Paradox, #6, Winter 2004-2005

Note: This post was imported from an old content-management system, so please excuse any inconsistencies in formatting.

"The Three Truths," by Adam Stemple
"The Alternate History of Arthur Eisen," by Matthew S. Rotundo
"Osiris Rising," by Resa Nelson
"Tiger Heart Wrapp'd in a Woman's Hide," by Karen L. Abrahamson
"Milk in a Silver Cup," by Meredith Simmons
"Isandhlwana At Dawn," by Clyde E. Miller
"Lady of the Birds," by Beverly Suarez-Beard
"For You, Lili Marlene," by Rita Oakes

ImageI liked "The Three Truths," by Adam Stemple—in the way I enjoy Saturday-morning cartoons.  Stemple spins a murder-mystery in the Ichizawa fiefdom in samurai-era Japan.  Ken'ichi (which struck me as a poor choice for a name—I can't get over the idea that I've heard it before) is the valet to Master Shichiro.  The Master wakes up one morning to find a murdered noblewoman in his bed; unfortunately, havoc ensues.  We get a lot of sheriff-and-loyal-sidekick action, but the sad thing is, that isn't what this story is about.  The ease with which Stemple deals with the characters of Shichiro and Ken'ichi is admirable (making samurai-era Japan cute is not easy) but this is a story about love, honor and betrayal.  Stemple nails it in the somber beginning, and I'll give him points for the accuracy of his setting and the ease with which he moves around in it.  Unfortunately, by the end, Ken'ichi turns into loyal Lassie, charmingly saving his Master from certain death: It's the charming, not the saving, that I had a problem with.

Then we have "The Alternate History of Arthur Eisen," by Matthew S. Rotundo.  Maybe it's just me, but has anyone else gotten tired of "If-the-Holocaust-had-never-happened" stories?  Make no mistake, I'm Jewish, my maternal grandmother was in Auschwitz, and I'm still tired of them.  The story had potential, the plot being that of an old Jewish man in hiding from the Sector Patrol (the softer, Americanized Nazis) telling his grandchildren "It could have been worse," whilst his family whispers of Alzheimer's disease.  But lots of attention was given to this it-could-have-been-worse stuff, and the dramatic climax of the story was Eisen revealing to his grandson just how much worse it could have been.  Sorry, I don't think the names of the camps, nor the oft-repeated refrain of "six million," is shocking to people anymore.  Yes, the setting was well-constructed, but I think it was a waste—readers already "get" the idea of a Nazi-fied America, so it doesn't need to be well-constructed.  I think the story would have been much more effective with more consideration of Eisen's personal plight, of him making the impossible choice for his family versus six million strangers, in the midst of the struggle of his family believing him befuddled.

"Osiris Rising," by Resa Nelson, started with an intriguing sci-fi-ish proposal, of a murdered woman (cloned after her death; memories reactivated) going to Egypt to search for an alien.  Aliens only visit Earth about as often as Haley's comet, so it's the "thing to do."  She finds a guide, and they chase the alien like crazed paparazzi—interspersed through the chasing we are told the story/legend of Isis and Osiris.  So, it's intriguing what the story could have done, but I would have liked to connect more solidly to Jemma.  See, in the cab on the way to the first alien sighting, Jemma tells her guide how she was murdered.  I feel this was meant to be very personal, but I didn't get the feeling that it really was; it didn't resonate with me that Nelson had really considered Jemma's feelings.  And the story is about Jemma's quest.  I couldn't identify with Jemma, so the story came across as flat.  One could argue that the reader should identify more with her as the quest progresses—but I think the interspersed stories of divinity, and how they connect with the ending, make Jemma's quest a bad vehicle for understanding her; a shame.

Karen L. Abrahamson definitely has a touch for the ghoulish in "Tiger Heart Wrapp'd in a Woman's Hide," and I was extremely impressed with the detail and care taken with her unfamiliar setting, the deep jungle-side of India.  That said; kind of aimless.  It was about a man, Nironjan, who is blessed by the goddess Bonobibi, and with this blessing protects loggers from the tigers in the jungle (this is what he gets paid for).  But then his future-son-in-law, erstwhile the son of his boss, is killed by a tiger after blaspheming the gods.  Oops.  It's aimless like that—I couldn't get the character of the gods, Bonobibi, or the tiger god, Daksin Ray.  They just kind of go around beating poor Nironjan up, and Nironjan doesn't get it, just continually doesn't get why.  Turns out in the end that Bonobibi is mad because Nironjan's been letting people cut up the forest—but Nironjan still hasn't clued in.  See the problem?  It's hard to have a story about damnation when Faust doesn't appreciate all the while that he's being corrupted and damned.

