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Stories in Fantasy and Science Fiction, January/February 2010 issue

Stories reviewed:

Reed: The Long Retreat
Aurelian: Bait
Oberndorf: Writers of the Future
Laidlaw: Songwood
Park: Ghosts doing the orange dance
Popkes: The secret lives of fairy tales
Wilhelm: The late night train
Whitlock: Nanosferatu
Langan: City of the Dog

Reed: The Long Retreat

Possibly better than anyone else, Robert Reed establishes mood, tone, and character in the space of a few hundred words. More impressively still, he does it in a way that defies easy description: it's hard to pigeonhole a typical Reed story in one or two words. Stross stories, for instance, can be described as mindbending or thought-provoking, Cherryh stories as complicated and wrenching, and Ian MacDonald stories as cultural insights.

Reed stories are far more nuanced: it takes a large handful of words, and often very different ones that don't at first seem to relate in any obvious manner, to capture his tones with any hope of accuracy. The story arc may be subtle or shallow (in the sense of plot, not in the sense of any lack of depth of insight), and not much overt may happen, but the internal journey of the characters can be profound indeed. The Long Retreat falls comfortably within the spectrum of Reed's past works, though it's unusual in being a war story set in a fictional universe rather than one of the more mundane daily slices of life that appear in most of his recent stories.

The Long Retreat is, on the surface, the story of an empire losing a war to a more aggressive neighbor, told from the perspective of a narrator whose tunnel vision is so narrowly focused on the emperor that the big picture is mostly offstage. The emperor in question seems a cross between two historical emperors. On the one hand, he's Napolean surrounded by his marshalls, as seen in the Terry Gilliam film Time Bandits: smallish, intensely charismatic, oblivious to the horrible cost of the war around him, and somewhat mad. On the other hand, he's Josef Stalin, complete with cult of personality and a military strategy similar to that of the Soviets fighting the Germans in World War II: endlessly retreat, allowing the sheer size of your country and your willingness to suffer horrendous casualties eventually wear your enemy down.

In another sense, this story is Everyman as emperor: the Emperor has no name, only his title. Although Reed may have been attempting something else, this seems to lie at the heart of the story: as events unfold [spoiler alert], our narrator Castor increasingly comes to question just how special the emperor really is. In the end, through a simple [sic] act of murder, he himself becomes the emperor. Names are often chosen deliberately for symbolic purposes, so I wondered whether that might be true here. My first thought was that our narrator might the Castor of Greek mythology, the mortal brother of immortal Pollux who ends up sharing in that immortality. That fits with the events in which poor, mundane Castor, nothing more than a lieutenant, becomes an immortal emperor. Living in French/English Quebec, my second though was that this might be the French word for a beaver: a steady, unimaginative plodder who soldiers on without distinction, but who can still accomplish impressive feats of engineering. That certainly fits the protagonist, though the engineering is social, when Castor bluffs the villagers into accepting him as emperor. Or possibly I'm just reading too much into the name.

As I noted, Reed stories are difficult to describe with a few well-chosen words. They're more like Indian or Thai cooking, in which a handful of different spices blend together to produce something impossible to characterize without experiencing it. Here, the spice list might be the following: cynical (deconstructing the mythology of emperors and the human need to follow them blindly), tragic (the cost to those killed or left damaged in the wake of the long retreat), mythical (encompassing something larger than the story's events), melancholic and weary (keeping going in the absence of hope), and oddly enough, hopeful (Castor salvaging victory from defeat). In one sense, not much happens (one emperor is replaced by another, with little sturm and drang), but in another sense, the story is deeply affecting in how strongly it plays its emotional power chords.

Yet another impressive story by Reed.

Aurelian: Bait

Humor is easy to conceive, at least in the abstract, but can be exceptionally difficult to design and deliver well. Each of us can probably come up with an example of something that amused us, but that we can't communicate to someone else in a way that makes them laugh. Something that is funny in principle is difficult to make funny in practice, because it takes many skills that require considerable honing: minimalism (good jokes provide just enough detail to be memorable), pacing (neither too fast nor too slow), and crafting a central image that is memorable, striking, surprising, or all three at once (to provoke the reader's "startle" response and engage their sense of irony). And, essentially, the joke must have a "punchline", which becomes the message most of us remember even when we forget the details.

