Firebrand Fiction #2
Posted: Mar-05-2015 at 8:14am
Firebrand Fiction #2, by Daniel Blackston
originally published 1/4/2004
Firebrand Fiction #2, by Greg Beatty
Welcome, Firebrand Fiction readers, and Happy New Year! I trust your holidays went well, and you're all exhausted and ready to settle in for some reading? As per past columns, this month I'll look at three publications: one established professional publication, one brand new semi-professional publication, and an electronic venue (not a magazine per se).
Given the way publishing schedules work, I'm writing this on New Year's Day and I'm reviewing the February 2004 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction. This issue contains one novella, three novelettes, and two short stories. The issue opens with "Travels With My Cats" by Mike Resnick. Resnick is rightly known for his adventure fiction, and his novels like Santiago, which are full of larger than life characters. In this quiet little story, Resnick looks at things from another perspective, giving us a character slightly smaller than life, one who is haunted by the possibilities of what might have been, and the desires of his youth. Eventually, he is literally haunted, in a nicely handled series of scenes that explore what it means to really live. For my money, this is the best story in the issue: all mood and commonplaces, and deftly handled.
Resnick's story revolves around a much-loved book from childhood; the return of literary precursors is a bit of a theme in this issue, as Tom Purdom includes a future Casanova in his "Romance for Augmented Trio." The editorial notes mention that this is the fourth story involving the same character, and that's worth mentioning here, because this character is both rich with potential and thinly realized. The same might be said of the entire novelette. The combination of concept and situation is rich with possibilities. Purdom's Casanova is a relatively normal human, who is romantically involved with a geneengineered woman who is considerably smarter than he is, and the two of them are heading out into the outer reaches of the solar system, only to be literally space-jacked by a demented cyborg pirate in snazzy red boots. (Okay, Purdom doesn't call him a cyborg pirate, but he is computer-augmented, and does snatch the beautiful woman from her ship after a battle.) The dramatic potential here is immense, but Purdom only intermittently carries any of the ideas to completion. His Casanova figure does a pretty good job of becoming a hero through love, despite his inferior intelligent-but almost all the rest of the story remains in potential. None of his super-intelligent seem especially bright, and I never believed this was a great lover talking.
By contrast, the lead character in William Sander's "At Ten Wolf Lake" is completely believable, even though he isn't human. He is, in fact, a Hominid American, better known as a Bigfoot. Sanders does a great job of making his character's different senses, history, and cultural matrix detailed and credible, and an equally impressive job of integrating this new minority's situation with existing political, ecological, and racial complexities. In fact, it would not being too far to say that I loved every aspect of the characterization and idea play. However, there were two problems with the story. The minor one was that the "surprise" ending is tipped early (and seems obvious enough that I can't even mention it), and the major one is that the story ends before it really gets started. Please bring back this Bigfoot, and give him a story worthy of him.
Bringing characters back is the essence of "Rewind." Jack Skillingstead gives us a vignette in which one character suddenly possesses the ability to rewind reality. There's some discussion of why (due to an accident? for a specific purpose), and some hand waving about what it means, but this never develops beyond a sketch. The same power has been posited in several other more realized stories ("The Second Rat" by David Barr Kirtley, and David Levine's "Rewind," to name two); this story adds little to the genre's understanding of the theme.
Matthew Jarpe's novelette "Language Barrier" is about as crowded with ideas as Purdom's story, but it works much better. It opens with a mysterious ship entering the solar system, and the entire story works around the idea of first contact. However, along the way he sketches elements of a system-wide society into place, and drops interesting possibilities about AIs with mysterious desires, attempts to both keep control over change and escapes from social control, and a few other things. The core story is only a qualified success, as it includes at least one sophomoric conceit (what if language divides us, rather than unifying us?), and at least one Golden Age silliness (what if we had an entire space colony made up of people with a specific portion of their brains cut out?). Wait, make that two or three sillinesses. But that said, there are nice touches of both extrapolation and nostalgia, and the resolution of the first contact situation is nicely poetic.
