Talebones Issue #34, Winter 2006

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Image“His Master’s Voice” by John Rigney
“Crows” by Carrie Vaughn
“Gepetto Kiln” by Alan DeNiro
“But Who Shall Lead The Dance?” by Marie Brennan
“Memories of Moments, Bright As Falling Stars” by Cat Rambo
“Eaglebane” by Ryan Myers
“Fermi Packet” Jason Stoddard
“And Her Hand, the Stars” by E. Catherine Tobler
Issue #34 of Talebones contains an eclectic group of stories: alternative history, dark fantasy, cyberpunk, and the kind of science fiction that has quantum physics and astrophysics (eek).  All the stories are well written and engaging, and after Google and Wikipedia searches, I reread a few to see what I’d  missed the first time. Any story that inspires me to learn something new and pushes my limits is a good one.

I had to do the most research to fully appreciate the first offering, “His Master’s Voice” by John Rigney. The editorial note states that Rigney needed three years to finish this story, both because of the research involved and his need to immerse himself in the work of Alan Lomax.

According to the Association for Cultural Equity, between 1933 and 1985, Lomax visited penitentiaries, plantations, and lonely little farms of the Mississippi Delta seeking "jewels of the human spirit . . . to listen, observe, fraternize, and record." Added also are the contributions of Stetson Kennedy, a pioneer folklore collector about whom Lomax said, “I very much doubt that a better book about Florida folk life will ever be written.” Both white men were able to immerse themselves in the culture of the oppressed minorities and “renew the springs of human creativity.”  Zora Neale Hurston, described as one of the most important American writers of the twentieth century, also makes a cameo appearance. If, like me, you are unfamiliar with this anthropologist’s work, which includes short stories, novels, plays, and scholarly works on folktales and songs of New World Africans, it is undoubtedly because she bore the dual encumbrances of being female and Black.

I summarized Rigney’s background research* so that y’all can sit back and enjoy Alan Lomax’s tromp through the bayou, coaxing songs out of folks just doing their best to survive. One of those is performed  by a famous character who, as Ms. Zora tells Alan, “…doesn’t exactly have my soul, but he resents me, yes he does. He knows he can’t come at me direct, so he’ll come at me sideways, crossways. A hint here, a nudge there, a little cooperation from the jealous and weak.”

In the tradition of the best alternative histories, the reader feels like they are slogging along with Alan, feeling the passion and hearing the voices that drive his quest. Rigney’s mesmerizing writing makes it all seem real. It’s reminiscent of “Counterfactualby Gardner Dozois and leaves the reader wondering at the end, "How the hell did he do that soooo smooth?"

In “Crows,” Carrie Vaughn adds a touch of the medieval to the aftermath of a battle in which a young lord dies and his squire remains by his side despite the sights, sounds, smells, and realities of death surrounding them. Loyal to his master and his king, the warrior gets a reward for his loyalty, though it is not what one would expect. The scenery is depicted graphically and yet poetically, evoking the timeless vision of the fallen soldier and the commitment of his comrades to leave no one behind.

“Gepetto Kiln” by Alan DeNiro starts out innocently enough, with a spacecraft enveloped by a dream swarm, setting off a desperate attempt by Fiona and the artificial intelligence, Yellowwood, of the ship she is on to save the craft and its occupants. Yellowwood and Fiona turn out to have a much closer relationship than she ever imagined.

I got through the “shephardic torus” and the “schizophrenia” and “dipsomania” induced by an “intense, staccato flux in the inverse cognitive overlays” just fine. The story entranced me as the relationship between Yellow and Fiona became clearer and their fate bleaker. The “kinetropic skein,” notwithstanding, I continued until the very end when three paragraphs of “shifting, metacognitive models of space-time forces,” “quantum improvisation,” “the impact of relativistic principles,” and their powerlessness “to enact a ‘sea change’ on their most deleterious effects” because of the “cryptic creatures’ power,” ground me to an “I’m going to fail this test” halt.

I don’t have a problem with stories that have heavy science elements, but in "Gepetto Kiln," they got in the way of the story instead of moving it forward. DeNiro’s device, Fiona flipping to the end of the "boring book,” reminded me I was no longer in school and could just finish it with no consequences if I skipped a few of the details. That seems good evidence that they were unnecessary.  Still, while I’m not familiar with DeNiro’s other works in this world, I won’t let three paragraphs prevent me from taking a look at them.

