Kaleidotrope 8, April 2010

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“Harmony” by Therese Arkenberg
“le souper a la maison d’ombres” by Terri Leigh Relf
“Away from the Window” by David McGillveray
“A Descent into a Maelstrom” by C. Groover
“Mouse and I” by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz
“Eris Sinks Pluto” by Will Kaufman
“The Beewolf” by Rob Hunter
“The Jar” by Peta Jinnath Andersen
“Invisible Bullets” by Kevin Brown
“More’s the Pity” by Paul Abbamondi
“The Usherette” by Kathleen J. Stowe
“The Silver Tree” by Fred Watten
“The Speed of Heavy” by Simon Petrie
“Visiting the Ladies Rom Exhibit at the Human Museum” by Jeff Soesbe
“A Capricious Disposition” by Benjamin Smith

Reviewed by Nathan Goldman

Kaleidotrope is a biannual (April and October) publication that focuses on the speculative but welcomes strange and exciting fiction of all kinds. It aims to immerse readers in strange worlds written in strange ways – and, in this, issue 8 succeeds.

In “Harmony,” Therese Arkenberg explores the tense relationship between order and chaos – the former, in this telling, being the natural laws of the universe, upon which humanity has come to depend. The struggle between harmony and discord has been explored in literature on countless occasions, and, unfortunately, Arkenberg brings nothing new to the conversation: all her characters’ philosophizing seems like merely an echo of past assertions. But Arkenberg’s fatal error is not her lack of ingenuity; it’s a lack of momentum. The story’s events are merely a prelude to action. This would be fine if there was something else going on, physically or emotionally – but there’s nothing.

Terri Leigh Relf’s “le souper a la maison d’ombres” (translated as “Dining at the House of Shadows”) is a vivid vignette about a mysterious café for the dead. Though more a scene than a story, it’s tightly crafted and Romantically illustrative. At times the prose becomes too flowery, almost sickly-sweet, but there’s no denying the piece’s sensuality and impact.

“Away from the Window” by David McGillveray at first feels, like the pieces that precede it, too much like a scene and not enough like a story. This is quickly remedied by the careful introduction of back-story as McGillveray pulls us into the horrific aftermath of a spaceship catastrophe. The writing is dramatic and enticingly vivid (“honeyed temptations of death”), and the prose expertly mirrors the still, haunting quality of the events being portrayed. If only the reader were able to better understand the protagonist – if McGillveray had provided flashbacks of his life at home, something to make him more of a human being – this story would have been truly exceptional.

C. Groover’s “Descent into a Maelstrom” is a perplexing piece in a heavily Romantic style (perhaps in homage to the aesthetic of Poe and his piece “A Descent into the Maelstrom”) about the wonders of science and perplexities of love – at least, that’s what it seems to be about. The piece reads like a strange, hazy dream – stimulating, but also discomforting. Though nicely crafted, the prose often seems overwrought: it’s nicely illustrative, but it also acts as a barrier between the reader and the story, making it seem as if everything is happening far away. This lack of urgency is a problem – truly great writing, after all, fully immerses the reader in the story. It is never good to keep the audience at such a distance.

In “Mouse and I” Rochita Loenen-Ruiz presents an odd, unique sort of robot’s fairy tale – or maybe horror story. The piece is brief, the writing compact, which is why it’s so surprising how the tale burrows under the reader’s skin so completely. For a piece with so little space in which to explore the characters and their situation, the story is surprisingly tragic and beautifully affecting.

“Eris Sinks Pluto” by Will Kaufman is a story of youth, friendship, frivolity, and choices, set on a moon awaiting its own destruction. Kaufman’s framing of an interpersonal conflict set amidst an interplanetary one is endlessly clever, and he follows through on the idea with compelling characters, realistic dialogue, and a fluid writing style that has all the ease of stream of consciousness prose without any of the confusion. Doubtlessly, this is the issue’s strongest story, and Kaufman its most promising new voice in speculative fiction.

Rob Hunter’s “The Beewolf,” then, is the issue’s strangest piece. Part noir, part comedy, part pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo, it spends about as much time being poetic as it does being utterly bewildering. Clearly it is not meant to be a realistic piece, so the cartoonish dialogue can be forgiven, but often the vocabulary of the prose makes it difficult to even understand what’s going on. Nonetheless, as the story goes on it becomes more and more enjoyable. It may be too smart for its own good, but it’s so weird, so utterly unique, that for the curious it is certainly worth a read.

“The Jar” by Peta Jinnath Andersen is over almost before it begins, a minute piece of restored Greek mythology. Without the context of the relevant myth, it’s remarkable only for its eloquence; with some added research, it becomes more meaningful, and is certainly worth rereading.

Kevin Brown’s “Invisible Bullets” is the issue’s only apparently non-speculative piece; it’s also one of its best. This story of two too-smart foster kids begins brilliantly and only gets better. The dialogue is beyond fantastic – not only for its realism, but also for the joy it brings the reader – and the characters are impossible not to love, to care and fear for. Brown is a writer to watch.

Paul Abbamondi’s “More’s the Pity” is a near-future exploration of tabloid and celebrity blog culture. As social commentary it’s intriguing, but as a story it doesn’t hold up. Though Abbamondi successfully brings the reader into the protagonist’s mind, the plot progresses clumsily: events seem not to happen naturally, but exclusively in order to progress the story. The effect is an unmistakable sense of artifice, that this story has been crafted – it’s missing the sense of effortlessness that makes a story, or any piece of art, great.

“The Usherette” by Kathleen J. Stowe is a subtle, elegant tale of a theatre attendant and her less mundane – actually otherworldly – duties. There is a softness to this story that is hard to describe, a gentleness in the way it was conceived and the way it is written. The prose is delightful, and, though simple, the story keeps the reader held in suspense right up to the conclusion.

Fred Warren’s “The Silver Tree” presents a primitive future in which humanity has shunned the technology that threatened to be its downfall. Until three-fourths of the story is done, the reader is struck by the sense that he has heard this story before, hundreds of times – it’s a classic (and cliché) Garden of Eden tale, the temptation of what is forbidden, with nothing new thrown into the mix. By the story’s end, this is no longer the case: there is some added complexity, and a few twists of the plot that could not have been anticipated. But the ending returns it to the standard archetype, resulting in a disappointing story that feels like an unnecessary rewrite of many others already out there.

“The Speed of Heavy” by Simon Petrie is a snappy, clever SF romp through the trials and tribulations of having an occasionally dimwitted space crew. Though certainly entertaining – and often extremely funny – it provides little to think about and provokes no emotional response. It’s a good laugh, but nothing more.

Jeff Soesbe’s “Visiting the Ladies Room Exhibit at the Human Museum” is pretty much exactly what the title suggests: an alien’s reaction to learning about ladies’ rooms and human sexuality in general. Though it presents some interesting ideas about the nature of sexual interaction, the piece feels half-baked, a draft that could eventually become something fascinating and worthwhile.  In its current state, it’s novelty without a coherent point.

The final piece, Benjamin Smith’s “A Capricious Disposition,” is a bar tale of a robbery and a musing on the curious nature of walls, both literal and metaphorical. The piece has the seed of a clever premise, but it fails to nurture it, and in the end the story reads like a single dull, drawn-out action scene, not nearly as interesting or original as it seems it could have been.

There are enough great stories in this issue of Kaleidotrope to make it more than worth the price. If what you seek is strangeness – in style as well as content – this issue more than delivers.

Kaleidotrope 8
April 2010
80 pages, $5