Fantasy & Science Fiction, November/December 2014
Reviewed by C.D. Lewis
The November/December issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction presents ten original stories. The issue reacts to Internet intolerance of difference by gathering what the editor describes as “stories that deal with touchy themes or go beyond the bounds of Political Correctness.” In other words, the issue contains stories selected for their potential to offend. The issue reflects an editorial decision to present thought provoking subjects and perspectives in the full knowledge some of the stories have the potential to elicit negative responses. Readers of delicate sensitivities may wish to note elements likely to set them off.
Offense potentially arises from religion (whether by re-writing it, or depicting what becomes of it in the post-apocalyptic future) to patriotism (draft-dodging?) to sexual matters (mostly non-heterosexual predilection, but also non-consensual acts). The authors presumably hope readers’ offense (if any) will be directed at characters rather than at those bringing readers the story. Potentially offensive material in most cases reflects the author’s bet which side of an issue the reader will take. It’s safe to hope readers will side against a rapist villain, for example – but some readers won’t pick a story up knowing it contains such elements. Sometimes the author’s assumptions about a reader’s reaction to a charged subject seems low-risk: Rand B. Lee and KJ Kabza expect readers to accept gay good guys and to scorn homophobic oppressors, for example – an expectation that has grown in acceptance for years. Tim Sullivan’s expectation readers will enjoy seeing Christianity’s major early figures ridiculed leaves less room for those who don’t already agree; but as we’re no longer executing accused blasphemers in this country the trend favors the author there, too. Alan Dean Foster’s comedy feels too absurd to credit a reader taking it seriously enough to develop serious offense, but this is part of why it tickles so. Baker takes this principle further – we laugh at the things dear to us – by creating a protagonist who likes to hurt cats. Shockingly, it works.
But think for a moment: what does it mean, to dedicate an issue to works that could offend? Imagine the reverse. Suppose editors rejected all works that might offend. What would be left? One need not even invent offensive material to risk offense: historical fiction demands settings full of non-invented elements presented solely to provide the reader a feeling of being there. Think how effective temporal realism in minute detail is to transport readers to another world in works like Connie Willis’ Blackout and All Clear. But how are such works possible without describing, at least in passing, the effect of temporally consistent social rules on the characters. What risks offense more than commenting on what’s tolerable and intolerable in society? Imagine setting a story in the early Roman Empire. Will you faithfully depict the rights and condition of women and non-citizens – and risk being accused of hijacking history to promote a political agenda or to impugn someone’s romantic notions of lost Rome – or will you drop references to the fate of captured enemies and the effects of Roman law and thus whitewash the world you show readers? To tell the truth as you’ve discovered it, you can’t avoid risking offense from someone.
Fantasy and Science Fiction’s issue dedicated to potentially offensive tales performs some valuable services. First, it gathers – in one place – stories that people who fear offense can make a point to avoid. Second – more importantly – it makes a statement that fiction’s purpose isn’t to protect the public from offense, but to challenge people to think and feel and react. Stories may inspire very different thoughts and feelings … but what does it mean when a story inspires nothing? What’s the point? Stories have no duty not to offend. Sometimes – as Douglas Hofstadter brilliantly demonstrates in “A Person Paper on Purity in Language” – the whole point of a piece is to inspire thought by making readers ask themselves why and how they became offended. Hofstadter leverages what he believes will offend you about race to make you think about gender. It’s brilliant, and everyone should read it. In compensation for your time in doing so, I’ll publicly accept any offensive comment you care to make on my blog. (To concentrate your offensive comments and deliberate insults with likeminded others responding to this review, consider posting directly on my blog entry announcing this review and mentioning Hofstadter’s piece.) Consider offense as a tool, as much as alliteration or irony, and no more inherently evil. In inartful hands it’s easy to imagine offense overpowering a story as much as gore or sex can. The job of writers is surely not to avoid offense or gore or sex, but to employ every tool with proper care. Authors will, as ever, stumble – but that’s no reason to attack the principle that fiction is permitted to offend. It is, however, a perfectly good reason for a reader to decide a particular story isn’t to his or her taste. We have to agree it’s fair to say “ick” and move on without undue rancor.
