Fantasy & Science Fiction – March, 2009

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The Curandero and the Swede: A Tale from the 1001 American Nights” by Daniel Abraham

The Unstrung Zither” by Yoon Ha Lee

Quickstone” by Marc Laidlaw

Shadow-Below” by Robert Reed

Reviewed by Dave Truesdale

The Curandero and the Swede: A Tale from the 1001 American Nights” by Daniel Abraham concerns a young man who takes his lovely fiance to meet his large family on a hot August night in rural Atlanta. Tradition is the name of the game as the women and children cook, talk, or play in the yard, while the young man and his Uncle Dab sit on the porch and have a most unusual conversation. Most of said conversation is by the older man who relates the captivating story of the curandero (a large Mexican renowned for his ability to work miracles) and the Swede, a black man with whom the Uncle once worked, and whose fantastic tale not only forms the heart of the story, but also serves as an object lesson to the young man, when he is unable to satisfactorily answer his Uncle Dab’s question “So why don’t you tell me how you met the love of your life?”, to which the young man simply answers, “There’s not really much to tell.”

Uncle Dab’s story―at various points in time and with greater or lesser emphasis―takes us back to New Mexico’s Native American Navajos circa the 1860’s, the Long Walk of the downtrodden Indians, Martin Luther King’s murder and its effects on Blacks, Kit Carson, a frightening physical manifestation disfiguring the Swede, a “queer,” the curandero and a young Indian girl’s fetus in a jar, the shorter story of a rapist turned wood-carver and the Red Virgin, and much more. Not least of which is the unknown story of a time most folks don’t know about when, not only was there the more famous Route 66, but a Route 666.

There might seem to be a lot of disparate elements going on here, unrelated stories within stories, but Abraham somehow weaves them together into a seamless whole so that the reader either never notices what he is doing, or if he does, quietly marvels. The entire tapestry is multi-layered, fraught with innocuous little morality tales and lessons to be learned too many to deconstruct here, and so engaging that quite before one realizes it, the story ends with Uncle Dab’s point being made quite sharply to the young man who thinks the story of how he met his fiance was not much of a story. One can also appreciate how the structure of this absorbing series of uniquely American tales pays homage to that of Scheherazade and her tales of the 1001 Arabian Nights, without its distracting from the several internal journeys as Uncle Dab artfully spins them out, albeit in his colloquial, down-home manner. I found the story to be a quiet marvel, one of the highlights of the issue, and certainly a bright feather in the author’s cap.

Yoon Ha Lee‘s “The Unstrung Zither” is a refreshingly different take, a clever and well-thought-through blend of real- and virtual-world warfare, espionage, and, as the title implies, music.

Young Xiao Ling Yun is a master musician on the homeworld of an interstellar empire. One day she is summarily summoned by the aide of the Phoenix General, the purpose of which is not clear to her. It is quickly explained to her (and she is soon shown) that three assassins from the oppressed “ashworlds” have been captured, their mission being to eliminate the Phoenix General for his brutal suppression. Her unlikely mission is to learn the complicated VR war game (which is fascinatingly depicted) they are forced to play with the Phoenix General (or face death) from their cell, and through the complex philosophical nuances of her music as she enters the game, and the assassins’ minds, learn of their plans. I can hardly do this concept justice as it is somewhat difficult to boil down to a sentence or two, but rest assured that it holds reader attention, is quite involving, and how it all works out is a human drama which plays out somewhat unexpectedly, nicely explaining why young master musician Xiao Ling Yun comes to hold “The Unstrung Zither.” Readers looking for a fresh SF scenario on which to hang a story will appreciate this one.

Quickstone” by Marc Laidlaw is set in a time and land where stone lives, where the countryside’s gargoyles have come alive one dark night and made their way home to the underground stone quarry where their king and his minions of living rock plan their resurgence. Enter the minstrel Gorlen, for all intents and purposes fully human—save for his strange stone hand. Acquiring directions to the quarry from a local villager, his lonely journey to the subterranean world and its bizarre inhabitants form the crux of this oddly imagined, and imaginative tale. What is the relationship of Gorlen to the stone men? How did he—a “soft one” as he is called by them—come by his stone hand in the first place? What exactly does the king of the stone people desire of his long-suffering “people”? Gorlen discovers much of this strange stone society, and following physical suffering finds an even odder companion. This is rather a departure from the bulk of the author’s other short work I have read over the years (which has been SF of one form or another), and I found it a successful one. I think you’ll find it an intriguing, off-beat little novelette worth your time.

Shadow-Below” is Robert Reed‘s fifth story for F&SF featuring a series of Native American Indians living in a relatively near-future America where their ancient myths, ghosts, and former lifestyle are faced with an increasingly high-tech, realist, have and have-not existence.

This installment (for these stories surely are part of a novel in the making) features Shadow-Below, a tourist guide living in a trailer on the Loup River, where he takes the rich down the river and into the wilderness for an outdoor vacation experience. We get to know them and more of Shadow-Below as Reed filters in elements of the overall story arc through their opinions on various topics, as well as timely bits of backstory only hinted at in the preceding tales. Inasmuch as more of these previous hints are brought more and more into the light, and more of our real world becomes the focus, I found this story one of the better entries, a more accessible piece for those who may not have read the earlier four, for if memory serves, and while all of the stories took place in the real world, more emphasis was placed on the Native American Lakota heritage, ancestry, and spirit-world elements in the earlier pieces. Now Reed increasingly tosses in more bits and pieces of the evolving mystery of just who they are and whether they truly exist (on one level at least) in the real world of the story, which gives the arc a more rounded and symmetrical feel.

A capsule approximation of what Reed’s stories involve can be summed up in this passage from the present story:

For most of his life, Shadow-Below lived outside this century—and beyond the last century too. He grew up among an isolated band of Lakota half-bloods, in a Sand Hills pasture they called the World. Why they lived in that place and what they hoped to accomplish there…well, those were mysteries.”

While I’ve found each of these five stories interesting in their own right, and though they are really beginning to come together as a whole and I recommend them to you, I now have a strong feeling the entire yet-to-be novel read in its entirety will prove much more rewarding and fully appreciated. These stories are quite a departure from what the author is justly renowned for, the grand scale SF Space Opera novel—or those set in the impossibly distant future. Unless you are irretrievably locked in to these types of SF stories only, I think you will find these more down to earth stories (and especially the novel, whenever it should appear) as much to your liking as any of Robert Reed’s far-flung SF tales. After reading “Shadow-Below,” with more of the mystery revealed, I’m more tantalized than ever to see how it all ends.

Speaking of endings, this March, 2009 issue of F&SF, with its four novelettes and classic reprint of Robert Bloch’s “That Hell-Bound Train,” marks an end to its monthly publication schedule. Publisher/Editor Gordon Van Gelder has announced that with the next issue, marked as April/May, the magazine will switch to its new bi-monthly schedule. It will be much thicker (some 260 pages), while nothing else will change. Further reviews of the magazine will now be found under the “bi-monthly” section of the home page.