Talebones, #26, Summer 2003

Saturday, 21 June 2003 18:00 Alan Lattimore
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"The Pair-a-Duce Comet Casino All-Sol Poker Championships" by James Van Pelt
"Too Celestial Lane" by Mark Rich
"The Forever Sleep" by Jennifer Rachel Baumer
"From Sunset to the White Sea" by William Mingin
"The Acquaintance" by Patricia Russo
"The End of Roentgen Rays" by Adam Browne
"Holding onto Ghosts" by Kameron Hurley

ImageIn "The Pair-a-Duce Comet Casino All-Sol Poker Championships," James Van Pelt offers a meditation on death, experience and human dignity. Jared is a Patriarch, a man who can die but who is guaranteed to be recreated, with his memories intact up until the last save. Jared has died, several times, but he has no idea how he faced those deaths. Was he brave?

Jared has come to the Comet Casino, built on a comet as it takes the plunge sunward. There he is assigned Abel, who covets the life extension technology available to the Patriarchs. The trip is dangerous, at least to Abel.

The descriptions of the comet are magnificent, the casino rich and textured without impeding the tale. Typically, the appreciation of experience is given to the short timers while immortals are jaded, decadent and suffer from ennui. Mr. Van Pelt has taken a different approach: here it is the short timer who is too busy trying to become a Patriarch to appreciate the experiences around him.

I suppose it is a sign of our times when the candidates for life extension are chosen based on wealth as opposed to, say, their value to humanity. It's a rich wo/man's club. Great thinkers, artists, poets, Nobel peace laureates will still need to come across with the green. I think Abel's nose-to-the-grindstone approach to a goal he is unlikely to ever attain provides a brief, sharp commentary on the situation of the modern cubicle drudge.

With a title like "All-Sol Poker Championships," I would have expected poker or chance to play a major part in the story and it doesn't. Indeed I found the focus somewhat diffuse, with the main thread of the story devoted to how soon the comet would break up. And I would quibble somewhat as to whether staring through a window at the stark but beautiful cometscape constitutes viable experience. Still the beauty of the setting and the enthusiasm of Jared gave this story a lot of draw and I would look forward to seeing it in a "Year's Best."

Now we travel to post WWI America for Mark Rich's "Too Celestial Lane." Inspired by the life and affliction of Cyril Kornbluth (according to the introduction) this is a story of personal redemption. Sanford is a damaged veteran who hears voices and sees apparitions of his comrades in arms as well as a young girl named Millie, whom he once tried to help. He has a lucky talisman given to him by his dying war buddy which Sanford initially rejected but later retrieved. It's a toy, a tin Red Cross stretcher bearer.

The phantasms distort and interfere in Sanford's life. In the end, Sanford will have to accept the luck token in order to save both a boy about to be run over and himself.

The phantasms are numerous but have distinct characteristics and are believable. The first half of the story left me disoriented but it straightens out when he meets a boy with a sled and a defective heart. The end mostly left this reader just plain confused as to how this lucky token was supposed to work, whether or not it had and just what Sanford had accomplished. Still, Sanford saves the day and you gotta like that.

Jennifer Rachel Baumer's "The Forever Sleep" is another treatment of dreams and dreamers affecting consensual reality. Jerry hears a passenger jet coming in low and fast. Too low. He concludes the plane is going to land on top of his family and their house. He shoulders his wife, tries to wake his daughter, and takes refuge in the basement where low and behold, freaky stuff happens: time is slowed down to the stopping point through the agency of his daughter's dreams. How will Jerry get through the not-yet-wreckage of the plane to rescue his daughter without waking her up to the point the wreck is allowed to complete its turn in the cycle of life and death.

