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“El Regalo” by Peter S. Beagle
“Pop Squad” by Paolo Bacigalupi
“Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy)” by Geoff Ryman
“Revelation” by Albert E. Cowdrey
“Killers” by Carol Emshwiller
With By Good Intentions” by Carrie Richerson
Move over, Tarzan, and make room for Charles Coleman Finlay’s Maggot, raised by trolls who bear some resemblance to Tarzan’s apes. Even if you missed Maggot’s earlier adventures, “Abandon the Ruins” does just fine as a stand-alone story. (See also “A Democracy of Trolls” in the Oct/Nov 2002 F&SF, and the novel The Prodigal Troll.)
Maggot, who is exceptionally small and ugly for a troll—“not even six-and-a-half feet tall, with thick black hair and pale skin”—has become disgusted with trolls and humans alike, and tells himself he doesn’t need either. Unable to "fit in" in troll society, despite his foster mother’s training and his best efforts, he has encountered just as many problems trying to relate to human society. He manages fine on his own for a while, but is only too eager to accept the companionship of a stranger he rescues from a group of hunters.
There’s plenty of action, but also food for thought. In Maggot’s interactions with the mysterious Ehren, and later with a female troll named Holly, we see a basic tenet of human (and trollish) nature. The need for friendship, someone to talk to, and especially someone to laugh with, can override distrust, language and cultural barriers, and even basic survival instincts.
Finlay does a masterful job of revealing the details of another culture without resorting to lectures or fact-stuffing. Trolls become real, just another sort of people with different ways. His descriptions of the setting, the action, and Maggot’s thoughts and feelings weave an illusion of reality that lets the reader experience this adventure, rather than merely read about it.
“El Regalo” by Peter S. Beagle is a treat to read, with plenty of imaginative visual effects as well as some delightful dialog: “You can’t kill him,” Mr. Luke said. “Your mother wouldn’t like it.” After some consideration, he added, “I’d be rather annoyed myself.” Angie then asks her father, in all seriousness, “Can I at least maim him a little?”
Is the "gift" of magic a blessing or a curse? It probably depends on how you use it, but it’s certainly both a burden and an exciting temptation to a young child. Angie’s younger brother, Marvyn, is a real pain, as is typical for a younger brother, but Marvyn has some abilities that make him even more annoying than most. How many little brothers play monopoly with the cat, dance with garbage bags, bring statues to life, or dabble in time travel? Not to mention crawling around on the ceiling like Spiderman.
Angie and Marvyn bicker in believable brother-and-sister style, but when Marvyn gets himself into serious trouble, Angie does everything she can to rescue him. Then Marvyn, in turn, rescues her. In the face of a common enemy, the evil El Viejo, the two make a formidable team. And Angie, who makes a point of deliberately not knowing more than she needs to, is forced to face some startling facts about herself.
“Pop Squad” by Paolo Bacigalupi carries a warning from the editor that it “might not be appropriate for younger or more sensitive readers.” I quite agree; in fact, I nearly stopped reading it myself when I realized what a "pop squad" really does. Shock value aside, the story does have a lot to say, and says it well.
What if people could live forever? What if rejuvenation treatments were readily available to everyone? Sound wonderful? Maybe not. Consider the potential population problem, even worse than the one we have now. So couple the rejuvenation treatments with some sort of contraceptives. Make breeding a crime. Outlaw children. Problem solved? Not by a long shot.
Ray Bradbury gave us a book-burning fireman whose life changes when he begins to think about what he’s doing. Bacigalupi’s policeman, whose duties include sending mothers to work camps and exterminating children, is also a thinker. Why, he wonders, do these women willingly give up all the benefits of civilization and perpetual youth, to live in poverty and squalor just so they can produce babies—babies they know have no chance of survival?
A little detective work leads the policeman to a mother who hasn’t yet been reported. Instead of calling for backup and doing his job, he asks her his questions, actually observing her child in the process. His response to this interchange says a lot about human nature. We fight wars by dehumanizing the enemy. They become the Other: animals, or less than animals, something we can destroy with little or no remorse. Once we accept the Other as human, like ourselves, killing them is not an easy option.
As for why the women risk all to become mothers, he learns at least part of the answer. Perhaps immortality isn’t worth the cost.
“Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy)” by Geoff Ryman takes a look at the life of a hypothetical heir to Pol Pot’s hypothetical fortune. A “poor little rich girl” with unlimited credit and no friends, Sith avoids reading and thinking, amusing herself with recreational shopping. She has only faint, repressed memories of living with her father in the jungle, memories which fill her with horror at the thought of anything that isn’t completely modern, civilized, and sanitized. She lives in isolated luxury, travels in a chauffeured limousine, and never goes anywhere but to an expensive, high-rise shopping center.
