"Kay & Phil"
"Matilda Told Such Dreadful Lies"
"A Small Star of Cold"
"A Sentimental, Sordid Education"
Absolute Uncertainty: Short Fiction by Lucy Sussex is Volume 12 of a 13-part series that aims to expose the world to feminist speculative fiction through essays, interviews, and short fiction. Collected here are seven pieces of Sussex’s work, three of them new and forthcoming in several markets and anthologies.
"Duchess" is an offbeat escapade through the fashion world by way of an inquisitive magazine columnist who obsesses over a woman resembling the seventeenth-century Duchess of Newcastle. Is she just imagining things or is this woman the Duchess reincarnate? This reader wonders if Sussex is a fashionista herself, as this fast-paced story is full of minute details of the high-society world built on runways, afterparties, and uppity clothing experts. A scene toward the end stumbles awkwardly through bits of dialogue, trying to reveal more than it should; it was a minor quibble that threatened to bring the story down upon itself, but Sussex saves it through the inquiring mind of her journalist main character. There’s a lot going on here, especially the addition of classic history, but that makes it all the more engaging, a story of both the past and present, the old and the new. "Duchess" is a safe start to the collection, being a bit light on the speculative aspect and showing Sussex’s strength in bringing history alive.
The protagonist of "Kay & Phil" is none other than the illustrious Philip K. Dick, and in it he is visited by the spirit of a much older writer, Kay, a woman he’s read but only under a pseudonym. Apparently, she felt someone thinking of her, and so she traveled across time and space. Together, they journey through dimensional windows into suspended scenes from each of their novels. But in Kay’s fictional novel, Swastika Night, set against the backdrop of a victorious Germany after World War II, Phil experiences an unsettling vision of the future, one that disturbs even him. Yet Kay couldn’t be prouder of her work, eager to show him many things. "Kay & Phil" is more than just a story of writing influences and the magical journey all booklovers wish they could take; it’s waist deep in poignant moments of feminism and racism, yet not quick to dismiss Nazis as altogether evil nor make the reader pity them. It’s a quandary, making the reader experience something uncomfortably intriguing. A tenacious piece of work, "Kay & Phil" shows that Sussex is a potent talent. First published in Alien Shores edited by Peter McNamara and Margaret Winch, 1994.
To summarize "Matilda Told Such Dreadful Lies," even in the simplest of ways, is nearly impossible, but what I’ve managed is this: It’s a story about stories. Or perhaps, how to tell stories or steal them from others. At times, the prose is vivid and interesting with Australian landscapes littering the page and that authentic drawl we’ve all come to love through stereotyped impersonations, but at other times it is overwritten and dragging. As the story rambled forward, I started to lose interest in the different families and what was happening between them. It’s a mixed bag, one that I’m not sure I completely understood or believe that a second reading would make any clearer. First published in Dreaming Down Under edited by Jack Dann and Janeen Webb, 1998.
The renovators from Hell, as they call themselves, are busy at work in "Frozen Charlottes," buying an abandoned house to repair, market, and sell for a fine profit. In it, they find dozens of old dolls, all 19th century models referred to as Frozen Charlottes and Frozen Charlies. And the legend around town is that a serial killer, Ma Wynne, used to live there, but the authorities never found any of her victims’ bodies. Before jumping to conclusions, Sussex manages to twist things around in the end. Throw lifelike dolls into a story, and you’ve got eeriness written all over it. Sussex uses the dolls as both a metaphor for broken lives and the what-might-have-beens, making "Frozen Charlottes" a soft but horrifying piece about surviving life. While I’d previously read this in the eighteenth annual collection of The Year’s Best in Fantasy and Horror, it first appeared in Forever Shores edited by Peter McNamara and Margaret Winch, 2003.
"A Small Star of Cold" is more than just a ghost story. It opens with a question: How do you talk to a ghost? At an acquaintance’s twenty-ninth birthday party, Cat finds herself in the company of Mo, a departed friend standing unnoticed in the corner. There are many things she’d like to know or ask, but she’s unsure of how to go about it. The action is minimal, with dialogue carrying most of the story, and the quiet nature of Mo counterbalances Cat’s curiosity well. There’s an overwhelming sense of sadness behind these characters—clearly stated by Cat’s apology for never being a good enough friend—and their reunion is something everyone who’s lost a friend to time or harsh words wishes for. The ending of "A Small Star of Cold" is well-crafted, resolving itself in a subtle yet powerful scene.
In "A Sentimental, Sordid Education," Kirk, a teenager in every sense of the word, is about to lose his virginity, but in more ways than one. He’s met a young girl who’s high on drugs and speaking of things he can’t possibly understand. She’s toying with him, leading him along by her fingertips and telling him this is all part of his sentimental, sordid education. Once it’s over, he’ll find out what type of horrifying experience she’s meaning to teach him. When the reveal comes, Sussex doesn’t hold back. There are intense images and scenes here, filled with detailed descriptions and lavish remarks on young love. Fans of China Miéville‘s style of New Weird will relish Sussex’s vision of sexuality, others might be scarred by her forwardness. Either way, "A Sentimental, Sordid Education" is an excellent piece of fiction.
"Absolute Uncertainty," the end and title story of Sussex’s collection, is the strongest entry of all. In Biocultural Studies 101, a class, via a futuristic "interactive template," is able to study the moral ambiguities of Karl Werner Heisenberg, devisor of the Uncertainty Principle and the 1940s "Nazi" bomb. As with every science fiction tale that takes a leap backwards through time, the precaution of not interacting with anything is strongly enforced. But interaction, even in its smallest form, is inevitable. They witness history through the eyes of the Watcher, a special type of artificial intelligence that spurts out prompts to keep conversations with Heisenberg and other characters neutral. This story is split into sections, much like class lessons throughout a semester, each part ending with responses and thoughts from students. The most interesting section of "Absolute Uncertainty" is "3. The White Jew of Leipzig," in which the Watcher journeys to study not Heisenberg, but the physicist’s mother. What the class learns, or rather discerns about who Heisenberg was, is a surprise on its own. This first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 2001.
Publisher: Aqueduct Press
Paperback: 148 pages
Paperback: 148 pages