Now for the good news: "Milk in a Silver Cup," by Meredith Simmons.  Yum, yum.  Some folks might complain about the abrupt resolution, but I've become used to that in the short-story format, and I'll argue that it's almost impossible to do it differently.  Who we have here Thomas, left mute and horribly scarred by an accident at the forge, as a boy.  He's labeled as a freak in the year 1284, can find no work but as a bodyguard/assassin, and his Jewish employer's family calls him a golem, a legendary creature made out of mud and very ugly, which possesses no soul.  But Thomas obviously does have a soul, because he falls in love with Leah, his employer's albino sister that long ago was cast out of the family, and now makes her living as a witch.  Thomas' struggle with being understood, in general by human beings and spiritually by Leah, is a theme in this story, and an adroitly handled one.  I felt for them both—their solitude and the solace they found in each other was very real to me, and touching.  The ending was sad, but that's not a criticism; rather, the ending was such a change in tone from the rest of the story that I'd like a better look into how we got there, but I'm going to blame that on space issues.  All in all, "Milk…" stuck with me; I'm looking to it as a model for good romantic historical fiction.

"Isandhlwana At Dawn," by Clyde E. Miller is another of the stories I'm going to laud for attention to setting and detail.  We didn't really get into anyone's character, but how much can you do in around a thousand words?  For the length, Miller did a fine job.  It's kind of what fanfiction writers might call a drabble, in that it has lots of description and doesn't really go anywhere; it's an interesting historical anecdote, and that's all it is, but that isn't exactly bad…and if they're going to be written, they should be written this well.  It is a cool anecdote.  Maziba, a young Zulu warrior, is in a protracted sort-of coming-of-age battle with "The Eternal Warrior," erstwhile a member of the British military.  Maziba (and the afterword explains that Maziba's fellow tribesmen) did a tremendous job of holding their own against the British weaponry of 1879.

"Lady of the Birds," by Beverly Suarez-Beard was nice.  However, I wanted to smack the heroine upside the head.  You see, the Lady of the Birds is one Isobel, born deformed and left isolated from a young age, by the death of both parents.  She falls in love with this arrogant prince passing through her lands who won't spare her a word, she's so ugly, when it's immediately obvious that the one she should fall in love with is the prince's servant—he's a peach, a nice guy and everything, just a little old.  The thing is, Isobel doesn't really have any justification for choosing to crush on the prince, totally rejecting the poor servant guy, who turns out to be this god of all birds (one Phoenix), in disguise, and who has always loved her.  She keeps panting over the prince, who of course turns out to be an abusive nutjob, and there's tragedy-in-a-box for you, all nice and neat.  All the real emotion here came from the Phoenix, and while I won't leave that out in the rain to rot, what makes a truly great romance or tragedy is true emotional depth in all of the characters that really matter.

Finally, "For You, Lili Marlene," by Rita Oakes.  It was a great endcap to the issue; I really enjoyed it, despite the fact that it was depressing.  "For You, Lili Marlene," is what Holocaust fiction should be like.  More, please.  What happens: Stefan is Roma, (a gypsy, to be crude) and has survived the war, moving from place to place after his wife is taken by the Nazis.  He seems to be on a sort of personal mission to find scattered roma and empathize with their plight, translate between them and the officers, and generally do what he can to scrape his people back together.  So when the prostitute, Lili—who looks a lot like his lost wife and even had a daughter that may have died at birth, like Stefan's—appears, there's an immediate attraction. Complications prevent Stefan from going out with Lili and set him up with her friend, Eleni.  The overarching theme of the story is chances missed, that things have happened during the war that make human beings fundamentally different, and that things will never really be "better" again.  Overall, these themes and the realistic, poignant emotions of the characters, as well as the intricacies of the setting, make this piece of Holocaust fiction memorable.