The subset of humor known as "absurdity", in the sense of telling something that is in radical opposition to the mundane reality of our world, is even more difficult than humor. In addition to being humorous, at least in the abstract, it must be thematically or logically self-consistent: the absurdity must go beyond a simple collection of bizarre images to provide an overall system of images that has, or at least seems to have, some consistency. Everything must "fit". In a very real sense, SF/F stories are all absurd: they are contrafactual. But the good ones make that absurdity seem sufficiently credible that we can suspend disbelief.

In Bait, Robin Aurelian accomplishes the difficult task of creating a humorous absurdity: that we are learning of a society based on the notion of harvesting a range of beings, from the mundane (fellow humans) to the fantastic (faeries), to fuel the machineries of everyday life. This is done with a great many deft touches and occasional brilliance. The central "what if?" of this concept is maintained consistently throughout the story, making it eminently plausible (at least to readers of SF/F), while also adhering to the principles of minimalism, pacing, and surprise. In that sense, it's a bravado performance. The absurd is made plausible by grounding it in an intimately familiar reality: that of a typical family, complete with sibling rivalry.

Where the story fails for me was the punchline. Even non-humorous stories must have a punchline that wraps up everything that has come before, in such a way that the take-home message (the final gestalt we take from the story) is both memorable (here, Aurelian succeeds) and satisfying (here, the story fails). In a humor story, that punchline may indeed be a one-liner; in a novel, it is the final sense of completeness that emerges from the events that bring closure to the story. Short stories fall somewhere in between: the punchline should typically be more than just a line (other than in Feghoots and shaggy dog stories), but less than the full closure we get in a novel. Bait fails this test because it delivers no closure: we can speculate about what happens next to Navin, but we can't say with any degree of certainty what that future path will be. Will he wreak gory revenge on his sister? Will he recover his humanity? Will he learn an important lesson in morality? No idea. It's as if Kafka told us that Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning as a cockroach, and ends the story there. This leaves us asking the question: So what?

In Aurelian's defense, ambiguity is an accepted modern literary technique, as it is in the kind of modern art that intentionally has no message, but that instead asks you to respond strongly enough to the art that you create your own message. Enough people seem to like this kind of art that I accept it as a valid approach. But it's rarely an approach that satisfies me, particularly in literature; I have a good imagination, and can invent my own ending easily enough, but I want to learn something new—specifically, the author's opinion of what happens, not mine). For that reason, Bait simultaneously succeeds (I like the characters and want to know what happens to them) but fails to become a story for me because it doesn't satisfy: the story has not ended.

My take: The editors should have sent this one back to the author with a request to craft a more compelling conclusion that provides closure. In its current form, this is more a vignette than a story.

Oberndorf: Writers of the Future

Creating and presenting the backstory that establishes a complex story universe is difficult, and here, the backstory is very Strossian, in the sense of the Accelerando series. Oberndorf skillfully paints that background through a short epigraph that successfully evokes the Strossian singularity while providing an elegantly concise description of that singularity for readers who either aren't familiar with Stross or don't enjoy his writing.

Oberndorf frequently exhibits a subtle touch and grasp of detail, such as describing the 8-year-old narrator as interested in women: I puzzled over this for a moment, wondering whether this precocious behavior suggested accelerated maturation, then remembered abruptly that since the year-length in the narrator's orbit was close to double that in Earth orbit, the character would actually be closer to 15 years old. The notion of a "worlds tour" for one's wanderjahr seems just right for the story environment, and it's something I haven't encountered before. The description of "clear light" shining through the windows of the church—as opposed to light "colored" by religious dogma encoded in stained glass images—is another subtle and telling point. I found myself wondering whether choosing the name "Magnus Esner" for the famous author was a poke at (magnus = the great) Michael Eisner, former CEO of Disney; Disney has done a remarkable (and chilling) job of seeming to be in the entertainment business, while actually serving as a force for nearly reactionary conservatism and preservation of the cultural status quo. If so, that's a delightfully nasty lagniappe that fits well with the rest of the tale (see below).