The solution depends on the difference in abilities between children and adults, a fine approach to making a staple of the Twilight Zone set into something new and fresh and the exploration of the not-yet-wreck was well done. My "willing suspension of disbelief" was severly tested by the amount Jerry was able to accomplish between the time he decided the plane was going to crash on top of him and the time it finally landed-without-a-bang. A 747 comes in at 180 knots. That doesn't give Jerry much of a chance to get himself in the basement, much less fireman carry his sleeping spouse. My credulity was further strained by Christy, the wife who sleeps through Jerry's initial "Do I save my daughter or my wife" choice, then conveniently wakes up in order to make every possible wrong decision. And Carly's door just happened to be locked from the inside, just so Jerry doesn't have to make a decision...? But all in all, Jerry, Carly and Jennifer deliver a satisfying, sweat soaked conclusion.

William Mingin's "From Sunset to the White Sea" takes us across the map to where our world ends and Fairy begins. This send up of a hard boiled detective among the fey has a lot of great language, kick-ass imagery, a compelling narrative that hangs together well, and drops you into an underworld that was fun to view through someone else's eyes but I wouldn't want to be there myself. I am compelled to note that "Sunset" is more of a travelogue than a story: P.I. Murdoch is the stand-in for the reader, visiting an alien world—the dark side of Fey—and reporting back what he has seen. I would urge Mr. Mingin to examine this fore closely. I, as a reader, would have been more involved and enjoyed the story more, if Mr. Murdoch had been involved. That aside Mr. Mingin's eye for telling detail and skillful turn of phrase make this a fine effort and I look forward to more from Mr. Mingin.

If there's anyplace further from the land of fairy, it must be retirement living. Patricia Russo introduces us to an old lady with an unusual companion in "The Acquaintance." Nana is the kind of old person set out in a lawn chair on the sidewalk by busy relatives and abandoned there for the day. You remember walking past just a little fast, thinking they smelled kind of funny. Maybe you stopped just out of range to call them names.

All Nana wants is some ice cream, but she doesn't have the strength left in her body to get it for herself. Her attempt to get some of the teasing youths to get it for her results in tragedy of an entirely rewarding kind.

The story is slight, charming and lasts only as long as I would have wanted it to. The logic doesn't hold up to close scrutiny—why is Nana immune?—but I felt the story accomplishes what it sets out to do: Nana gets her ice cream in a satisfying way. The ending was easy for me to see coming but not obnoxiously so, and easy to digest without leaving the reader weighed down.

We leave the self-indulgence of retirement living for the lush qualities of language in "The End of Roentgen Rays" by Adam Browne. What if letters weren't in unlimited supply? Mr. Browne uses this conceit to bask in the sheer beauty of words and language. His highly visual images are beautiful to read.

Appropriately, the final story in this issue is the collision of the old and the new, of prejudice slamming headlong into reality of today's South Africa in Kameron Hurley's "Holding Onto Ghosts."

Aninka's father has returned from Angola, bringing with him ghosts that no one else admits to being able to see. Aninka is brought to face the sins of her elders--principally her father—through the black servants of the household. Eventually the ghosts, or the effort invested in ignoring them, destroys the household as South Africa is liberated from white control.

I wished I liked this story more, for it is well written. The question of Meeting the Other is one that SF and fantasy (and all of their cousins in the realm of speculative fiction) are ideally suited to examine. What we have here is really a mystery--What is in Father's room that everyone avoids?—and principally it is a mystery to the reader--what do these ghosts represent?

Aninka is a child. It is the nature of a child to observe, to be in the middle, to be confused by the illogical adult world, and, finally to make a choice. It is not the nature of the child to directly confront adult issues of race and prejudice. The choice of Aninka as the viewpoint limits the reader's experience to observations about fantastic happenings within the household. The reader never gets a chance to explore the reality of race relations in post-apartheid South Africa. Nor is the reader invited to confront or examine their own attitudes on a very complex subject.

Overall, "Holding" accomplishes what it sets out to do. The tension in the enigma of the spirits which might or might not haunt the house, and by extension modern South Africa. will get you through the story under full sail. And if the ending becomes a little vague at least it's optimistic which is all that we can expect for such a tough subject.

All in all, the Summer issue of Talebones was a quite enjoyable read. The art was a treat—I loved Fiona's cover—the reviews were thought provoking and the overall quality of the stories made this a memorable and worthwhile read.