Altered States, ed. by Amy Locklin

Note: This post was imported from an old content-management system, so please excuse any inconsistencies in formatting.

Altered States, edited by Amy Locklin
(Mint Hill Books, September 2011)

“Green Grow the Lilacs” by Larry Lefkowitz
“The Guide” by Eva Langston
“Living the Dream” by Terresa Haskew
“Daughter-of-the-Tides” by Vivian Faith Prescott
“A Woman of Letters” by Lauren Yaffe
“A Stitch in Time” by Tim Goldstone
“Night Is Nearly Done” by Adam McOmber
“Welcome to Crazytown, Martin Buehl” by Brian Leung
“Rodent Town” by Craig O’Hara
“A Very Old Story” by Mark Pearson
“The Prisoners of Gravely Rock ” by Janean McBrearty
“That Business with the Hole” by Mark Rigney
“Now in Charge” by Lou Fisher
“The Blind Cat” by Mardelle Fortier
“The Glass Child” by Alyce Miller
“Motherly Parts” by Jennifer Tomscha
“Becoming” by Ivy Rutledge
“*****” by Shannon Gibney
“The Divided States of America” by Lucille Gang Shulklapper
“The Weight” by Esther K. Willison
“Shadows” by Adeline Carrie Koscher
“Transformed, the Office Narcissus” by P. Kobylarz
“Falling Sideways” by T. Shontelle MacQueen
“Afloat ” by J. Weintraub
“Sea Change” by Ellen Prentiss Campbell

Reviewed by Chuck Rothman

Altered States is a science fiction/fantasy anthology by a small literary press, written almost entirely by authors who work in the small press literary genre.  And while science fiction and fantasy have been integrating literary concepts for decades, it’s still unusual for things to go in the other direction. The main pitfall is that the authors may be unfamiliar with science fiction and fantasy, and make beginner’s mistakes.  This problem plagues the anthology, along with a reliance on the the cliches and conventions of the literary genre. 

The anthology does not have a promising start.  “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Larry Lefkowitz, has a full page of pure (and mostly unnecessary) info dump — not a good ratio in a story 3½ pages long. In it, Brendon, a tax assessor visiting an alien planet, finds his partner Giselle has been turned into a lilac bush.  Was the alien he was assessing responsible? I actually think there might be a potential story here if it had continued, but as it is, it’s barely an idea.  The one saving grace is that it’s one of the few stories that has a sense of humor.

You can see the origin behind the idea behind Eva Langston‘s “The Guide,” but she makes the most of it.  In it, Mary Beth ends up in a world where life comes with an instruction manual. She meets up with Hadley, who is confused that she can manage without one.  Eve is a well developed character and I especially like the fact that she has a devious side.  The end of the story is a clever result that reflects back on what was written before, making this one of the better stories in the anthology and the only one that doesn’t just present a theme, but is willing to explore it.

Terresa Haskew‘s “Living the Dream” has Rachel bicycling home to discover that her bike is already there.  This happens three times, at different points in her life, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what the author is getting at.  Mood, maybe, but certainly not plot or characterization, just observations that life has changed.  The murkiness of the story doesn’t help, but I get the feeling there wouldn’t be much there even if it was clear. 

We move firmly into magic realism with “Daughter-of-the-Tides.”  Set in Alaska, the narrator is a woman who finds herself magically pregnant with Chloe, who was probably fathered by Raven, a trickster figure.  The result is a trickster who does no tricks and a main narrative that goes nowhere, with a “You can’t fire me, I quit” — an attempt to diffuse the reader’s objections by having the author point them out herself.  But that doesn’t change the fact that the story starts in the air and arrives nowhere.  Vivian Faith Prescott then continues with another bit of rambling that is a completely different story tacked on.  I agree with her point that indigenous people have different story structures than what we’re used to, and I’m certainly no expert, but those I’ve read actually had a point to make and characters who, even as archetypes, did something.

In “A Woman of Letters,” the narrator A. tells the story of what she and someone named Max were doing while at a writer’s colony (evidently modeled on the Yaddo). The story is commented on by other women, all named as letters of the alphabet.  This is a classic example of Card Tricks in the Dark — a pure literary exercise that’s there to show virtuosity at the expense of storytelling.  It’s possible Lauren Yaffe intends the letters to all refer to the narrator and various aspects of her personality, but even with that realization, the story doesn’t amount to much.  I love metafiction, but this ain’t it.

Tim Goldstone fills “A Stitch in Time” with some nice imagery in his story about Tug, a man who goes to pick Datura, whose flowers are turned into a hallucinogen.  It’s a very dreamlike story about his life, part real, part hallucination, but ultimately goes nowhere.  Tug is poorly drawn and has no background or any real desires.  You can enjoy the imagery, but not the story.