Other touches are less successful: Naming two prominent societies Haynlayn (Heinlein) and Varle (Varley) struck me as just clumsy. Pronunciations certainly change, but in a literate society, spellings won't; this isn't Elizabethan England, after all. More importantly, though SF/F fans like to flatter ourselves as being more progressive than mundanes and more likely to endure into the future, it seems unlikely these two names would gain more prominence than many more broadly important names (cities and countries and the founders or funders of the orbital habitats). The treatment of religion in the story is also clumsy. There's little sense of it other than that of a somehow mystical communion with the universe or the "Minds" that rule our solar system. Religion not being at the heart of this story, the church could have been deleted with no loss; it's too complex an issue to include in an already complex story.

These are quibbles, though. Initially, the heart of the story seems to revolve around a notion that troubles many writers: that readers bring their own attitudes and experiences to what they read, therefore no two readers ever take the same message from a story or want the story to go in the same direction. Early "choose your own adventure" books were clumsy attempts to accommodate this, and I was interested by the hints of how this might evolve in the future in a future "open" technology in which authors create works that deliberately harness the energy of readers to create their own (non-shared) storylines. Though this would dilute the reading experience, in the sense that readers of a story would no longer share precisely the "same" story, it would potentially enrich the reading experience for readers with at least the author's level of sophistication. I'm not sure how one would write such stories, but it's an intriguing concept and a logical evolution of the art of writing.

But Oberndorf proves to be digging into much more complex issues, and reading further reveals much of deeper interest beneath that surface. The thought-play around the writing process is fun, and very "meta". The description of the writer's group is intimately familiar; such groups always combine "you didn't write what I like" solipsism with a mixture of pettiness and constructive advice, and if you don't know to expect this, you emerge (like the narrator) feeling a complete failure. (It helps to remember that critical readings are never the same as for-pleasure readings, and that group criticism will always be harsher than what your real readers provide.) In case you were wondering whether this story is a deliberate dialogue with previous authors of the singularity, the discussion between Esner and Gale should banish any doubts: this is clear critique of and response to modern singularity SF/F, carried out through a logical and natural dialogue between two writer characters. This approach can fail and become nothing more than the author speaking through sock puppets; here, it evolves naturally as honest dialogue between a compelling character (Gale) and a character (Esner) who escapes being a straw man, with many profound insights into fiction.

Initially, I enjoyed the satirical notion that what we would now see as SF/F or perhaps historical fiction (Esner's stories of the long-ago struggle against the Minds) has become the standard, with the goal being stability and comfort. The corollary is that true extropolative fiction, such as Gale's notion of a society that allowed more than one child per parent, has become radical and unacceptable. It soon struck me that the unstated and painful corollary is that the human society still lingering in Mars orbit is dying; zero-population growth is an eventual recipe for extinction and indeed, human worlds are gradually disappearing under these conditions. Without visionaries such as Gale driving us to continue moving and growing and dreaming of better worlds, we'll dwindle and vanish. That's a more important message than anything else in the story, and it's wonderfully understated. The story therefore possesses two of SF/F's greatest virtues: the ability to propose utopias or changes thereto and then test those "what ifs?" to destruction, and second, giving us dreams of progress that inspire some of us to work to make those dreams happen.

Oberndorf also shows a clear understanding of the ongoing process in which newer writers (Gale in the story; Oberndorf in the larger context) challenge the working assumptions of their colleagues, and particularly those of established writers. It's horrible to think of SF/F becoming the new orthodoxy and guardian of the status quo, but it could happen without such challenges. All thought-provoking literature is political in nature, and when a literature stops challenging the prevailing assumptions, those politics become deeply conservative. Oberndorf raises yet another fascinating (and unresolved) question: When Gale (under her squidlike "Calamar" pseudonym) chooses to write primarily close-ended stories, in an attempt to create a single story with shared meaning rather than the "open" stories favored by her colleagues, is she being conservative and reactionary (from the modern pomo perspective) or is she boldy rebelling against consensus conformity (from the story perspective)? More to the point, is she right to do so? I confess to having more sympathy for her perspective, but I'm not convinced I'm right or that there's a simple answer.