Of course, there’s a limit. A story source that systematically offends the same people, especially in the same way, should expect to get a reputation for it. To accept the principle that occasional offense is the price of artistic honesty is not a commitment to sit passively while insulted or a pledge to tolerate abuse. Intentional employment of offense to harass targets will inevitably be spotted and called out. Writers and editors interested in quality should be guided by the desire to deliver good work irrespective of offense, not to redefine “good” based on works’ tendency to offend. Neither this review nor the November-December issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction amount to a call for more offense. Each simply supports the notion that timid refusal to risk offense threatens the basic purpose of speculative fiction: to illuminate the world in which we live.
The following ten stories are reviewed primarily as stories, and only secondarily as sources of offense. (Where offense and/or ridicule is the point of the piece, these may be harder to separate.) Offense or no, though, a story works only to the extent it delivers the reader something worth reading: characters whose problems force them to make hard choices that cause consequences that must be faced.
Paul Di Filippo’s “I’ll Follow the Sun” is a time-travel fantasy full of chronologically synched cultural references that depicts a young undergraduate whose academic supervisor persuades him in the 1960s to undertake a drug-fueled journey into the future in order to hide, safe from arrest, until he can return without punishment for dodging his draft notice. Since his time-travel technique only allows fifty-year steps, he’ll have to kill time until his return trip will land him safely after his draft-dodging prosecution risk has expired. The professor’s plan is foolproof: a comic book worth $100 in the ‘60s will surely be worth a fortune fifty years hence, so all the student needs to do is dig it up to fund his survival until the war ends. What could go wrong? But he comes from a family proud of its military service – and aware of its military deaths – so he’s hesitant to use his power only for self-protection; he meddles a bit before he executes his professor’s plan. He transports into the ‘60s his namesake great-uncle to keep him from an early, childless death in an earlier war. People with the same names in a time-travel story naturally generate confusion along the time stream, and the reader is offered a chuckle as the main character meets an attractive distant relative he initially assumes is his daughter.
Unfortunately, “I’ll Follow the Sun” sorts out everybody’s problems without putting anyone to a particularly hard choice or consequence. Unlike It’s a Wonderful Life – in which removing one man from his time prevented his brother’s rescue as a child, and cost the protagonist’s nation a whole ship full of soldiers the boy would himself have saved if he’d lived – “I’ll Follow the Sun” presents alterations in the timeline’s cast as cost-free, a gift. When escaping danger and rescuing one’s friends becomes both easy to accomplish and free of cost, time travel offers less a vehicle to make stories possible than it presents as a mechanism to rescue characters from appearing in stories; wishing rings and genie lamps work best when they cause trouble. At the very least, a wish shortage or limitations in time travel should put the characters to hard choices whose consequences will stick. But the ensuing trouble never occurs, and the piece feels light. Its greatest strengths lie in suggesting how little things change from generation to generation, and its depiction of a narrator whose different perspective alienates him from temporal “locals” he views as engrossed in vacuous fads. As a bonus, the story offers the tantalizing possibility that some classic comics are true stories about the protagonist’s friends and family, spotted in the past or sowing truths where they will best affect the development of the civilized world. The temporally appropriate cultural references give a believable sense of the time in which each scene is set, and it’s as fun to see a happy ending as it is to see a curmudgeon vindicated in his peeves.
Did you hear about the dyslexic atheist who didn’t believe in Dog? Tim Sullivan’s “Yeshua’s Dog” presents an alternative to the Christian canon, told from the viewpoint of the carpenter who took over the shop when Yeshua retired to tell tall tales for small change. Sullivan does not follow Christopher Moore’s example in Lamb, in which the Gospel of Biff dodges direct attack on established religious doctrines by the simple expedient of attributing to a novel character all the rough language, blue humor, and other potentially offensive conduct that fills his religious comedy. Rather, Sullivan recasts Yeshua as a local entertainer whose beloved fiction became a bestseller in translation. Christopher Moore’s miracle, and that of the movie Dogma – that religious jokes and criticism nevertheless resolve in a place that respects the underlying religion – isn’t attempted: when “Yeshua’s Dog” opens the storyteller has died – of old age – and his faithful dog Judas piteously visits his (closed, occupied) tomb. The message is plain: the canon’s a lie.