Things pick up with “Night is Nearly Done.”  It’s one of the few in the anthology that attempts to do any society building, and though the general idea is routine, the details make it work.  In a city where society has fallen apart, the main form of entertainment is a return of bear baiting, and Fred becomes fascinated by the bears and one of their handlers, Hounds.  Adam McOmber shows a believable world and does an excellent job of making the characters come to life.  I felt the ending could have been better, but that’s a minor quibble in an otherwise strong story.

Brian Leung extrapolates from current trends in his “Welcome to Crazytown, Martin Buehl.” Martin is an alumni of Eubanks College, who is chosen to win the Distinguished Alumni Award for reasons he can’t fathom.  And when he returns to the campus, things have changed.  This is a semi-satirical piece that comes up with a variation on college fundraising that seems pretty close to how things might be.  The ending should be satisfying for people who have been at the wrong end of a college fundraiser.

“Rodent Town” is about rodents of unusual size.  It’s entirely an info dump — there are no characters in this story about a town that uses a giant concrete rodent as a tourist attraction.  It makes little sense that tourists would go there, since any word of mouth would kill it.  But other than that, you just have the locals — a faceless group — milling around as though it means something.  Craig O’Hara gives nothing but facts, but no story.

“The allegory lumbered out of the Olangassi River south of the Hazmat County line just after noon” is the start to Mark Pearson‘s “A Very Old Story.”  Gus Haller, a reporter for the local newspaper, tries to track down the monster.  The story is, of course, an allegory for the search to find meaning in fiction, which only makes the concept more delightful, especially since Gus’s conclusion subverts the story itself.  Certainly the standout of the anthology, and one of the few that have a real sense of humor and a light touch.

“The Prisoners of Gravely Rock” is set in a dystopian US where people unworthy of life are euthanized.  The concept is far from new, and Janean McBrearty tries to liven it up by throwing in the Old Switcheroo.  She really makes no effort to deal with the enormous societal changes necessary for something like this to happen.  Ultimately, this story is a Motherhood Statement, where the main character goes to great lengths to stand up for what everyone reading the story already believes.

In “That Business with the Hole,” Ollie Hogan falls down a hole, which suddently appears in his backyard.  But the story is not about Ollie.  It starts by focusing on Mike Przewalski, who thinks that this is the story of the century.  After a promising start, however, the NSA comes in and Mike gets shunted aside and forgotten. The point of view shifts awkwardly and the story goes off in a completely different direction, making you wonder what was the point of introducing Mike in the first place.  Then the characters take a back seat and the story ends up going all over the place.  Mark Rigney shows some talent for characterization, but flushes it away to try to make a statement that comes out of nowhere.  It’s as if two (or three) stories were all grafted together, and the result is ungainly.

The one author in the collection who has solid science fictional credits is Lou Fisher, who had a couple of SF adventure novels published by major publishers around 25 years ago.  He returns to the field with “Now in Charge,” an alien invasion story with a sure hand.  In the story, Harry Odom is a fuel oil dealer trying to make sense of the new order after aliens show up.  The aliens are enigmatic and definitely alien, powerful and scary, but ambiguous enough so that they are intriguing threats.  The ending just avoids the trap of futility simply because of that ambiguity, that gives it just a hint of more than one possibility.

Tim in “The Blind Cat” is an accountant who is under the thumb of his mother.  Ignoring that cliche (why can’t mother’s boys be army sergeants?), the story shows him coming home, terrified of his mother’s old blind cat.  But the mother has promised to return and Tim keeps getting frightened by the cat all evening until a out-of-no-logic horror attacks.  It almost seems like the supernatural element was tacked on in order to sell to this anthology.  Mardelle Fortier deals with a sinister mood, but Tim is a very sketchy character and the whole exercise isn’t even a good scare.

Many parents put their children on a pedestal, and the unnamed parents in Alyce Miller‘s “The Glass Child” take that literally.  The idea of futuristic loveless child rearing is hardly new, and this version makes little sense other that an a vehicle to try to show Miller’s avant garde writing chops and cold ironic tone.  The ending is an attempt at shock that’s completely unshocking, especially since the characters don’t show the slightest sign of human emotions to begin with. 

Jennifer Tomscha contributes “Motherly Parts.”  Gretta’s Grandma Vi is turning to sand, body part by body part.  Of course, she does nothing about it and swears Gretta to secrecy.  The story then just runs the premise into the ground, with a poetic twist at the end.  The characters are nicely drawn, at least:  Gretta and Grandma Vi manage to stand out as real people with some life in them, but I’m already running out of ways to say “pointless” and “futile.”

“Becoming” is an intriguing premise that Ivy Rutledge takes and goes to the dullest result possible.  Delilah finds a beautiful bird in the park and takes it home.  But she becomes closer and closer to the bird, even starting to take on its characteristics.  The idea of her loss of identity has great potential as a dark horror, but that isn’t where they story goes, preferring a bland ending with a bit of mild irony.  It’s not a bad story, but it’s far weaker that it could have been if Rutledge had spend some time thinking about the ramifications of what she was writing or chose to include some actual conflict in it.