On a superficial level, Oberndorf's story is nothing more than a detailed description of the workshopping process and a writer's maturation. [Looking back: I don't know enough about the annual real-world "Writers of the Future" competition to comment on whether Oberndorf is creating yet another level of critique here. Comments welcomed from those who are familiar with the competition.] As such, it succeeds well enough and makes for an entertaining read. But there are far, far deeper issues here, and ones that will keep us hard at work figuring out how we would answer the author's questions, whether explicit or implicit, and figuring out where those answers might lead. All done without overt preaching. Bravo!

Laidlaw: Songwood

I've enjoyed Laidlaw's stories of Gorlen Vizenfirthe, the bard with the gargoyle's hand. They're not attempting to speak volumes about the human condition, they're not deeply convoluted metadiscourse about writing or some other topic, and they're not sermons on any particular topic: they're just simple, straightforward, entertaining stories with interesting characters. Songwood stays true to this goal, though with a few interesting flourishes that take it farther afield than previous stories in this series.

The core of Songwood is nothing new: it's a story of tragic love, encountered in an unexpected place, with lingering consequences for the two lovers. (If you buy into the "there are only three/four/whatever story types in the world of fiction" concept, this is one of the most popular story templates because of how strongly it speaks to us. I consider that concept simplistic, but that's a subject for another essay.) As in all stories that follow a presumed archetypal template, what's interesting and new about this one lies in the details. Here, we have two characters who are, in essence, nature spirits: Spar (short for "feldspar" or another -spar mineral?), the gargoyle, was formerly deeply connected with the spirit of the deep rock ("the great ocean of stone"), whereas Sprit (short for "sprite", such as a dryad, but also a pun on bowsprit?), the eponymous Songwood character of the title affixed to the bow of the ship, was formerly deeply connected with the spirits of the growing world, including her former grove. Both have been severed from their connection with something deeper by callous, boorish, unheeding humans.

"Love at first sight" is a difficult sell, though I know from personal experience how it can happen. For the love to be credibly sustained, however, some deeper connection must follow that initial attraction, and Laidlaw credibly creates this connection in a very short space by painting the two characters as kindred spirits who become companions in adversity. Their mutual loss of a deeper connection with the world that gave them birth may have created a void in their souls that their new relationship fills, but it is the deft handling of their growing attachment that makes the love story convincing—and it is the story's credibility that makes it, in the end, a tragic love, because the two lovers come from even more different worlds than Romeo and Juliet. You could carry this notion far beyond what's necessary for the story by noting that rock, when weathered sufficiently, becomes soil, which in turn sustains plants such as the tree that Sprit used to be. If you're a hopeless romantic, as I am, that might give you hope for the two lovers overcoming their physical separation at some future time. If not, the relationship can remain platonic in a satisfying way, and that's also a fair interpretation—though I suspect the sadder and more consistent interpretation is that they'll remain forever separate.

Though Laidlaw successfully crafts a tragic love story, I'm not sure he strays far enough from the template to make this a convincing tale of alien beings (here, gargoyles and dryads). The identical story could be easily told, with the details modified only slightly, for two human lovers; Spar's walk along the ocean floor to find Sprit could just as easily become a tale of dogged seamanship by a sailor who follows his lover in a lifeboat after she's stolen by other pirates or left marooned on the stereotypical desert island. That's not necessarily a failure by Laidlaw, but rather something that reveals the power of that particular story template: it supports a seemingly infinite number of variations.

It's also true that part of Laidlaw's goal in these stories seems to be to show how strange and seemingly alien creatures have many similarities with us that make them potentially sympathetic characters (possibly more sympathetic than our fellow humans) once we get past our initial reaction to their strangeness. Personally, I would have liked to see the story depart farther from the template by giving us a more alien viewpoint. But as I noted in my review of Oberndorf's story in this issue, every reader has different goals for a story, and authors have to stay true to their own goal.

One thing I completely failed to understand: the significance of the "salad bowl" reference. I'm not sure whether this is something obscure, or something blindly obvious and I'm just being thick here. Explanations welcome! (Or possibly, to parody the Freud joke, "sometimes a salad bowl is just a salad bowl".) [A look back: A member of the F&SF Web forum suggested that the gargoyle wasn't interested in the paintings of human women; as a gargoyle, the wood bowl interested him more, particularly because it reminded him of Sprit. Possibly, but then why no interest in the metal ewer, which is described as "damaged", as Sprit has been, and should therefore also seem familiar and interesting to a gargoyle? Why would this be a mystery to the gargoyle, but not his human companion? Possibly that's part of the touch of alienness I was hoping for and missed.]

