"The Same Old Story" by Lucius Shepard
"The Hanging" by Jack Dann
"Professor Berkowitz Stands on the Threshold" by Theodora Goss
"Animal Attributes" by Honna Swenson
"The Uterus Garden" by Alex Irvine
"Coo People" by Carol Emshwiller
"Chrysalide" by Beth Bernobich
"The Arts of Malediction" by Lisa Goldstein
"Into the Jungle" by Kit Reed
"Theo's Girl" by David Moles
"Andalusian Triptych, 1962" by Michael Bishop
"Dead White Guys" by Bruce Holland Rogers
"Burning in the Montage" by Timalyne Frazier
"Carlos Manson Lives" by Sally Carteret
"Dreaming for Hire, By Appointment Only" by Dianna Rodgers
"Last Man on Earth" by Brendan Day
The second issue of Polyphony, Jay Lake and Deborah Layne's original anthology series, opens with "The Same Old Story" by Lucius Shepard. In this Central American located piece, Shepard provides an utterly unsympathetic protagonist who is wasting his life in alcohol and cocaine while recounting stories from his glory days aiding the Contras. The truth of his situation slowly appears. Despite the nature of Shepard's main character, the horror and justice of his situation are riveting, making this an excellent story with which to begin this issue.
"The Hanging" is a nostalgic piece by Jack Dann which focuses on an author's visit from Melbourne, Australia to his childhood home in New York for the memorial service of a friend's son. Dann lays out numerous story hooks, but only follows up on a couple of them, creating a background which hints at enormous potential. The relationships Dann depicts are realistic and the characters interesting, leaving the reader with the hope that Dann will revisit this world and expand on their activities.
"Professor Berkowitz Stands on the Threshold" is Theodora Goss's take on death and what happens after we die. Alistair Berkowitz, the professor of the title, finds himself in what appears to be a dream world in which he is grouped with the French painter Eugène Valentin and the futuristic AEIOU. His life focused entirely on academics and his study of Marie de la Roche, Berkowitz is unsure of what is expected of him in this postmortal waiting area. The story is somewhat jumpy, although by the end, the reader does come to care for Berkowitz and how he responds to the question which is asked of all three characters.
"Animal Attributes" posits a world in which plastic surgery has run amok and Honna Swenson depicts a clinic which provides animal features to the wealthy and bored. Although wings are the most popular attribute, Katy Lester would rather be turned into a feline person. Her transfiguration is set against the past failures and loves of her surgeon, Mitchell, who begins to take Katy's theory that only those people with souls can successfully accept the new attributes and those who can't, such as Mitchell, have either lost or faulty souls.
Alex Irvine looks at the future of reproduction in a world in which infertility is the norm in "The Uterus Garden." A couple, Julia and Henry, are in the final stages of adopting a child from Uganda when fate drops a young girl, Denise, who is pregnant with no knowledge of her previous two years, into their laps. Irvine presents an eerie future with strong undertones of repressed racism.
Although Carol Emshwiller s "Coo People" appears, at first glance, to be a story about how great it would be to have special powers hidden from the rest of the world, but it quickly rises above this trite beginning to examine the main character, whose exact identity is never established, and deals with enforced living among humans and hiding her identity and sublimating her desires. When she is introduced to a fireman who has recently moved into her building, her charade begins to founder in ways she never imagined. Emshwiller's plot is not particularly tight and the character's actions leave the reader perplexed; the evocative writing however more than makes up for these difficiencies.
Beth Bernobich journeys down a much traveled path with "Chrysalide" about Claudette Theron, a court painter with a magical ability to capture the essence of her subjects. Unfortunately, she doesn't really add anything new to the idea of capturing a person's soul in a painting, even with the idea of sacrifice incorporated into the picture. Bernobich does provide a pleasant and well-depicted setting in her pseudo-French kingdom, but her characters fail to rise to the challenge.
