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    Posted: Mar-05-2015 at 8:15am

New Resolutions, by Daniel Blackston

originally published 1/5/2006
New Resolutions

Happy New Year Firebrand Fiction fans! Yes, there hasn't been a new column here since May of last year, which would normally demonstrate the implosion of yet another 4 the luv speculative reviews venue. However, we have no intention of joining the bloodied corpses in our wake and will fight on, even as ghosts or zombies, should such a time come as this is needed -- perhaps nearer to Halloween, rather than New Year's when it is better to think in terms of rebirth and determination. Our first stop of the year is Ralan Conley's Spectravaganza an e-zine which features winners and honorable mentions from Ralan.com's annual contest. Previously, the contest had been themed as a "Grabber" competition where the winners were selected based on the first 500 words of their speculative fiction entries. This year, Ralan shifted the focus to writers' end-games, that is, the contest was dubbed the "Clincher Contest," and entrants were judged by the closing 500 words of their story. This year's judges were: Sheila Williams, Stanley Schmidt, Eric M. Witchey, Robert J. Santa, and Ralan. 

The winners of the contest present a mixed lot, both in terms of concept and execution. I definitely felt the format of the Clincher contest weighing on each of the stories and it seemed that while the closing 500 words sections of each of the winners were strong and compelling, the balance of each of the stories (the beginnings and middles) suffered by contrast. Ralan himself has posted some comments on the difficulty of judging stories by their ends, as it were, and I agree with the statements contained therein. 

Lethality, by J. Alan Brown won 1st place in the Clincher contest. From the opening paragraphs, its clear that, had the contest been a Grabber contest rather than a Clincher contest, Brown may have found himself left out of the prize money. Lethality starts with a big block of 1st person exposition, which sets up a Hemingwayesque scene of a Great White Hunter type protagonist illegally hunting alien big-game. With uneven diction, the narrator seems to hover somewhere between a Viet Nam era veteran We set up camp a few clicks outside their camp and a British adventurer, He blundered around a bush and froze, staring into the glassy eyes of a krillion having lunch. In a flash, the krillion sprung for the kill. Tipotl fell back and raised his long knife, scoring the beast across the stomach just as the animal plunged its claws into his face and throat. 

Add to this that the aforementioned flashback within the exposition resolves itself in yet another flashback, and these factors nearly stifled my interest in finishing the story. On the other hand, I wanted to read the clincher section, the 500 word close that had impressed the contest judges, so I read on. Im afraid nothing I encountered radically altered my original impression of the story, although the closing 500 words of Lethality were certainly the best segment and it is not hard to understand how judges reading only these closing paragraphs might have been convinced by Browns close. Unfortunately, Lethality, when all is said and done, seemed little better than a spirited sketch of off-planet hunting (with a last minute twist). Out of the Box, by Susan Wing took 2nd place in the contest. This story, making use of the familiar restless dead trope, attempts to mix surrealism, fantasy, horror, black comedy/satire, and lyrical writing in a 1st person narrative. The climactic scenes in the story are more or less delivered through dialogue. Reading over this tale, I kept hoping the narrator would reveal something of herself worthy of my attention or concern, but it never happened. This is, of course, a purely subjective response. The writing in this story is lyrical and honestly rendered again, the closing paragraphs of the piece hint at a greater range of theme and plot than the story delivers as a whole. 

The 3rd place winner Set in Stone by Kim Zimring also challenged my capacity (slightly) to deal with cliche, but a special compliment should be paid to Zimring for her excellent prose style and for her depth of characterization. Catalyn, an American in Paris, who suffers from Neurofibromatosis (Elephant Mans disease) and has come to the Cathedral at Notre Dame to be healed through the intervention of angels, specifically, the angel Gabriel. This was the only Clincher story that I felt had a weaker close than opening. The first 3/4ths of Set in Stone are moody, exotic, and a bit sinister feeling, which is very effective. This is a very well-written story with creative transpositions of traditional Christian imagery and morality; however, its pop-gothic close falls a bit flat. 

Two honorable mentions round out the Clincher edition of the Spectravaganza. The Doll Queen by Maggie Della Rocca manages to breathe a bit of life into yet another permutation of the Talkie Tina(see the collected works of Rod Serling) plot, but nothing about this Day of the Living Dolls story stands out enough for especial praise. The opening scenes of Night Train by Robert Moriyama seemed eerily reminiscent of the opening scenes of Stephen Kings The Shiningwith a protag named Jack suffering through a job interview with an interviewer who is obviously biased against him. This unsettling sense of allusion continues as Jack boards a train and heads out through a snowstorm, hoping to reach London but instead, finds himself in a remote place where even cell phones wont work. From there, a romantic apparition infuses the story with genuine fantasy and genuine pain. The close of this story is wonderful and, sadly, an all too accurate vision of the real world as it manifests to those who have grazed epiphany but never embraced it. A nice story, quite deserving of its HM. 