Park: Ghosts doing the orange dance

Park begins his story with a nearly overwhelming assortment of seemingly unrelated details, jumbled together in no clear narrative order: What's all this detail in aid of? How does it progress the story? The density of detailed description never abates, and over time, it became wearying. It's not that the details were badly handled; on the contrary, they were all effective and skillfully presented. There were just too many of them, and with no idea where Park was headed, I kept spinning my mental wheels trying to gain some traction.

With persistence, it became apparent that Ghosts was an extended literary exercise, namely to frame a story that would support a thought-provoking point: that memory and fictional narrative are both assembled consciously and subjectively and erratically from a collection of isolated fragments, rather than being stored linearly like bits on your computer's hard drive. Park erred in describing memory and stories as "single images, words, phrases or motifs repeated to absurdity"; that wording suggests a single image (etc.) is repeated, when in fact it is a series of isolated images that collectively form the story (not the same image repeated endlessly). [A look back: In fact, it was probably a simple revision error, the only one that stood out in such a long story. Park undoubtedly intended the latter meaning, and simply misplaced the word.]

This starting point turns the introductory pages, and much of what follows, into an extended exercise in implementing that insight as a story. The risk in so doing, of course, is that the author will sacrifice plot or character to prove his point, leading some readers to abandon Ghosts before they piece together the story. The construction of a story to mimick the structure of real life can be done, but it's risky; real life follows different rules and a different logic than fiction, and when you focus on emulating that reality too closely, the story generally suffers.

I started reading the story after a long work day, when I was too tired to assemble the introduction into anything resembling coherency. I gave up in defeat within a few pages. Trying again the next day, adequately caffeinated and determined to write a thorough review, let me persist. I suspect many readers would not have done so. The increasingly weighty accumulation of details gradually resolves into multiple past and present narrative streams that spiral around each other and intersect at odd points, sometimes contradicting and sometimes supporting each other, until a larger picture gradually comes into focus, like one of those old Polaroid instamatic photos developing before your eyes*.

* For the digital camera generation: This is like watching a JPEG file load on a really slow Web connection, with progressive scan lines appearing.

However, this takes far too long and there is too little payoff until we're many pages into the story. It would have been more effective to introduce the initial mystery of the eponymous painting and the horned woman first, to "set the hook", and then gradually present the details that help us unravel the mystery. Of course, that's such a common (almost stereotypical) approach that I suspect Park consciously chose to try something different.

Amidst the numbing weight of imagery, there are many powerful and evocative images, and no real clinkers. The greenhouse composed of a random assortment of antique photographic plates is particularly striking, and harmonizes clearly with the dominant metaphor of memory with which Park starts the story. Other metaphors deepen the overall resonance; for example, the ghosts of the title echo the faint (ghostlike) writing in the family archival materials and the narrator's recollections of past characters who seem ghostlike in the light of memory. These and other details hint at unseen vistas that lurk beyond the circle of light cast by the narrator's thoughts (e.g., ID and vaccination checks at border crossings between U.S. states, some non-apocalyptic but profound collapse of the U.S.). Further unseen vistas are hinted at by hidden compartments and secret histories. The sheer density of images and hints and interconnections is, frankly, amazing.

[Spoiler alert] The recurring images related to the title remain frustratingly unclear for some time. Initially, the eponymous painting seems to represent some kind of pagan fertility goddess, associated with the corn crop, but that doesn't quite ring true; subsequently, the ghosts in that painting seemingly become alien visitors, seemingly fighting in opposition to the pagan goddess; later still, they may be the ghosts of the dead, still fighting some unspecified struggle against that elder goddess, with or without the aliens. It's almost as if these beings have been interpreted by the narrators of each incident in light of their cultural conditioning and the assumptions of their historical era. In practice, something far weirder seems to be going on, some struggle between rival forces motivated by a deeper theme I could never quite grasp. The whole thing came to seem more than a little Lovecraftian, with a sinister reality lurking beneath the comforting veneer of what we can see—though Park's veneer is by no means comforting.

