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"From A to Z in the Sarsaparilla Alphabet" by Harlan Ellison
"To Kiss the Star" by Amy Sterling Casil
"Queen of Thieves" by Michael Thomas
"Fish Story" by Harvey Jacobs
"Under the Lake" by Garth Nix
"Red Flowers and Ivy" by M. Shayne Bell
"Moorina" by M. Rickert
"The King of New Orleans" by Albert E. Cowdrey
"The Place of Roots" by Frederic S. Durbin
"Foster Mother" by Carol Emshwiller
February, 2001’s cover story is Harlan Ellison‘s novelet "From A to Z in the Sarsaparilla Alphabet." An abecedarian story covering a range of deities and demiurges from Archons to Zeus, this is a story that only Harlan Ellison could have pulled off. (James Gurney’s cover illustration for Leviathan is stunning.) Essentially a novelty item, Ellison’s deep command of style rescues this story from a dangerously uncertain substance. His unsurprising but cleverly executed entry for Raven balances one line throwaways such as Seraphim with freestanding pieces of short fiction. While a complete pleasure to read, this story leaves one with the feeling that if Ellison bothered to overcome his famous disdain of rewrites this piece might have risen from a novelty story to a profound multithreaded meditation on the more obscure extents of human spirituality.
February’s other novelet, "To Kiss the Star" by Amy Sterling Casil is a strong conclusion to the issue. Built around a very challenging character—Melodie, who has advanced cerebral palsy, heart defects and retinitis pigmentosa—Casil’s story illuminates the enclosed world in which Mel lives and offers her an exit to another kind of life as a ship controller. The basic plot device is completely familiar to readers of Anne McCaffrey‘s "Ship Who…" series, but Casil provides a pitiless exploration of the life of the brain donor. Through Mel the reader is brought to a visceral understanding of the fears and comforts of such a difficult life. When Mel balks at the promised freedom, the reader balks with her. Also unusually for our genre, the story provides a sympathetic treatment of a Christian character without either apologetics or condemnations. The story succeeds admirably as an exploration of the human spirit under extreme duress, while doing a fantastic job of avoiding the trite clichés so readily available to such a character and plot.
Michael Thomas‘s story "Queen of Thieves" covers the fertile ground of children on the margins of dystopia. Thomas builds a world reminiscent of the work of Nancy Kress or Wilhelmina Baird, but omits the chrome and sexy edginess, replacing it with Dickensian misery. Rachel, the title character, leads a troop of children through life on the fringes of a society characterized by a fatally brutal economic segregation, only to fall reluctantly into the care of the Armstrongs, a family from the powerful classes. They use her to assuage their guilty wealth, while Rachel uses their wealth to care for her family-of-choice back on the streets. The collision of worlds resolves as it so often does, with satisfaction for none, with Rachel eventually taking some of the Armstrong’s well-upholstered suffering back to the streets with her. In "Queen of Thieves," Thomas shows the reader how hollow life is on either side of the street, and how hard it can be to change yourself or anyone else.
"Fish Story" by Harvey Jacobs performs precisely as advertised. It is a shaggy dog story without a pun, taking the reader through increasing heights of improbability in search of a dissonant payoff. (Mind you, this is something of a compliment.) Irretrievably locked in a pet store that no one ever visits, Jacobs’ gourmand viewpoint character recapitulates the energy cycle of the food chain in search of the perfect meal. Fish, of course, figure prominently. In the broader sense, no one gets away in the end, but the story’s spiraling sense of exaggeration creates a rewarding diversion on the way to the drop kick denouement.
From the ridiculous to the sublime, Garth Nix
‘s "Under the Lake" is the next story in this issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction
. A dark take on a very narrow slice in the Arthurian mythos, this story explores the history and motives of the Lady of the Lake, her sword, and an unconventional explanation for the power Grail. Nix weaves a powerful dark fantasy in a few short pages, giving the reader a glimpse into a scaled underbelly of what is usually a bright and shining tale. A story like this can give the reader a new perspective on familiar tropes within the canon of the genre, and Nix’s work serves this purpose admirably.
M. Shayne Bell offers "Red Flowers and Ivy," a story in the Golden Age motif of the explorer-hero in deep trouble. Unfortunately for the last surviving hero, this is a story of the modern era, when coming to a Bad End is a highly acceptable resolution for otherwise deserving characters. Admittedly, carnivorous ivy on the hunt is an unusual Bad End. This brief, nihilistic tale walks the reader through the increasingly constrained efforts of an unnamed Lieutenant trapped on a planet with said ivy. Bell’s greatest moment in the story is in offering a death scene that is believable and poignant, leaving the reader with a sense of the isolation and misery that carries the protagonist into his final moments.
"Moorina," by M. Rickert, takes place in the unusual but occasionally-encountered subgenre of Arctic fiction. Ultimately somewhat unsatisfying, the story combines a classic clash-of-cultures motif with a fantasy tale of a selkie, her people and her sealfolk. The story concerns seal hunters, native tribal cultures and the seals themselves, trapped almost inevitably within the parameters of these themes. In some sense predictable, in other senses unresolved, the ending of the story leaves the reader questioning the purpose of the events through which they have struggled with the character.
The next story, Albert E. Cowdrey‘s "The King of New Orleans," takes the reader on a gonzo Karnival ride through the natural wellspring of all gonzo. Cowdrey combines the elements of several genre traditions in with the fictive aspect of the Crescent City to give an alien first contact-crime noire-sf-drunken weirdo tale. Not quite as driven to excess as, say, Howard Waldrop, Cowdrey still keeps the reader firmly on track through escalating levels of weirdness to an amusing if not profound payoff. In a sense, this is the other fish story in this volume, and great fun to read, ideally with a hurricane glass in hand.
Frederic S. Durbin
‘s "The Place of Roots" immediately calls to mind the central part of Sherri S. Tepper’s trilogy-of-trilogies about the Land of the True Game, "The Flight of Mavin Many-Shaped." Durbin’s take on life in the megatrees is dark, sad, and in the end, mysterious. The hero takes a journey, as all great heroes do, into the underworld, climbing down the trunk in search of lost love only to find disturbing and puzzling truths at the literal roots of his world. The sense of journey in the vertical is always unusual for a reader, depth being so often an accessory of breadth in the traditions of fiction. Durbin takes the reader to the end of the world and back, teaching his viewpoint character the limits of his existence without broadening them. This story is already lovely, dense and engaging. If the author had found a way to illuminate more than the overwhelming odds against life, it might have been glorious as well.
"Foster Mother" is the glorious jewel of the issue. Carol Emshwiller‘s story is vanishingly sparse with detail about the world and the two characters, but intensely rich with emotion and action. The plot draws from the same themes as C.J. Cherryh’s Cuckoo’s Egg, although to a very different story purpose. Isolated in high mountains, the foster mother is raising an unnamed infant to maturity for unspecified purposes having to do with security and governmental projects. Little more is ever shown to the reader about the story, but that is sufficient. Emshwiller leads an emotional journey that is gripping and ultimately heartbreaking, with sufficient undertones of dark manipulation within the plot to leave the reader wondering for hours afterward.