The inciting incident in “Yeshua’s Dog” is the flashback appearance of Lucanus (the Roman equivalent of Luke, author of the earliest New Testament volume), who offers to pay Yeshua to recount his best stories before a translator so he can sell them to Greek readers around the Roman Empire. (Sullivan presents these popular books as emulated in subsequent volumes that have even less connection to the source, being inspired like faux Chinese Harry Potter volumes solely to sell books.) Yeshua thereafter views his story-telling as a commercial enterprise, and alienates his neighbors by refusing to repeat his tales without pay. Although Lucanus keeps the book revenues, his payments for two recitals before a translator keeps Yeshua fed and clothed for the end of his days. Sullivan’s story offers an entertaining explanation why the first books of the New Testament were first published years after the reported crucifixion: instead of executing the accused, the procurator considering the sedition charges leveled by Caiaphas thought them bogus and so freed Yeshua – at night, to escape notice, with orders to go home. Rewriting Judas as a sympathetic character isn’t unique – the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar portrays Judas’ final scene in white amongst an elevated choir – but Sullivan goes further, making the dog blameless and virtuous and loyal – indeed, he presents the only real miracle in the story: it’s his body that goes missing after entombment. The ironic conclusion – the story is about the dog, after all – will entertain those who aren’t offended by the premise.
Justin Barbeau’s third-person presentation “Nanabojou at the World’s Fair” depicts a native American deity seeking work at the 1904 World’s Fair – held in St. Louis to celebrate the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase. White/government characters are parasites too thick to recognize the irony in their sanctimonious condescension of natives who observe them demonstrating the very traits they preach against. Nanabojou’s plan to seek employment follows the government’s decision to hold “in trust” revenues from exploiting tribal land; in the century since the story’s open, the government’s “trust” scheme has in the real world been exposed as a mismanaged boondoggle. The tension between reality and presentation underlies the tale throughout. Barbeau’s protagonist brings a delightful mix of ancient perspective and a newcomer’s naïveté that enables him to have experiences like this: “The first thing he learned from the exhibits was Mr. Darwin’s theory that whitemen were descended from monkeys. That explained a lot.” Nanabojou’s effort to learn what European civilization is about frustrates him; the difference between what seems and what is causes him as much confusion as it does everyone around him. But Nanabojou is a god; he may not be infallible, and may get confused for a while, but he knows how to get his balance back. The resolution of Nanabojou’s job hunt shouldn’t come as a surprise after his initial response to first seeing The World’s Fair, but the aftermath is a fun combination of two old jokes: the Hawking-publicized “it’s turtles all the way down” and the one about successfully faking sincerity as the secret to success in showbiz. Barbeau’s tale presents a parable about acculturation, but to Disneyfy American expansion into native-settled land would be dishonest. Barbeau’s story finds humor in a dark corner of America’s soul. But it’s not a tragedy: when the protagonist falls on his face he emerges intact, though not unchanged. Since nothing that survives remains unchanged, one can hardly count that a loss: he survived. And in a tale like this, that’s a victory.
“The Judging” by Rand B. Lee continues a tale begun in “Changes” which F&SF published in its May/June 2013 issue. Before reading “Changes” I found the setting-specific vocabulary initially unclear, and had some early trouble determining whether the setting represented an alternate history or a post-apocalypse; the characters’ discussion about the supernatural cataclysm and the protagonist’s spiritual power to combat the menace felt weighed by exposition. By comparison “Changes” quickly presents its lightweight worldbuilding so we can follow its protagonist through a world in which probability storms bring alternate futures into the characters’ immediate presence, and require regular patrols to keep local communities’ reality stabile. A couple pages into “The Judging” left me much less clarity about the world than the first three-quarters of a page in “Changes.” Prior experience with “Changes” is strongly recommended; if you don’t have access to the May/June 2013 issue of F&SF, “Changes” is available in EBSCO if you have student or alumni access to its periodical database.