Interpretations and recollections of events shift continuously, sometimes abruptly, and they do so similarly to how we assemble our memories to create meaning or perhaps to the way we assemble dreams; indeed, the entire story seemed to be an extended "lucid dream" that makes the metaphor of memory fragments concrete, and that's undoubtedly intentional given that the author-narrator describes himself as a lucid dreamer. Coincidentally, the following quote by Gilda Radner (actress and comedian, 1946-1989) just arrived by e-mail: "I wanted a perfect ending. Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity."

I'm not sure why the central family in the story (Parke or Park) and the narrator (Paul Park) were named after the author; my literary competence and preferences don't extend to that level of metafiction, and it came to feel increasingly like a gratuitous authorial intrusion as the story progressed. Possibly this choice was an exaggerated way to reinforce the author's point, namely that our internal and external narratives (memory and history versus fiction and story) are not objective realities, but rather become mutable stories we tell about these realities; that's true both in fiction and in the psychology literature I've read. I can hypothesize Park's purpose based on the effect of this choice on me, however: it made me wonder how much of the details were the author's true family history, how much was pure invention, and how much was a combination of both. (I deliberately did not research book titles and other facts reported in the story in an attempt to resolve this ambiguity; doing so would have spoiled the carefully achieved effect of uncertainty, discomfort, and deracination.)

The result is a clearly slipstream context that reinforces the theme: that it's rarely clear how much of what we remember, and of the stories we tell ourselves and others about those memories, is true and how much is invention. But in the end, the technique of author as narrator struck a false note and didn't work for me; it was too overtly a literary intrusion. (For what it's worth, I feel the same way about much of the Philip Dick I've read.) I'm not sure the same sense of surrealism and subjectivity couldn't have been created more effectively with a purely fictional character, though framing Ghosts as the author's personal historical narrative surely intensifies the effect.

I'm also not sure that in the end, Ghosts succeeds as a story. It takes far, far too long to get rolling, it's too fragmentary and erratic in its structure (particularly at the beginning), and in the end, it's just too damned long. Conservatively, it's about twice as long as it needs to be to accomplish all these effects; many scenes (such as the dialog about condoms in the library) serve no obvious purpose, and could have been cut with no loss. Like a rough diamond, there's a lot of potential value and beauty here, but cutting and polishing (possibly into several smaller gems) would be necessary to bring out those aspects. That's not to say the details aren't well done; if you're willing to be patient with the extended and intricate and brilliantly handled literary exercise in crafting a story structure that reflects the structure of memories and dreams, it's a virtuoso performance. (I can imagine a planning chart in Park's office to describe the story that spans a 20-foot wall, with a sea of details connected by skeins of colored lines drawn in a dozen colors of marker.)

On the one hand, the result is a satisfying and profound sense of place and character and existential unease, and a story does eventually emerge, though it remains unresolved. The characters (mostly seen through diaries and historical accounts and second- or third-hand descriptions rather than directly on stage) are each distinct and skillfully portrayed. On the other hand, if you're not as stubborn as I am and if the myriad mysteries of the story don't hook you, you won't find it worth the effort to struggle through the dense information to reach the end. I suspect most readers will bail out before reaching the end, because the story fails the key tests of maintaining interest over such a great length, assembling a coherent narrative, and reaching a satisfying resolution. That's a shame given the craftsmanship invested in this story.

Popkes: The secret lives of fairy tales

As I've noted elsewhere, humor is devilishly difficult to do well. In Secret Lives, Popkes admirably exorcises that devil, presenting us with a deliciously cynical, grim (Grimm!) deconstruction and reconstruction of five popular fairy tales that have been Disneyfied to the point they've lost their true resonance for most people. Secret Lives is like reading a more literary version of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but with less bathroom humor and no pratfalls (except perhaps for poor Jack, he of beanstalk fame). As Popkes recounts the "true" stories, the heroes come off less than favorably, and several villains come off much better—a fictional conceit that is remarkably similar to how real-world history becomes the reinterpreted tales that eventually reach modern ears.