Most of the faeries and elves I hang around with are nice folk, notwithstanding a jealous fit by Tinkerbell, or a vengeful act here and there on the part of a couple of renegades. In But Who Shall Lead The Dance?” by Marie Brennan, these faeries are not very nice people. But the mortal child, Elsara Reen, refuses to back down. This allegorical fantasy conjures up visions of getting lost and stumbling into a test of strength of spirit. Told in the point of view of a male faery, the reader is left to speculate on why they are so cantankerous and where Elsara came from. The images were nicely conveyed, but I would have liked more.

Memories of Moments, Bright As Falling Stars” by Cat Rambo is a disturbing cyberpunk tale of characters living on the fringes of society. Inhabitants of a sleazy underworld, Jonny, Grizz, Ajah, and Lorelei drift, homeless and hapless, through a futuristic shelter system, unable to exact enough control to protect themselves, let alone each other. But it’s all going to be okay, thanks to an enhanced self-perpetuating memory that Jonny and Grizz pick up on a night of dumpster diving. It will provide their big break, allowing them to pass the test and get a real life, right? Wrong. Rambo successfully captures the self-mutilating, self-serving desperation of back alley life with her description and dialogue.

Eaglebane" by Ryan Myers is another historically based story personifying the spiritual, as well as physical, battles humans engage in when conquering the challenge of flight. Eaglebane is the last remaining specter, haunting both commercial and fighter pilots, and indeed a few passengers. We relive his anguish as he reminisces about his comrades’ valiant efforts over Nazi Germany and North Korea in bringing those fighter pilots down. Short and loaded with action and irony for the military science fiction enthusiast.

I knew I was up for a challenge upon reading the title of Jason Stoddard’s story, Fermi Packet.” The editorial note summarizes the Fermi paradox: If there is intelligent life out there, why haven’t they contacted us?
Gates and Torvalds worked together while they were still flesh, and as they were dying, “the first glimmerings of the age of Uploading appeared.” When the programs were merged, the hybrid was born.  Stoddard paces this well in numerous jumps through “Humankind’s Virtuality,” which has “many rooms, some where people can live in virtual privation, huddled and cold and alone, imagining a God that they still had no evidence of.” The reader feels the dissociation of body from the mind as “Gates/Torvalds hovered just outside the aliens’ perceptory zone.”         

I felt immersed in a game of Martians versus virtual humans until Seed, the AI in charge of the Grid, gives the order for the Final Solution. Why did it take so long for aliens to make first contact? Hint: the keyword is intelligence.  There is a sobering message in this story: Earth and its long history is merely a blip in a very big universe.**

In And Her Hand, the Stars” by E. Catherine Tobler, Gregory, a doctor snatched from his family and dumped into a war zone, sees his wife’s image in those around him. One of his patients, an injured female alien prisoner, becomes Gregory’s focus as he battles to save her life, even though he can’t understand her language and her physiology. This story is a gentle ending to this packed issue of Talebones, combining medical science and fantasy into an updated version of M*A*S*H.

Illustrations by Ben Baldwin, Keith Boulger, Bob Hobbs, Charli Siebert, Tom Simonton, Eric M. Turnmire, and Dora Wayland complement each story, bringing to life the images the authors have conjured. And poetry by Constance Cooper, Cardinal Cox, and Ken Scholes at the end of some stories extends the reader’s adventure a bit further. Kudos to editors Patrick and Honna Swenson for putting together such an intellectual, visually appealing package.

(Reviewer’s note:
*Readers of “His Master’s Voice” by John Rigney may also be interested in an article by Eric Ekholm of The New York Times, March 2, 2007, which cites Hurston’s observations on “jook” joints: “The word “juke” is believed to be derived from the African-influenced Gullah dialect of the Southeast coast, in which “jook” means “disorderly” or “wicked.”

**Readers of Fermi Packet” by Jason Stoddard’s may be interested in further commentary about the Fermi paradox, Bracewell-von Neuman probes, and the Drake Equation.)