Without a background in “Changes” Lee’s current story may surprise readers with its religious content: the main character combats probability storms with what presents as spiritual power, and he demonstrates an at-least-occasional ability to have miracles granted by praying (seemingly, without cost). The main character’s purpose is interesting – to combat the effects of probability storms – but the threat is so impersonal and distant as he travels that it’s difficult to get emotionally invested in his problem. He doesn’t want to lose his burro, but is that really compelling for stakes or motivation? Most of the story passes without anyone clearly presenting planned opposition. When the reader learns – a quarter or a third into the 17,000-word piece – that the main character has discovered a town full of people we might care about, the interesting problem appears: is the town the kind of anomaly the main character is obliged to banish? Is it doomed? Can anything be done for it? What about the locals who’d like to leave? As interesting and as promising as Lee’s world is, though, it seems not to force his characters to make hard choices. There’s adversity, to be sure – but the conflict seems predominantly physical, and frequently presents as a distant natural peril rather than the immediate human conflict that engenders emotional engagement. The character’s backstory of personal loss and his refusal to adopt passive acceptance are promising, but they create a hunger for conflict that places his priorities in conflict so we can see what he’s made of. Conflicts that don’t put characters to hard choices, and stories that don’t change characters, just don’t have the same grip as those that test their protagonists and their values. There’s undeniable poetry in villains unleashing their own destruction, but the main character’s magical self-defense seems too easy. The end-of-story decision might be hard for one who doesn’t believe in self-defense – a man’s life against the lives of those who agreed to murder him certainly has the feel of self-defense, at any rate – but how many readers will think that’s a hard choice? The environment, the intelligent animals, the moral issues involving people displaced between possible worlds – they all create exciting opportunity for awful dilemmas, and expectation the main character will be put to a peril more directly challenging to his identity, beliefs, and purpose.
Scott Baker’s “Feral Frolics” presents a (former) private animal control contractor’s account of his effort to get and keep work following release from prison after being caught misconducting his inherited critter-catching business. The connection between this story and the threat-of-offense theme comes quickly: the narrator’s animal-control work led to the deaths of little fuzzy animals, and he holds contempt for those who regard vermin as precious little fuzzy animals. But then (sniff) we learn he unnecessarily kills cats when induced by a profit motive – and he enjoys it. Then he’s indignant and angry at the trial witness who caught him on film. The inciting incident is seemingly the protagonist’s unexpected notoriety as a high-profile animal cruelty convict, which interferes with his efforts to get steady work following release. It’s easy to hold on for the story to get underway: the thug’s contemptuous voice and over-the-top POV present a can’t-look-from-the-train-wreck attraction with which Baker easily holds attention until the narrator’s problem and stakes have been sufficiently framed. Then, you can’t look away from the certain disaster promised when his furniture-delivery job (that has advancement prospects! where he’s appreciated!) sends him to a shop catering to cat fanciers. (Cue musical chords from Law And Order.)
One of the joys Baker provides is our wonder where the narrator’s reliability ends. His criminal confessions elicit confidence largely because they’re backed with his indignant outlook on everyone he insults in the process: it’s all too in-character not to believe it fits together. But is he crazy? Or does he live, perhaps, in a horror world run by cats exercising mind control through toxoplasmosis infection? Are cat fanciers mind-control victims in a world in which we should be acting against cats as fast as possible? The mind boggles. Despite everything, I found myself hoping the sicko would manage to keep his wits long enough to save his new job. Because if he’s not crazy – well … if he’s not crazy we’re all in much worse trouble than a spell unemployed. “Feral Frolics” is fun, just fun. Discussing Baker’s resolution’s perfect fit would only spoil its beauty: read it.
“The Bomb-Thing” by KJ Kabza is F&SF’s mirror image of Di Filippo’s “I’ll Follow The Sun” – it depicts people from the current day traveling back to the ‘60s. Instead of a serious third-person piece about a university student concerned about finishing his training (and who falls in love with a naïve relative rather than hooking up with a worldly alien), “The Bomb-Thing” is a first-person narrative by a socially awkward taco stand worker captured in the social orbit of a self-important skirt-chasing thug janitor who imagines himself a pickup artist. The pair’s clumsiness and inelegance seem so plain that one can’t help thinking they’re being played when a young woman appears in a Saturn seeking entrance to a building to which the janitor has keys. When she agrees to meet them after ten to sneak in, we’re fully convinced she’s set them up. The reversal is a stitch to see coming through the eyes of an oblivious narrator.