The most obvious humor comes in the form of clever, pungent, and sometimes viciously sharp and insightful wordplay. My favorite non-spoiler examples include:

The five stories in this collection weave in and around each other with the elegance of a Japanese gravel zen garden, unlike the Gordian knot–like strands in Paul Park's story in the same issue. There's just enough detail to paint a clear picture; think Japanese watercolors, not Jackson Pollock. And in between the humor, and amidst the aggressively deromanticized "true" history behind the fairy tales, there are some profound portraits of humanity at its best and its worst. More intriguingly, the villains of some tales become surprisingly likeable people in others—and other villains remain true to their inner villainy.

There seem to be no happy endings for the marquee actors in the fairy tales, yet there are deeply moving grace notes; Po marrying Mary, and achieving what may be happiness, and Rupert fleeing with Charlena in what starts as a true friendship and may become something much richer. This rings true to real life, in which the heroes of legend and historical figures tend to come to messy ends some time after the formal retelling of the fairy tale ends, but in which the ordinary people somehow muddle through and find something that more closely resembles "happily ever after".

I'm not sure Popkes could sustain this approach at novel length, but I'd love to see him try. We're long overdue for someone to send up the typical quest-style heroic fantasy (or space opera, for that matter) following the same techniques used in this story. Terry Pratchett probably comes closest to having done this for heroic fantasy, but we're long overdue for a response to Harry Harrison's Bill the Galactic Hero.

In Secret Lives, Popkes managed the trick that Pratchett does so well: he made me smile, while also making me think. That's a rare narrative trick indeed.

Wilhelm: The late night train

Kate Wilhelm has been writing SF/F for longer than most Asimov's reader's have been alive, and it shows: Night Train proceeds with the unhurried pace that reveals the hand of a master willing to let the story find its own pace rather than forcing it along or artificially slowing it. It's full of small details that hit with the force of the eponymous train if you pause to dwell on them, such as the following: "Now he is in a wheelchair and my mother and I are in straitjackets".

If you're at that age when older relatives are beginning to fail, every detail of the story resonates. In a sense, this is an off-label horror story, far more disturbing than any splatterpunk tale could ever be—because it's so real. For many of us, our worst fears are the long decline that comes at the end of life. We see others going through it, and vow defiantly we'll never let it happen to us, and that we'll never put our loved ones through such pain, but when the late night comes, that courage often wanes. Even when the courage remains strong, the flesh that sustains it grows weak, sometimes leaving insufficient resources to act on that courage.

Tolstoy claimed that "each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way", but despite the resonance of that quote, I find there are more often common themes that run through family situations; like reinventing old SF/F plots, it's the tiny differences that make each story stand out. Here, the unhappiness is a pattern I've seen repeated again and again, in so many variations, that it strikes me as far more familiar than it is different. That commonality makes the story speak to each of us.

The story is simultaneously two things: First, it's the tragedy of the narrator's mother, who lacked the courage to leave her disastrous marriage early enough to make a new life, and suffered the consequences of that failure of courage for the rest of her life. Even in non-tragic circumstances, we can't escape karma: actions have consequences, and we're responsible for those consequences far more often than most of us would like to admit. Second, it's the story of the ties that bind us together, no matter how little we want to be bound (here, a daughter's love for her mother and her sense of filial duty), of the shared personality traits that tie so many mothers and daughters together, and of the endurance of the human spirit. If grace is "courage under pressure", both the protagonist and her mother show endless grace.

[Spoiler alert] Though the metaphor of the night train is overtly (in the narrator's words and those of her mother) one of escape from the terrible situation, there is a deeper unspoken metaphor: the irresistable train that carries us inevitably into Dylan Thomas' "that good night" (death). Like a real train, it cannot deviate from its fixed path, and few things can disrupt that path short of derailing the train. It is the latter realization that gives the story hope: by finding a way to derail the train and thwart that inevitability, the narrator's mother finds a way to combine the two metaphors and achieve a satisfying resolution, even though the resolution comes decades too late. There's a famous quote from psychology that I've never been able to pin down to its source: "insanity consists of doing the same thing again and again and hoping for a different outcome". Night Train reminds us of what good psychologists learn: that sometimes the only solution to a terrible situation is to change the situation.