"Long Voyage Home" by R. Garcia y Robertson is this issue's novella, and it's a pretty good Golden Age adventure yarn. Like Purdom's novelette, "Long Voyage Home" returns to a universe developed in earlier stories, and this universe too is a lively one, ripe for adventure. Despite the care to get the technological and scientific details correct, this reads something like a juvenile, in that the story opens with Student Cadet Rachel Naomi Mohammed-Cohen as the sole survivor of the Amelia Earhart shipwrecked on a hostile alien planet-and then things get dicey. Naomi frees herself, negotiates with SuperCats (human/feline crossbreeds), Greenies (human/plant crossbreeds), and human slavers, crosses wits with robots and alien technology, has her life threatened by falling, being eaten, being tricked, being enslaved, and suffers some minor lurid interspecies titillation, all while making her way safely home. This story is a romp, and, treating it as such, it has only two weaknesses: first, Naomi is threatened so often that it's hard to keep track of how much happens, and second, her life is threatened so casually that I never believed the author was serious.
This isn't the strongest issue of Asimov's, and only Resnick's story, Sander's Bigfoot and Jarpe's poetic touches will stay with me for long.
From one of the leading publications in the genre, I turn to two that SFReaders' readers might not have encountered yet. The first of these is issue #1 of the new small press magazine Flytrap, which is subtitled "a little zine with teeth." I requested it because I respect Tim Pratt's work (Pratt and Heather Shaw edit the zine), and I was curious. Let me start with praise and honesty. This is an attractive little zine. The layout is simple, but functional, the paper high quality, the text itself readable. (Lest these sound basic, I'd rate Flytrap above Asimov's in all of these qualities.) It sometimes takes a new publication some time to develop an editorial vision, but Shaw and Pratt clearly share a mature, unified vision of what they want Flytrap to be. That vision positions Flytrap at the literary slipstream end of the genre continuum.
What does that mean, positively? It means that the writers in this first issue write exceptionally well. Time and again I paused in appreciation of the imagery found here- in Jan Larsen's "A Shifting in Dust," or Gabriel Edson's "Rain, for example, made me smile with the purity of the images, which in their flow seemed close to prose poems than traditional fiction. It means that the editors are open to experiment, and include very short pieces (this 44 page zine contains 10 pieces of fiction, for example), as well as pieces that are more vignettes or fragments, or simply that don't follow traditional plot structures, and aren't limited to traditional genre constraints. For example, the first story in the issue, Greg van Eekhout's "Fishing, I Go Among Them," is written from the perspective of a hangman going among prisoners. It isn't clearly set in any recognizable culture, and it's almost a fable in its simple structure, except that there's a dark mood throughout, as if the isolation came from Kafka. It isn't clearly horror, and there is no specific fantastic element, leaving it suspended as a sort of free-floating weird tale- but it's a pretty good story about the effects of evil and the costs of justice, and I'm glad I read it.
Other stories are more clearly anchored in generic traditions. Jay Lake's "Like Cherries in the Dark" echoes "The Very Old Man With Enormous Wings," but grounds it as fully in a richly detailed evocation of American culture as Marquez did with his lost angel in Columbia. The ending is a bit too easy, but the eruption of the fantastic a pure and Americanized magical realism. Barth Anderson's "Scrapbook for an Epidemic" combines satire of American culture with a pure linguistic romp. It goes on a little too long, but each of the individual entries in this log of an attempt to defeat a plague of aphasia is barbed and witty.
"Carving," by Derek James, is a fairly traditional horror story in which Jeb finds that when he whittles a representation of someone, it is uncannily accurate-and the person dies. There are no surprises here- Jeb can't give up his talent even when he promises to do so- but James tells the story clearly and efficiently. By contrast, Michel J. Jasper's "Never, Incorporated" takes a familiar idea, that of dark creatures (in this case, goblins) offering one's heart's desire at too great a price, and gives it an original spin, making the ending at once inevitable and surprising.