Lisa Goldstein provides a vaguely humorous tale about how a person's job may effect their outlook on life in "The Arts of Malediction." Osbert is a magician who specializes in curses and has found that his curses are suddenly lacking in potency and accuracy. His quest to discover what has happened leads him to reflect on some of the comments made by Sarah, his former girlfriend, and a re-evaluation of his career and life. Goldstein's story is entertaining and she creates (and hints at) an interesting world. "The Arts of Malediction" doesn't seem to do full justice to this creation.
Jean Fowler is unhappy with everything about her life in Kit Reed's "Into the Jungle" and decides to do something about it. In her case, that means foisting her teenage children on her estranged husband (who, she would have us believe, is responsible for all her problems) and running off to the South American jungle as an assistant to a scientist in the hopes of forgetting her problems and starting up a love affair. Naturally enough, when the problems a person faces are rooted internally, Jean doesn't quite get the release she hopes for. Reed does a good job in her portrayal of Jean, but the character is unsympathetic even if she is in a sympathetic situation.
An ever popular theme in speculative fiction is that of consciousness and reality. In "Theo's Girl" David Moles examines this theme in the form of a soldier, Mies, whose consciousness seems to flit between several different realities in which he sees different outcomes for events. Again, a recurrent idea in speculative fiction. What sets this story apart (which seems to take place during Alexander's conquest of India, although with guns and airships), is its ultimate questioning of what it means to be a good man and how one's own self-perception does not always tally with the perception of those around him.
Michael Bishop recounts a fictionalized story of his life growing up in Seville in "Andalusian Triptych, 1962" which features three short accounts of living in Seville during 1962. There are some minor links between the first portion and the other two, but they are tenuous. Climaxing with the Cuban Missile Crisis, the story does not carry some of the emotional content as other recent stories dealing with that issue, such as James Patrick Kelly's "1016 to 1" (1999) or William Barton's "Age of Aquarius" (1996). However, Bishop does a good job in portraying both the characters and situations in his enclosed world.
Bruce Holland Rogers has written a clever piece with "Dead White Guys," which postulates the various founding fathers in the modern world. Rodgers plays with the various images of the historical characters to make parallels between their times and modern times, but in the end, the piece is humorous, but inconsequential and the characters are based on their images rather than a philosophical basis of what these men stood for.
Timalyne Frazier examines the identity of the self and how it is affected by our relationships with others in "Burning in the Montage." At first, Frazier's old woman appears to be suffering from Alzheimer's or some other form of dementia as she befriends a young boy, Walter, but it quickly becomes apparent that the woman, who the boy names "Agnes," is dealing with an identity change brought about several years earlier by one of her relationships. Even as she suffers from the outcome of that relationship, Frazier makes it clear that Walter is having just as strong an effect on her.
"Carlos Manson Lives" is Sally Carteret's story of self-destruction in success. Although Carteret's main character, Julie, is an unsympathetic cokehead and her antagonist, who calls himself Carlos Manson Lives, is just as unlikable, there is an hypnotic quality to their conversation which draws the reader in to find out if he is as dangerous as he seems or as benign as he claims.
Dianna Rodgers examines the importance of family and sacrifice in "Dreaming for Hire, By Appointment Only." Her protagonist is a twelve-year-old boy created by the mystical dreaming process of his father. As he approaches his thirteenth year and manhood, it is time for him to undertake the ritual of Dreaming and he must decide what is truly important to him. Rodgers adds depth to the story by setting her black characters in the racist south of the early twentieth-century. Although her character has an excellent, if selfish, dream, he must balance it with what he has seen of human nature.
Polyphony 2 ends with Brendan Day's first story about the "Last Man on Earth." This story magnificently captures the stereotypical science fiction reader/writer who feels isolated from the rest of the world and finds himself in a dead-end job. "Davis" Davison is working as an elevator operator who uses the quiet times to read his pulp magazines and dream of his own success. Day manages to capture the perfect feel for this story, both disjointed and focused at the same time, providing a strong exit from the anthology.