Postscripts, #9, Winter 2006

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Image“The End of the World Show” by David Barnett
“King of the Mountain” by Jack Dann
“The Unforbidden Playground” by John Grant
“The Interpretation of Dreams” by Tim Lees
“Kins” by Mary SanGiovanni
“Cobalt Blue” by Darren Speegle
“The Peace Criminal” by Vaughan Stranger
“High Noon in Clown Town” by Lavie Tidhar
“A Paean to Stranded Sailors and Ships Becalmed at Sea” by Mikal Trimm

The winter, 2006 issue of Postscripts offers a good collection of stories, primarily set in roughly contemporary times or the distant future.

“The End of the World Show” by David Barnett is a dryly humorous apocalyptic story that pulls in every possible end of the world cliché.  A world-ending comet, nuclear catastrophe, zombies, and more threaten the world in its final week before destruction.  The story is patterned as if on a reverse creation story, beginning with the line, “On the seventh day before the end, the aliens said goodbye.”  In the seven sections, the narrator recounts ever less believable events—amidst his personal loss of the woman who left him.  He’s a fun and believable character, despite the implausibility of everything going on.  And the story itself, drawing on so many tropes of the end of the world-type stories, is also a fun read, comedic without devolving into the slapstick that’s an easy pitfall in such stories.

According to the introduction to “King of the Mountain” by Jack Dann, the author has a novel and a series of short stories set in this same alternate history where James Dean did not die in the car crash of 1955.  This story, one of two longer stories in the issue, unites James with Jack Kerouac as they fly to France to convince Elvis Presley to join them for a film version of On the Road.  The story is probably best enjoyed by fans of these three people and is one of those stories, common in alternate histories, that leave readers feeling that if they only knew the facts from our own history better, then they’d catch a lot more that they’re missing.  It has good moments—flashes of Kerouac’s writing style, some of the interactions between James and Elvis and between James and Rebel Without a Cause director, Nick Ray.  But without a more intimate knowledge of the historical characters, the story seems to be no more than a collection of relatively interesting scenes.

The other long story in this issue, “The Unforbidden Playground” by John Grant, is more successful.  It is a time travel story, and the central conceit is that what you do in the past is irrelevant—you could, as one character explains, go back in time ten seconds and kill your earlier self, but it wouldn’t affect you.  This discovery has led the theocratic empire of Fortusa, which controls the technology, to make the past into a playground of gladiatorial events that kill off historical figures (and anyone the government considers deviant) for fun.  The narrator reports on these circuses of the past for the entertainment section of a Home Time newspaper, until he is kidnapped by what seem to be activists in a contemporary (for us) setting.

Much of the story centers on the gradual enlightenment of the narrator as his captors reveal to him the ways he’d been brainwashed to accept what their God-Chosen leader and his government told them.  There are layers to this that bring it back to our own time, and whether the critique of Fortusa’s cult is applicable to all religion or simply to certain narrow approaches toward religion is left up to the reader.  My only complaint is that the love story between the narrator and one of his captors wasn’t quite believable—not that the narrator would find himself falling in love with the captor, but that the captor would return those feelings, especially as more is revealed about the man’s origins.  Otherwise an excellent, thought-provoking story.

With its spaceships, FTL travel, and distant planets, “The Interpretation of Dreams” by Tim Lees gives us the most futuristic of the stories here, though its focus is on the people, not the gadgets.  From its opening line, “Some worlds are worlds of sadness and despair,” the story is beautifully written and engaging.  The narrator tells how the worlds he travels to as an architect affect his moods, an intriguing concept that could easily be the focus of another story.  But the core of this one is about siblings, the narrator and his sister, who deal with their inability to accept the present in different ways.  She looks to the past, exploring her thesis on 20th-century cinema, while he throws himself into the future, quite literally, as the cryogenic sleep carries him by leaps through the years.  This tension between the two views, between the movie set of the past and the dream of the future, gives this story a resonance that stays in the reader after it’s over.

The intro to “Kins” by Mary SanGiovanni labels the story as “a study in subtle disquiet,” and that’s an excellent description of the piece.  In it Peter, a writer, finds that the things in his life are gradually being replaced by imitations, beginning with what had been a large window with a view of a lake that gets replaced by an oil painting of the same scene.  The changes accumulate and become quietly terrifying up to the disturbing end.  I was a bit leery when the main character was revealed to be a writer—stories about writers seem all too common—but SanGiovanni handles the entire story so well that it didn’t bother me at all at the end, and the final scenes linger in the mind.

“Cobalt Blue” by Darren Speegle is a very short story about a couple on a Greek cruise and the legend their captain tells about an island where Jewish children fled during World War II.  Much is left unexplained as the story unfolds, especially in the ending as it draws on Greek mythology, but there’s an allusive quality to the story that works well.

A second alternative history story in this issue is “The Peace Criminal” by Vaughan Stranger.  In this, Philip and Ruth create documentaries in our own reality, but as they interview a man who claims to be a veteran of World War I, they discover that he comes from an alternate history where the United States did not enter the war, and Germany won.  In the post-war period, the veteran joined a fascist, fiercely anti-Semitic movement within England that seemed poised to take on the role Hitler and the Nazis played in World War II in our own reality.  The idea is interesting, and much of the story is well told, but unfortunately, the story is marred by the characterizations of Philip and Ruth—their interactions never seem quite real but more of a collection of quirky repartees gathered to garner sympathy.

A strange, surreal story, “High Noon in Clown Town” by Lavie Tidhar is the one story in this issue that fits neither contemporary times nor the future.  It is also the shortest story here.  The strength of this work is the setting, a weird western one filled with clowns who carry poisonous balloons and acidic custard pies.  It is incredibly inventive and fun.  The storyline is reminiscent (and clearly intentionally so) of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, with a gunslinger crossing the landscape after his quarry, a young companion at his side.  The ending doesn’t feel quite up to the potential of the piece, as if the author couldn’t quite maintain the absurdity demanded by the setting, but still a wonderful story, especially for those who enjoy the more surreal edges of speculative fiction.

The final story in this issue is “A Paean to Stranded Sailors and Ships Becalmed at Sea” by Mikal Trimm.  In it a boy, nine years old at the start, dreams of airships and builds models of them, preferring dirigibles and blimps and such to the more realistic but aesthetically less satisfying rockets.  As he creates one model, Trimm writes that, “Caleb closed his eyes, envisioning sciences that didn’t exist, twisting physics to obey his whims, and he knew that it was good.”  Alternating with the scenes of Caleb as he grows older are poetic passages about sailing through space from the perspective of a Captain and a Ship who long nostalgically for a Commander to take them again into the skies.  In the end, the story is a well-told tribute to the romantic imagination of space travel over the sometimes disappointing realities of the same.