Now the negative half of this unified vision. Too often, I felt restless while I was reading these pieces. Even pieces with language lovely enough to be moving (Larsen's, Edson's) often left me feeling vaguely cheated, as if I were expecting all this beauty to add up to more. In other cases, such as Susan Marie Groppi's "Ladybug Summer," were more irritating; I turned the page, searching for the story's end, only to find that it was just that beautifully wrought page. I returned to it, and read it three times, each time finding it lovely but unsatisfying. Too often, it was as if the authors put their energy into crafting the stories on level of the prose, and did not really address the larger story structure- or social structure. And this is where I have to call on the honesty I mentioned: I dislike stories that do this, and found myself repeatedly impatient with the stories contained here, and so I simply may not be an appropriate reviewer for this publication.
At the other end of the spectrum, both in genre and my experience as a reader, one finds the stories that won Ralan's Grabber contest. The Grabber Contest was put on by Ralan Conley, who runs Ralan's Webstravaganza (Ralan.com). Ralan's, for those who aren't familiar with it, is the best online market resource out there. Ralan updates it regularly, making guidelines available for just about all the periodicals and anthologies out there, and providing a great service to aspiring writers like myself.
In any case, Ralan held a contest for "the grabber"-the first 500 words of a story. Ralan received 82 entries, and judged them along with a very impressive panel of judges: Brian Aldiss, Candas Jane Dorsey, Robert Killheffer, and Lucy Sussex. It's also useful to contrast them with the stories in Flytrap. I'd have to say that the line by line prose in the Flytrap stories is much better than the writing in any of these contest winners- but that these five stories are much better at story structure, and are much more satisfying. They are also more traditionally fantastic. In the winner, "Life and Death and Stealing Toads," by Eric M. Witchey, a husband tries to steal a magic toad from his elderly neighbor. He'd suspected she was a witch when he was younger, but it was only with the desperation of a husband deeply in love with a dying wife that he admits it as an adult. The result is bittersweet, and appropriate.
Amy Beth Forbes won second place with "A Communion of Maggots." For the most part, it seemed a bit too familiar-an adaptation of city vs. indigene, and of "rational" world structures vs. the mythic/dream time of the primitive. However, the overall structure was nicely handled, and the grotesque touches (primarily the maggots) darkened the story well, to keep me reading. Samantha Henderson's "The Raven and the Snake" (third place) also adapted tribal myths, and brought them into contact with contemporary society, but more ambitiously, as a contemporary American must travel into the realm of death to help his son's spirit find its appropriate final resting place. I didn't buy the fantasy hand waving about the possible relationship between this world and ours-but I did believe that the father's emotions were easily powerful enough to drive such a trek and sacrifice.
Sarah Prineas won an honorable mention with "Pooka and the Pryanik," but I would have rated the story higher. In my judgment it opens much more evocatively, and in a much more unified fashion; the pooka (a shape-shifting magical creature from Irish folklore) is walking through a richly described and very specific landscape-when his feet suddenly begin to walk him to parts unknown. It eventually turns out that he's going to a witch's, and that she wants the pooka to find her apprentice. He does, but being the trickster that he is, things don't turn out quite as the witch plansdespite her precautions.
The final honorable mention was won by Robert J. Santa for "The Devil and John Bartlett," and here again, I'm afraid I would disagree with the judges. Who can read an opening line like "The Devil and I don't have a very good relationship" and not want to read on? I did, and I'm glad I did. The characterization in the story is minimal, but then, it's supposed to be: the entire story is the wonderful, unexplained situation of a man who has been playing bridge with the devil for years. The bridge descriptions are well done, and both structure and advance the story. And after they've been playing for years, the devil finally does what he's supposed to do: he suggests they play for the man's soul. You knew it had to happen, right? I did, at least, and I'm glad to say that Santa resolved it in a complex and somewhat surprising fashion.
So that's this month's sweeping overview of the speculative fiction genre. Given the wide range of stories examined, it would be even harder than last month to pick a best story, but if I had to, I'd go with Resnick's "Travels With My Cats."
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