All in all, the Clincher stories were a bit of a let down from previous editions of the Spectravaganza but this obviously has more to do with the structure of the contest rules and parameters than it does with the creative or narrative abilities of the authors in question. Perhaps it is bad medicine to write from the end toward the beginning in precisely this way or perhaps this form confused or interfered with the judges ability to appraise the works thoroughly. The fare at the Spectravaganza is free for the taking and each of the stories is accompanied by excellent original art. I highly recommend that you stop over to read this years issue or check out previous years issues. Support of Ralan.com translated directly into support for the entire speculative fiction field as Ralan.com continues to be the most popular and comprehensive site for SF market listings on the World Wide Web. I highly recommend not only the Spectravaganza but the entire website to you and hope you will visit both soon and often. 

We go next into the world of print where Paradox: the Magazine of Historical and Speculative Fiction marks issue #8 with a fiction, poetry, speculative and historical non-fiction, book and movie reviews, and the most creative and respectful use of common domain art (meaning classic works by historical masters) I've encountered anywhere in the SF field. Cevasco has certainly created a unique publication and one which stands prettily by contrast for both content, form, and layout alongside other prominent print publications like F&SF, Realms of Fantasy, or Asimov's. 

The peculiar problem with Paradox's fiction continues to be one of speciality. That is, if you are not well-read in history, or at least an avid viewer of the History channel, you are liable to lose the thread of one or more of the stories in any given issue. Walking a tightrope between story elements what will appeal to a wide readership and those elements which will satisfy history-buffs and scholars would appear to be Paradoxs special task. 

Issue #8 leads off with the winning entry in Paradox's Historical Fiction contest, "Anezka" by Bruce Durham. This is a poignant and excellently written piece featuring Hannibal in his old age, hiding from the Romans in Bithynia, circa 183 B.C. (Bithynia being the ancient Kingdom in what is present day Turkey). As per the contest guidelines, "Anezka" is a straight historical piece sans speculative elements, inspired by a detail from Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's 1871 painting, "A Roman Emperor." Durham's winning entry is a potently sequenced and inspired story with a solid tie between the piece's wonderfully restrained emotion and its themes of personal dignity and national or racial loyalty. 

The story's protagonist, Anezka, is a respected lead-slave in the palace of Bithynia's King Prusias during the fated time when Hannibal has come to the palace seeking harborage from his enemies. Staying true to history, but diverging wildly from the Alma-Tadema painting (the whole of which was never displayed to contest entrants) Durham's superbly characterized tale accomplishes both thematic resonance (having to do with the inter-twined destinies of nations) and emotional catharsis based in the relationship of the slave-crone Anezka and the great military genius Hannibal, both in their elder years and rooted in an evidently decaying sense of self-nobility and self-reliance. That Durham's prose is honest and without needless flourish or obvious flaw adds to the impact of both the characterizations and themes of the story. That the characters in such a swiftly penned tale accomplish such an indelible bond and expressive sense of mutual understanding is a testament to something far beyond technical precision at work in Durham's fiction. A first-rate story, quite worthy of your attention. 

"O, Pioneer" by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff is next in line and, while it is a creative piece, it is less successful overall than Durham's lead-off. The problem with "O, Pioneer" is the fragmentation of the narrative into multiple character PoV's and the subsequent gaps in the plot that the jumping PoV's occasion. Not that Bohnhoff fails to successfully tie the various, intricate strands of her story together in the end but that these strands are so disparate to begin with, that one is either duly impressed by her narrative expertise in tying them together, or is left wondering what all the fuss was about. In the end, the disparate strands are justified by the "global" consciousness symbolized by an imagined harmonious mingling of East and West as contrasted with the more cruel and destructive interrelations we know to be historical fact. 

The story concerns a Chinese slave -- Wei Lei -- steward to the Chinese Imperial Family at the time Chingas Khan comes along. Fleeing across the sea to "a new land to the West," Wei Lei christens himself We Tai, lands amid a strange people in a strange land with six hundred other Chinese exiles, and then cuts out until the end of the story. The next narrative thread is taken up with Admiral Cristobel Colon, better known as Christopher Columbus, on his way, also, to a "new land" only in his mind for a passage to the East. The ensuing story generates a theological "farce" with dramatic overtones as the familiar story of greed, ambition, gold, and bloodthirsty Christians under Columbus's fanatical and ignorant sense of religion and conquest grinds through various loosely grouped scenes. The "indios" in the story, the native population cross-pollinated with Chinese refugees, are of course portrayed sympathetically, if not almost idealistically. However, it was interesting to note that while the "indios" were described in the story as living under a matriarchy (further evidence to the Spaniards of their savagery), there are no women featured in the story whatsoever. It is a stag scene throughout. This "missed avenue of exploration may have dampened my overall enthusiasm for this energetically conceived story. Still, Bohnhoff deserves praise for creating such an intricate story, which attempts quite a lot, and for revealing, like Bruce Durham, a highly polished prose style that avoids excess and promotes reader interest. 