It isn’t long before it’s clear the narrator has given his confidence – and entrusted his life – to a shallow, self-interested idiot. It’s initially funny to see the narrator’s unwillingness to see what a tool he’s allied himself with, and what opportunities to learn and see interesting things he’s missing by allowing his “friend” the skirt-chaser to control him (and blame him for the thug’s mistakes). When the janitor inadvertently transports them (and their supposed mark) back to the ’60s, the woman is obviously the only one with a chance to get them home. It takes the narrator a while to break free from his “friend” and act on his own initiative. And when he does … what a change. Stories aren’t settings with colorful decorations passing through them, they’re about changes in characters, the decisions characters make, and the results when characters must cope with the consequences of their (in)actions. There are some gems that are pure fun, too: when the narrator worries changing the past’s cast of characters might have some awful consequence, his example is that someone might stop the assassination of Hitler. What else must be different in the story’s timeline? But Kabza doesn’t shy from depicting unchanging things like the presence of misogynist bully sociopaths or the kinds of people reliably found imbibing suds at frathouse parties. Kabza’s world has plenty of true-to-its time color in the present and past, painted with a light brush using just enough strokes to convince. By comparison to the story to which it reacts, “The Bomb-Thing” shows a clearer character arc and demonstrates transformations that go beyond the scenery to affect the characters and their relationships, power, sexuality, and self-acceptance. The rescuing-the-rescuer resolution is a delight to see. The story fits with the issue’s theme not only by reacting to the issue’s other time-travel story, but because it may demonstrate a certain indelicacy with the feelings of persons sensitive to seeing delusionally self-confident misogynist sociopath homophobe thugs depicted in an unfavorable light. If that’s you, you’ve been warned.
Albert E. Cowdrey’s “Golden Girl” opens on the first day of work for an information management specialist hired to catalogue the book collection of the elderly gentleman she suspects murdered her grandmother. Cowdrey builds a creepy vibe perfect for a layperson’s investigation of a potential multiple-murderer, undertaken in his very lair. The asexually-inclined protagonist learns about her ageing and often absentee subject through his books, which include entomological tomes and periodicals dating as far back as the 19th Century. Is the killer using insects to get at his victims? Does he employ expertise in chemistry to reach them, or to signal insects to attack? The protagonist resolves to quit: things get too creepy after her employer fires every other servant then resigns his university connection that forms his only excuse to leave the house. But she sees her resignation letter hasn’t been replaced with a check … and begins looking through the huge house for her employer. Alas. Hasn’t she read horror stories? The story delivers its villain a strong and convincing hoist-by-his-own-petard resolution in a reversal that fits the themes and tools in play throughout the story. But the story isn’t in this issue by accident. The editor warns readers about passing this story to youngsters on the basis of the MPAA rating he believes it would rate as a film, but many adult readers may specifically desire to consider when or whether to consume a story depicting nonconsensual sex acts and the kind of enslavement that makes national news when it’s discovered in the real world. The resolution is foreshadowed strongly enough that it’s no great surprise when the tables turn; the story appeals to readers who like to see vengeance as justice, and who appreciate or enjoy victims who refuse to be broken. Fans of horror will enjoy wondering just how far the protagonist’s transformation has gone. And this may be the story’s real strength: transforming the harmless protagonist into a villain more powerful, more calculating, and more terrible than her murder suspect ever was. After all … how many drones does a queen bee need?
David Gerrold’s “The Old Science Fiction Writer” is a first-person account given to a grandchild (gender not yet decided), set in a science-fiction future in which achieved technology has rendered made-up technology obsolete – and apparently science fiction with it. From the first paragraphs it’s clear Grandpa isn’t prone to delivering G-rated material blessed by committees for consumption by formative minds: he’s offering full-color stories we’d like to hear ourselves. But … the child demands the truth. Alas. It’s an interesting future in which puberty involves an application for a license, and requires a test. (Grandpa has seen Return of the Jedi and has advice: “It’s a trap!”) But the future holds machines that can solve problems faster than humans can ask their questions, which puts an end to human discovery. Or, does it? Kids ask the damndest questions, and see the most interesting things….