Two things change her empty life forever. First, she falls in love with Dara, a young cell phone salesman. The other is that she is haunted by the ghosts of her father’s victims. These are modern ghosts who speak through cell phones and other electronic gadgets, and whose photographs are spewed out by printers and copying machines (even with the power turned off).
“There is no forgiveness in Cambodia. But there are continual miracles of compassion and acceptance.” Her love for Dara has opened Sith’s heart. She continues to grow as she goes through the motions of honoring the dead who have no families left to mourn for them. What began as appeasement becomes true caring as her formerly narrow life unfolds like a blossom. Acknowledge the past, says Ryman. Honor the memory of those who died, but move on to the future. Take off your blinders, and accept the world as it is.
“Revelation” by Albert E. Cowdrey features a tired and cynical creative writing instructor, Phil Drea, known as "Dr. Dread" to his students. Drea’s drinking buddy is a psychiatrist treating a patient who suffers from the paranoid delusion that all the inner planets are dragon eggs, and the Earth is due to hatch soon.
Dr. Gorshin, frustrated because he can’t seem to break his patient’s delusion, persuades the young man to enroll in Drea’s writing class. Drea has no interest in curing the patient, U. Pierson Clyde, but helps Clyde to develop a fictionalization of his beliefs. With the help of a fellow student, Clyde gradually understands Drea’s dictum that “A storyteller has no more to do with truth than a lawyer has. The lawyer’s business is advocacy; the storyteller’s is plausibility.” The result is an acceptable if not brilliant story.
But is Clyde any better off for having written out his thoughts? Will he move on from his idea that global warming and earthquakes are symptoms of a dragon embryo shifting in its egg, getting ready to hatch? Probably not. In fact, events at the end of the story seem more likely to reinforce the notion.
Cowdrey has fun with the "cosmic egg" concept, while providing some enjoyable commentary on the business of writing and on Drea’s philosophy that “life really was a fraud. And so was literature. There was nothing to do but enjoy it, and of course drink.”
“Killers” by Carol Emshwiller takes place in an unnamed town, at or near the end of a long, devastating war. Most of the men, and many of the younger women, are gone, casualties of the fighting. The enemy has sabotaged the electrical system and killed the draft animals. Game is scarce, and large rats take the place of rabbits in the food chain. The remaining women have moved the town closer to a stream and dug ditches that water their gardens and supply drinking water. They seem to have established some semblance of a normal life.
We gradually learn that the war was about global warming, with eco-terrorists dedicated to wiping out modern civilization. There was never a clear delineation between the two sides; the enemy was everywhere. Whether there is still large-scale fighting going on is unknown; this is an isolated community and communications are non-existent. There seem to be a few former combatants from both sides hiding out in the hills and presumed insane. One has been killing the others with a crossbow.
A lonely young woman, recently freed by her mother’s death from the responsibility of caring for an invalid, looks around for something more to give meaning to her life. She could go looking for her long-missing brother or join the fighting, if it’s still going on and if she had any idea where to go. Or she could go looking for the killer who’s stalking the community. When the crossbow wielder turns up at her house, tired and ill, she knows he’s one of the enemy. But still, she’s lonely, and likes the idea of having a man around. Instead of killing him, or calling in the neighbors, he cleans him up, feeds him, and dresses him in her brother’s clothes.
It’s harder to hate the enemy when he wears a face, when he becomes a human being instead of being an abstract concept. Couple that with the need for companionship and perhaps a hint of a romantic daydream, and it’s easy to forget you’re at war. But the bubble bursts: the man shows interest in another woman, and he becomes the enemy again.
With By Good Intentions” by Carrie Richerson is a Texan Tall Tale about a contract with the devil. If you think you’ve already read every possible variation on that theme, guess again.
Roy Sandoval has won the bid to construct the entrance ramp to Hell, in only seven days. It’s a lucrative contract, with some highly desirable bonuses and particularly nasty non-performance penalties.
Sandoval is a man of courage, who stands up to the client’s representative even though the Big Man is “almost as terrifying as Roy’s abuela, Maria Luisa Carmina Portillo de Santiago, when she is voicing her disappointment in her grandson.” His Texan crew is particularly well suited to working in the heat—it’s nothing compared to El Paso in July.
Although the client pulls every almost trick in the Book—many of them straight from Exodus—plus a few modern variations, Sandoval’s crew manages to pull it off. Hellsnakes can’t stand up to dynamite tossed into their gaping jaws, for instance, and their skins provide excellent protection against a rain of blood. I won’t give more details than that for fear of spoiling the story. Enjoy.