A great interview with Weird Tales editor and popular SF author Darrell Schweitzer followed "O, Pioneer." Interviews with Darrell Schweitzer (there is one posted right here in the interview archives of SFReader.com) are always interesting. I found this particular interview, conducted by Chris Cevasco at World Fantasy Convention in Madison, to be outstanding. Schweitzer is erudite and warm, as well as deceptively simple in his appraisal of SF poetry and prose. 

Paradox #8 also offers a spirited and competent pair of movie reviews: Jeremy Goldberg's thoughtful and incisive review of "Good Night, and Good Luck," and Andrea Kail's informed review of "Capote." Add to these reviews, Greg Beatty's article "The Sidewise Award Winners: a Retrospective," five selections of speculative poetry by the likes of Schweitzer and Jane Yolen, plus book reviews by Cevasco and Lisa Jensen and Paradox functions as an all-purpose pub for historical fiction enthusiasts. 

My favorite story from issue #8, Power Play by Jack Whyte, is a penetrating and profound inquiry into the nature of power and posits a classical philosophical dialectic as represented by the tales primary characters, Solomon Levi, a venerable Hebrew scholar and Caius Tullius, a powerful Roman who has come to extort from Levi. The two men soon launch into a discussion on the nature of power throughout which Whyte demonstrates with gusto his understanding of philosophical and moral concepts that have their roots in, respectively, the ancient and modern worlds. Obviously, Tullius stands for the modern worlds vision of power, which is largely materialistic, whereas Solomon Levi represents the ancient traditions of wisdom, springing from mystical traditions such as the Kabbalah. For sheer force of ideas, Ive read little in the way of short stories to compete with this tale in the recent past; however, a the preponderance of the story is by far dialogue and some of the exchanges between the characters are lengthy and complex. So, not really on-the-go fare, but a story so well conceived and executed that it deserves a quiet moment or two for perusal and understanding. 

Three additional stories, by Carrie Vaughn, D.J. Cockburn, and Tom Welch round out the issue. The stories are solidly written and cover a range of historical settings and themes. Paradox, is a professionally edited magazine with pleasing art and thoughtful arrangement and attention to detail. While the stories weigh heavily toward a historically literate audience, each of the featured works of fiction are well-written and creatively conceived. The price for a subscription is quite affordable and I encourage you to visit the Paradox website to order a subscription today. 

Though the column has run too long to thoroughly review Fantastic Stories of the Imagination as I had intended, two stories from the Winter 2005 issue should suffice as an abbreviated sampling of the overall (dynamic and interesting) fiction content of the pub. 

Butterfly Bones by Sue Storm seemed most readily understood as a Christmas/New Year allegory in Jungian tones. The story begins within the sentient, desert house of the Bone Woman and ends at a modern hospitals maternity ward. Along the way, Strom brandishes her symbol of butterfly bones with aplomb, but so many myths and iconographies, both Christian and pagan, alongside the storys multifaceted settings may confuse some readers. The resolution is resonant and allegorically rich. The storys progression recalls everything from Jungs Undiscovered Selfto the Major Arcana of Waites Tarot pack. A sound and intellectually compelling story and one that makes a pretzled detour from Dickens should you be seeking something different for your holiday reading. 

The Syncretic Priests Confession by Charles M. Saplak is a science fiction adventure with some great old-fashioned off-world violence and struggle, as well as some good old fashioned giant man-eating bugs! Or should I say, the characters in the story, a batch of shipwrecked colonists and their vessels pilot and crew, should be so lucky. The bugs, in this case atropic beetles actually have more on their bug-minds than merely eating and their methods of ritually killing humans are at once terrifying and ironically expressive of humanitys own brutality and religious corruption. The ensuing story, recounted in 1st person narrative, is both suspenseful and fun. Not to mention politically loaded. Saplak seems to have so mastered the nuts and bolts of telling a rippin good off-world story that hes decided to spice things up by interweaving crucial sociological, political, and religious themes into the fabric of this winning tale. One of the themes here seems to be that political convictions and religious urges are both symbiotic and universal. Even to giant bugs. And it is the combination of political belief and faith that produces a variety of monsters, whether insect or human. This is one excellent science-fiction tale and I heartily recommend that you read it as soon as you can. 

In a nutshell, these two stories hint at the range of Fantastic Stories from psychoanalytical/allegorical fantasy to off-world adventure science fiction, the pub is geared toward intelligent and sensitive readers who value both traditional story elements and experimental forms. We look forward to reviewing future issues with more column space reserved for this pub. 

This months GF Award for Great Fiction goes to Jack Whyte for his excellent story Power Play. Congratulations Mr. Whyte we hope to be read and review more fiction under your byline in the future.

Until Next Time, 

Daniel E. Blackston
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