Fantasy & Science Fiction, March 2007

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Cover by Cory and Catska Ench

“The Helper and His Hero, Part 2” by Matthew Hughes
“Dance of Shadows” by Fred Chappell

“The Devil Bats Will Be A Little Late This Year” by Ron Goulart
“Magic with Thirteen-Year-Old Boys” by Robert Reed
“Memoir of a Deer Woman” by M. Rickert

[Editor’s note: The Feb and March ’07 F&SF covers line up to form one piece. Try it!] 

Whenever I read a new Noosphere story by Matthew Hughes, I have the same thought: someday the idea of science fiction stories set in that realm, where (put simply) all human archetypes have physical manifestations, should have been obvious to writers years before. Particularly since the idea of a “Noosphere” is decades old, though Hughes has made the best use of it in a literary setting. Thanks to Hughes’s masterful explorations of the Noosphere and all of that multiverse’s possibilities, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see other authors coming out with similarly set stories in another year or two.

“The Helper and His Hero, Part 2” finds us already deep within the Noosphere. As the opening of the recap of part one states, “The Noonaut Guth Bandar has always longed to travel the Swept, a vast prairie known for its brillion mines and dangerous wildlife, that is also the battleground where, long ago, an invasion by a horde of telepathic insectoid aliens known as the Dree was defeated.” Bandar goes on to discover “the first new fatal disease in millennia to strike Old Earth,” but also that the Dree have returned. Oh, yes—and at the end of part one Bandar and others in his company have discovered a murderer who is about to use an energy pistol to take them out as well.

I apologize if the comparison seems trite, but Hughes’s writing strikes me as what we might have expected if Joseph Campbell had been a modern science fiction writer. It’s not just that Hughes makes excellent use of archetypes—especially the Hero, whose manifestation has saturated Bureau of Scrutiny agent Baro Harkless, a fellow who essentially becomes Bandar’s partner in a script written by the archetypes. A broad range of human experience comes into play in Hughes’s characterization as well. Even the murderer is more fleshed out than we might expect. The climax is both mythological and a real, vicious danger, and Hughes includes the nice touch that even the archetypes are not necessarily all-knowing or all-powerful.

Fred Chappell is best known in writing circles as an Appalachian poet—in fact he was North Carolina’s Poet Laureate for five years—but in his youth, he loved reading speculative stories and has, luckily for his readers, occasionally been returning to that other set of roots. His story “Dance of Shadows” demonstrates the best elements of both speculative fiction and poetry; certainly the language in “Dance” is beautiful, particularly the dialogue, and never out of place.

The story is told by Falco, who by sheer nerve has managed to win himself what amounts to an apprenticeship to the master shadow collector, Astolfo. Shadow collecting itself is an odd and terribly discriminating pastime: “For not only do the objects themselves extort fat prices” (as Astolfo explains), “but a discriminating taste for them is difficult and expensive to acquire.” Not to mention the fact that not all shadows parted with their owners willingly. The story picks up when one unimaginably wealthy shadow collector, Ser Rutilius, wants Astolfo to track down the original owner of a sublime example that, Astolfo guesses, belonged to a sublimely fair young woman indeed.
The world that Astolfo and Falco travel through is at once surreal and gritty, where darkness can simultaneously inhabit men’s souls as well as weave the shadows that are considered the most beautiful things in creation. And while Falco begins his education in shadows, Astolfo is navigating not only the mystery of the unknown woman’s identity but also—with a little help from Falco—deftly avoids some dangerous repercussions that success in his quest might bring. Chappell’s story is as rich in detail as shadows are in Falco’s world, and the story never let me go for a moment.

Where “Dance” was deeply serious (but not overly so), Ron Goulart tips us hard in the other direction in “The Devil Bats Will Be A Little Late This Year.” Frank is a scriptwriter for a long line of Hollywood horror flicks, and so naturally his ex-wife Carolyn calls on him for help when her new house is not only haunted by the possessive ghost of the boyfriend she accidentally killed, but also some miscellaneous demons he summoned (though two may be the same one, just with a different name) not long before his expiration.

Frank actually does manage to be of some assistance; the memory of things as they happened in his movies comes into play from time to time. In some cases, though, he’s quite out of his league and pays the penalty for his inexperience—such as when his laptop gets haunted and rewrites the script (the “Devil Bats” of the title) that is now just past its deadline—shortly before setting the computer on fire. The story never fails to be campy, though in a good way, and although the ending elicited more of a groan than a laugh, it didn’t detract from the story’s overall fun.

Robert Reed’s “Magic with Thirteen-Year-Old Boys” has a lot of elements that made me think “Haven’t I read this somewhere before?” Two lovers having a soul-bearing talk in bed, as the opening puts it, and she wants to know if he believes in anything that he can’t see. This leads to a story with another familiar trope, a group of adolescents (thirteen-year-old boys in this case) who run across a forbidden object that has been left (apparently) haphazardly, at random. There’s a bit of a twist here in that the object is a photo album with pornographic pictures—decades’ worth, starting in the 1930’s. Just the thing to ensnare a group of boys who have barely entered their teens. They soon discover that each woman seems to be having sex with the same ageless man (and faceless man as well, since he is never looking at the camera).

Much of the remaining story runs predictably from there: the narrator, Ted, realizes that one of the pictures is a neighbor, and he tries for other forbidden things—in this case, both a glimpse of the man as well as a peek at the neighbor while she’s engaged with him. He doesn’t quite win the latter but he—and the other boys—do end up facing the man and having a brief but disturbing conversation with him. There’s not much surprising here with the “wizard” (as Ted calls him) either, though the story ends with a nice little twist that ties things up well.

And finally, “Memoir of a Deer Woman” by M. Rickert is another one of those hard-to-do-well stories where the surreal is mixed with a grounded, solid familiar. It opens with the wife, the soon-to-be (if not already) Deer Woman, telling her husband on New Year’s Eve that their remaining time together is short, explaining this by going on to say that she’d found an injured deer stuck under a fence that had to be killed as a mercy. She also learns that she is going to need chemotherapy…she wants to start a memoir…and both of those things sound prosaic until you take into account the fact that she is also apparently turning into a deer.

And that’s all I’m going to say about the details of the story, because this is one of those rare tales where different people can take away vastly different things—the kind where if you hear two people describing it you might think “Are they talking about the same story?”—and, as odd as it may be for a reviewer to say, I don’t want to prejudice anyone with my own interpretation. I will say, however, that the story is beautifully drawn, poignant in even its most surreal moments (sometimes because of those moments), and even the concluding parts that might otherwise be anticlimactic in less skilled hands are woven nicely into the larger tale. The stranger aspects of the story will no doubt put off some readers, but even skeptics might find it well worth their time if they stick with the story to the end.