components, I would prescribe it as required reading for adolescents.

Regardless, older individuals, concerned with responsible sex and with other rudiments of social decency ought to make an effort to read this tale. Popkes easily reestablishes himself as verbally agile and as highly inventive in his highlighting of human intentionality and of social causality. Such cleverness, as evidenced by his use of proof by the contrapositive, i.e. by his use of farce, as exemplified by his depiction of an imprudent Jack, in “Jack and the Beanstalk;” as evidenced by his use of hyperbole, as exemplified by his depiction of Prince Charming as having a single-minded focus on sexual gratification in “Cinderella;” and as evidenced by his use of irony, as exemplified by Rumplestiltskin nee’ Guillermo’s victory in partnering with royalty, despite Rumplestiltskin’s brothers’ attempts to separate him from wealth, in “Rumplestiltskin,” make this piece sing.

In the case of Jack, psychedelic mushrooms and stupidity substitute for magic beans and for adroitness. Rather than ransom his mother from squalor by dint of a goose or a harp, Jack’s largess is self-focused; daft Jack overdoses on an ill-conceived mix of drugs and alcohol and falls to his death. As for Charles, next in line to the throne, (allusions anyone?), he “hadn’t seen a woman’s eyes since he was thirteen” so busy has he been lasering his attention on their other parts. Per the one-eyed dwarf who derived his new name from the rumply skin left by the ocular cavity, which his brother emptied in attempting to kill Guillermo to keep him from claiming any of the family’s Trollback Mine fortune, rather than die in poverty, that entrepreneur makes a lasting business deal with Charles’ dad, King Richard.

As a whole, “The Secret Lives of Fairy Tales” abounds with literary devices. Portion by portion, it makes social commentary easy-to-digest while, at the same time, captivating readers with its bouts of misdirection and fits of paradox. Where else might we encounter Snow White-the debauched? I hope Popkes expands this endeavor into a full-length book.

I know that a mom ought not to pick favorites, but “The Long Retreat” by Robert Reed, even among this issue’s many well written stories, deserves accolades. As a narrative that continues to mess with my personal epistemology, long after I’ve read its closing paragraph, this tale receives my highest marks.

More specifically, this story suggests that it is fate’s capricious nature, not lineage, not strength, not cunning and not guile that elevates leaders and that likewise sorts out the destiny of everyone from victims of isolated murders to survivors of far-reaching catastrophes. Further, via this telling, Reed espouses the notion that populations, especially those filling grand geographical or incalculable historical spaces, have and will often tout the merits and follow the strictures of leaders about whom, beyond hearsay, they know nothing. The media, convergent, mass, or primitive, in Reed’s view, shape public opinion with the same ease in which pigeons let loose with waste. I couldn’t agree more.

More than convey important ideas, Reed also writes a high-quality tale. For example, the narrator, a boy who emerges as an immense empire’s king, following his suffering through an intemperate session of bravery, effectively calls up readers’ empathy. Likewise, the ruler whom the man-child replaced readily draws in readers’ compassion.

It is with mastery that Reed tweaks readers’ emotions and that he lays out social syllogisms.

I am enamored with his tale and recommend it to all comers.

While it is within many writers’ capacity to compose stories in which characters are realistic, plots are convincing, and scenes make sense, it requires an additional level of facility to concurrently make readers laugh, especially when the humor involved is high brow. In spite of that, in response to “Nanosferatu” by Dean Whitlock, my pretend hibernaculum of hedgehogs and I, though we did not roll over on the floor or chortle, grimaced, repeatedly sucked in our faces, and engaged in several other nonverbal communications that telegraphed our amusement.

Despite its titular reference to Dracula, i.e. to Nosferatu, the zaniness and pace of “Nanosferatu” reminds me of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. In lieu of a white rabbit, “Nanosferatu” has a pigmented chauffeur. Instead of a Mad Hatter, “Nanosferatu” supplies the two-faced ice queen Lilac. An avaricious corporate head, Hugh Graeber, assumes Alice’s role and the parts of Tweedledee and Tweedledum are filled by the laboratory bench warmers, “Doctors Wang and Sprachmaus, of China and Angola, respectively.” Further, Diana Graeber, who reigns as a myth-sized huntress seems a good fit for the Queen of Hearts; like that royal, Diana would gladly acquire a head, i.e. her husband’s. She even subversively employs a prostitute toward that end.

Potions get sipped in this novelette, too. However, rather than change their imbiber’s size, those nano-filled fluids make their carriers remarkable in other disconcerting ways. Similarly, at some level, the choices made by the characters in this story are strategies in a giant game which while not chess, remains redolent of a winner-take-all mentality. By this tale’s conclusion, when the corporate boss goes tripping because of his having received an abnormal dose of “his medicine,” this story, like Carroll’s, blurs reality and play-acting.

Worthwhile for plot alone, others of “Nanosferatu’s” merits include: its ability to illuminate ways in which women, third world scientists, businessmen and alternative health care providers are typecast, its ability to alert readers to pertinent, contemporary issues of medical ethics, and its ability to slap its audience in the face for its audience’s unwarranted vanities. On the one hand, literary blazes and trumpets live finite spans. On the other hand, narratives infused with élan tend to endure. I predict we will see reprints of “Nanosferatu” for a long time to come.

It’s relatively easy to force fairness on characters; authors, except in self-aware stories, tend to be omnipotent. It’s more challenging to cause readers to infer just outcomes; readers might aptly skew the reasoning they apply to endings. A distorted conclusion, though, would be hard to come by for Kate Wilhelm’s “The Late Night Train.”

In this fiercely explicit, but never expose-ridden work about a troubled adult child and her parents, chronic and acute health concerns, financial crises, psychological breakdowns and domestic abuse are indirectly, yet incredibly carefully, expounded upon. While readers might be taken aback by the quality of the characters’ mental states, dispositions, and overall natures and by the likelihood of a certain ending, they will be appeased by Wilhelm’s way of disentangling events.

As much as dysfunction thrives in the suburban cottage in “The Late Night Train,” controlled writing guides the plot, the character development, and the resolution. This story not only transports readers to plausible alternate lives, but also serves as a good example of craft.

The novella, the four novelettes, and the four short stories found in the January/February 2010 issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction make the magazine well worth its cover price. These literary bites supply a few nights’ worth of entertaining, and at times, uncomfortable, mentations. As for voracious readers who sleep less and devour more, I’d expect them, as well, to be satisfied with these tales’ incommodious thoughts. It is cognitive annoyances, after all, that constitute the stuff of first-rate speculative fiction.