Gerrold’s 2,500-word piece sketches a world enough to invite questions, then turns out the light. “The Old Science Fiction Writer” proves there’s always another story to tell, and something to learn. And it shows a strong argument in favor of science fiction as a platform for social discussion. An uncharitable critic might claim in-dialogue infodump dominates the story, but this is harsh. The reader learns with the grandkid what Gramps has to say about the olden days, and Gramps learns from his descendant that there’s a science fiction story left to write after all. The piece does what science fiction should: it invites one to think. On the way, it quietly proves we ought never stop thinking. And that’s good.
Michael Libling’s “Hollywood North” is a slow-building tragic horror. Warned against exposing his town’s lost secrets and advised to burn his collected evidence, the narrator and his allies tone down their investigation to avoid notice – but don’t quit. Set in Canada’s Trenton on the shores of Lake Ontario, the story’s name comes from the Canadian filmmaking industry that flourished briefly before the advent of talkies. In “Hollywood North” it wasn’t the talkies that did it in, though. The story reveals how the narrator connects with Jack, who has the gift of finding lost things and lost truths: little miracle; he sleuths. And the town turns out to have a colorful history of weird disasters people largely avoid discussing. When notoriety for finding things attracts press and scoundrels, Jack loses his friends and suffers at home. So the next time he wants a find known, he recruits his friend to take credit. But the discovery is tied to some kind of terrible secret, the details of which escape the youths. The kids worry that advice to keep them from entangling themselves with the disasters constitutes a veiled death threat, and they don’t know whom to trust. But they don’t destroy their evidence as asked. But as it turns out, the reason to burn the evidence may not be to keep the truth hidden but to thwart further disaster.
Since “Hollywood North” is a horror story, its genre invites defiance of some classic characteristics of a story. For example, H.P. Lovecraft succeeded in horror without generally having a single character display more agency than required to witness some horror he’s unwilling to fully describe. But when your spine shivers or your hair stands up, you’ve been frightened enough to tip your hat to the author: the tale’s done its job. Horror is, in that way, extremely dependent on the author’s ability to trigger a specific reader’s particular sensitivities: the author can tell the reader what the characters’ names are and the order in which they learn facts, but at the end of the day the only person who can frighten the reader is the reader. This is true in other genres – adventure stories require readers to become excited if they are to work – but horror seems to require specific aim to hit. And unlike other genres, it’s okay to have characters stand still gaping helplessly while they are destroyed, or standing oblivious when a bomb detonates. And getting it sometimes requires readers to put together disparate elements to realize only late what’s been done to the characters. For this reason I find it peculiarly hard to critique horror: it doesn’t always hit immediately, or even hit readers the same way. Its effects depend on the imbiber’s sensitivities.
But if you put the time into Libling’s novelette – it’s some 17,000 words – there’s plenty to bend your noodle. The love triangle only comes together because the narrator and his friend have been frightened out of overt exploration of their mystery; would their fate have been possible if nobody had thwarted them? Is the whole thing a predestination paradox? Or does it all really turn on the free will exercised when – after years of learning nothing – the opportunity to get a real clue is interrupted by the narrator’s oldest friend necking and noisily kissing his supposed ally in investigation? Has the narrator been exposed to the clue only to doom him, or is the clue a genuine attempt by a clueless ally to help him in his quest? Was his supposed ally and source really the source of the disasters all along? The horror-story sense of predestined disaster is appropriately dark and creepy, but it doesn’t seem to place principal characters in a position to show the reader the kinds of choices that define them – at least, not until the end exposes a choice that brings one back to the question whether the narrator acted with free will or was doomed. The narrator is easy to care about, but he and his friends’ frequently passive participation in events may dampen readers’ sense that they participate in a story arc. The resolution – the narrator’s decision that the evidence really is best destroyed – comes so late in the narrator’s life that it feels as much capitulation as decision. A careful read of the last facts suggests the narrator first fought to undo the evil unleashed on Trenton, but to no avail; perhaps he’s so broken by then that all he can do is destroy the evidence of his acts. But maybe he’s not powerless: maybe he’s given up on himself and seeks to stop future disaster. If you like dark, horrible puzzles “Hollywood North” may be what you’re seeking. Just, don’t watch the movie.
C.D. Lewis lives and writes in Faerie.