“She turned herself into a parsec.”  If that sentence doesn’t bother you, then you may be more willing to accept “*****” by Shannon Gibney (yes, the title is asterisks) than I was.  The story is two pages of murky description that don’t say much, about some sort of being that is lonely.  I think.  The murk on the page is just too thick, and it’s hard to trust a writer who can’t be bothered to look up the meaning of words; the quote is not the only example of Gibney using words she doesn’t understand, probably because they sound cool.

“The Divided States of America” starts out with Jeremy Slater infodumping the situation to his students.  It doesn’t help.  Set in an incoherent future, Slater’s world is where you need government permission to have sex, while you’re being watched a la 1984.   Lucille Gang Shulklapper introduces well-worn concepts with abandon, but without any sense of cohesion.  Pushbutton words and concepts make reading this a real chore.

“The Weight” is a textbook “Mary Sue” story — where the main character is wonderful and lovable and Everything Good, and we know this because the author tells us so. In it, Calli starts complaining about a weight within her body that has no medical origin.  Anna, Calli’s friend, keeps mooning about how wonderful Calli is, showing it all in very stilted conversations that are straining to be poetic.  Esther K. Willison is so intent on telling us how wonderful Calli is that she neglects things like characterization or even basic description.  And, of course, the ending is about as futile as you can get, with a moment of watered-down magic realism to make it into a fantasy story, and the subtext — you can end your emotional burdens by suicide — is morally repugnant.

I was actually overjoyed to read “Shadows” by Adeline Carrie Koscher.  It’s not a great story, but after to the ones leading up to it, it was like finding water after six weeks trudging through the Kalahari.  The unnamed main character (Is this a trend?  Why?) is a woman who starts finding markings on her body. The woman actually does seem like a real person, and the story is one of the few in the book that actually has something to say, and says it with a touch of emotional depth. 

Things return to dreary normality in “Transformed, the Office Narcissus,” where the main character (unnamed until the end as a plot twist) finds physical changes occurring to body parts.  P. Kobylarz has the character musing on life, the universe, and everything, while discussing coworkers.  The end puts it squarely into the category of a “Jar of Tang” story, where the entire thing is a set up for a cheap twist.  This is the sort of thing Joanna Russ was writing 30 years ago, doing it much better and without the feeling that the whole thing is just a tired old gotcha for the reader.

Infodump strikes again with T. Shontelle MacQueen‘s “Falling Sideways.”  Most of the story lectures about the development of a transporter, and sets up the entire situation for our (unnamed again) heroine.  Though the details of the technology and political situation are given plenty of ink, there is absolutely nothing about the character.  It’s not even clear what she’s trying to do by stepping into it, especially since we know nothing about her.

“Afloat” is the classic case of a literary author reinventing the wheel, and in this case the wheel has been used in SF since at least 1942.  J. Weintraub‘s exercise in pure info dump spends two-thirds of its time explaining a situation that can be summed up on two words:  “Donovan’s Brain.”  Eventually, we get to the point of the story, which takes futility to new heights.  All it does is reveal the situation and then lets us watch the character curl up and die.  I have no problem with downbeat endings or tragedy, but authors need to know the difference between that and just having your main character slowly dying to show that life is a bitch, especially since this particular character has no life to begin with.

“Sea Change,” at least ends the anthology on a relatively high note.  Ellen Prentiss Campbell‘s story is about Adrienne, a woman who loves the sea and, who is given the opportunity to become a mermaid (by a medical procedure; the story is science fiction, not fantasy).  Adrienne is one of the liveliest characters in the book, and the story is a good one.  The thing that bothered me was that it could have been so much better.  It is one of the few stories in the anthology that has a potential for a good conflict when, after the process is started, Adrienne meets Tarn, and it’s clear the two are made for each other.  But that conflict — potentially the strongest and most interesting in the book — is pissed away.  Like so many other stories here, things play out in the most routine and predictable fashion.

So what do we have?  Twenty-five original stories (there are five reprints, but Tangent‘s policy is to review only originals) that are examples of literary authors — some with impressive small press literary genre credentials — trying to write in the science fiction and fantasy genre.  The results are unimpressive.  Gingerbread — clever prose and images — is the stock in trade, as opposed to story and characters, the basis for all great fiction.  And once a situation is set up, it rolls to its predictable conclusion, which all-too-often means someone dies.  People just accept their fate and mope about it.  In addition, real conflict is often lacking, as is any strong emotion or characterization.  It’s as though bland and dull are the ideals of fiction.  If this book is any indication, it looks like science fiction has done a much better job of integrating literary principles than literary fiction has been able to integrate SF.