Terra Incognita, Winter 1999/2000

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"In the Second Person" by Sally Caves
"After the Rain" by Stefano Donati
"Dumb Genius" by Don D'Ammassa
"Wasabi Season" by Diana Gallardo
"From Cradle to Grave" by Lucian J. Janik
"Meatboy" by Ceri Jordan
"Riddles" by W. Gregory Stewart
"The Child Ephemeral" by Terry McGarry

Terra Incognita is finally back after an hiatus of over a year. It's a welcome return. This small press magazine publishes Earth-based science fiction, if I recall their manifesto, and they generally publish fairly adventurous stuff. The adventurousness often results in interesting stories that don't quite work, but that's nice to see sometimes, as opposed to bland stories that do what they try to do, but don't try to do anything particularly special.

This issue features a few stories that I found "interesting but not quite successful", a couple that really weren't very good, one brief fun piece, and one story that I really liked a lot.

I'll begin with the most disappointing stories. Lucian J. Janik, we are told, is an environmental engineer for a major chemical manufacturer. Write what you know, I suppose: "From Cradle to Grave" is a little story about a chemical entrepreneur who takes a short cut disposing of some very hazardous waste. He comes to grief. So? I mean, I agree what the guy did was bad, but the story is not interesting or thought-provoking or fun in any way. I wonder a bit if Ceri Jordan's "Meatboy" might be extracted from a novel in progress. At any rate, something seemed to be missing. The story concerns a "meatboy", who once used pheromone implants to lure certain men into relationships. If that sounds vague, it's because I didn't quite understand. Anyway, he's quit that, but a gangster type kidnaps him and sets him up to do just one more job. And if that sounds like an old story, and like something that didn't need to be SF to be told, well, that's what I thought. An interesting background is hinted at, and some potentially interesting characters are introduced, but though a complete story is told in its scope, I was left dissatisfied and feeling that there ought to be more.

The next step up is occupied by a couple of brief, fairly light, stories. Don D'Ammassa's "Dumb Genius" fits in the long tradition of stories showing that "a little knowledge [or 'genius'] is a dangerous thing". Chester Baker is a janitor with a savant-like tinkering ability. When he discovers some old SF magazines, he decides to build some of the machines he sees described in them, and to use them to commit crimes. Unfortunately, though his machines work, there's always a little hitch. A diverting little piece. W. Gregory Stewart's "Riddles" is a more poetic effort, about a girl confined in some sort of asylum, and the way she finds to get out. It's short but evocative.

The next "level" of stories may not be as successful as the two I've just mentioned, actually, but they seem a bit more ambitious. "Wasabi Season" by Diane Gallardo is a first pro sale. It's the story of three mysterious beings who visit Japan. Apparently this is something their type do often (it's not at all clear what they are), but disaster befalls them. It's evocative again, and I got the feeling it was almost really successful, but it didn't quite come through for me. Still, I was impressed with the writing and the imagery. Stefano Donati is a fairly new writer whose name I've seen attached to some pretty interesting stories over the last two or three years. "After the Rain" takes on the old "interdimensional transfer" trope, and makes it work pretty well by making the characters live. Sara is a record store clerk with a crush on a regular customer. Then one day a boy wanders in and starts calling her "Mommy". (And guess who "Daddy" is.) Donati didn't quite convince me that things would go as smoothly as they do (people cottoning to the dimension jumping right away, schools not questioning a new kid suddenly showing up, etc.), but the plight of the "lost" kid, and the hints of the plight of the "real" parents make the story moving and a bit creepy. "In the Second Person" by Sally Caves uses the title point of view in a clever, story integrated, fashion. Two lovers decide to participate in an experiment in which their identities will be switched temporarily. Thus they'll understand each other better. The idea is interesting and well worth exploring. I don't think the story is fully successful: for one thing, I don't think Caves got into the head of her male character as well as a story like this really requires. Which is a bit ironic, given the theme. But it still counts as a good try.

The best story in this issue is the longest. (Which reminds me: I've complained in these "pages" recently about small press magazines not publishing enough novelettes. So I have to praise Terra Incognita for including two quite substantial novelettes among the 8 stories in this issue. Bravo!) I'm going to step a bit carefully in describing "The Child Ephemeral" by Terry McGarry, because some of the central ideas in the story came as surprises to me, and I don't want to spoil it for anyone else. The lead character is a nurse named Marie Darby. She's working a long shift because there has been a sudden disaster: and civilization seems to be possibly collapsing. A man brings in his daughter, who's 11 but looks like "a seven year old famine victim". Darby gives her treatment, and is soon trying to escape with the girl to a place of safety, as the technological world continues to collapse. The girl's condition, of course, is closely related to the outer problems in this society, and the resolution is effectively built on the initial premises. It's a rare story that pushes for a slightly transcendental sort of ending, and makes it work. And the story itself is fast-moving, action filled, and a tense read throughout. A fine effort, indeed.

Terra Incognita has to date been one of the most interesting of the small press SF magazines. Editor Jan Berrien Berends seems disposed to take risks with his story selections. As I've indicated, fairly often the risks don't quite come off, but they are still interesting. It's worth taking a look.

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the sf and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13.) Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in the St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. His home page is at www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.