As one comes to expect from Wilhelm, Night Train is a fine mixture of understated style, home truths, and the human spirit surviving under adversity. It's a lovely and haunting tale, with a painful emotional punch. Yet if you'll permit me a touch of metafiction here, I hope to age even half so gracefully as Wilhelm has done.

Whitlock: Nanosferatu

It's probably best to leave some time between reading the previous story (Night Train) and this one if you want to avoid emotional whiplash from the change of tone.

As one might expect from its punny title, it rapidly becomes clear this won't be a serious tale. Indeed, it proves to be an entertaining enough read; the writing is slick without being greasy <g>, there are some enjoyable (if unsubtle) pokes at things that deserve poking, and you'll cruise through this one and not regret the time spent doing so. But does it become something with depths beyond that surface pleasure? Unfortunately, it does not.

In keeping with its overall irreverent tone, two of the story's primary POV characters (Hugh Graeber and his wife) are exuberantly and proudly racist. They are offensive in the sense of "eat the poor" capitalism, and therefore true enough to life (I have this uncle, see...) that their portrayal serves as a broad and pointed satire on those members of the western capitalist class for whom the rest of the world exists solely as a means to grow richer. They're deliciously and blandly evil, and end up getting what they deserve, and it's fun to watch. Unfortunately, this isn't subtle stuff: it's more like shooting fish in a barrel, with no water to protect the fish. The problem is that this creates satirical targets that provide no room for insight because they're too shallow to have anything like the kind of depth that permits deep insight: what you see is what you get. Instead, they become caricatures.

From a literary perspective, the two Mexican characters in the story, who serve as counterweights to the Graebers, create a jarring contrast: they're such deeply sympathetic, likeable people they don't even seem to be inhabiting the same story world as the Graebers. Arturo and Esperanza ("hope") de Camino are so likeable that the Graebers pale by comparison, and that's a compliment to Whitlock's skill. That's fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't really fit with the farcical nature of the rest of the story. Some contrast is necessary, but to me, it felt too extreme.

I had much more serious problems with the other characters in the story. Wang and Sprachmaus ("speak mouse") are less than two-dimensional caricatures because they serve solely as a running linguistic gag. Were they parodied in this way by Hugh Graeber dismissively echoing their real words as a contemptuous dismissla of how they speak, it would be logically consistent with his complete lack of empathy for anyone other than himself, and it would intensify his despicable nature. But because their dialogue comes from the author, it becomes a mis-step. In my experience (YMMV), native Chinese have much less problem with the R versus L confusion that many Japanese experience, and they certainly don't confuse the two letters consistently throughout their speech. (My day job involves editing the writing of both groups, so I speak from firsthand experience.) The German accent was also overdone, at least based on the speech of my occasional German colleagues.

Please note that I'm not accusing Whitlock of anything resembling racism; his gentle, sympathetic treatment of Arturo and Esperanza is proof his heart is in the right place. Rather, it suggests sloppy research; studying speakers of Chinglish and Germlish more carefully would have made these two more human and less caricature. Not that this is necessary in a farce, but some middle ground between the de Caminos and the Graebers seems necessary for balance.

Though the story isn't intended as hard SFnal extrapolation, the science is weaker than I like to see. (I plead guilty to being a science chauvinist, so caveat lector.) There are some nicely rendered details, such as the way mice go stiff when you pick them up by the tail, and I remember with a shudder my own 4-inch needle (which also proved painless in expert hands), but portraying the mice as rutting adolescent humans rang false. The nanotech doesn't convince; Whitlock's portrayal of the nanomachines as having fanged jaws clearly establishes this as parody, but a really good parody should be logically consistent in its consequences. Here, the flaw lies in the information density problem: someday we'll make machines as small as a blood corpuscles, but it's unlikely we'll fit a sophisticated computer into so little space. Doing so will require a major breakthrough in our programming ability and in computer technology, and that would have to be reflected in many other areas of society. Here, it's not. Again, this is a farce, so it isn't a major flaw; chalk this one up to me nitpicking.

If you read Nanosferatu as nothing more than broad farce and as a simplistic morality tale, it makes for an amusing if forgettable read. But don't try to take anything more from it. For this kind of story to resonate as a satire, even the bad guys have to be treated with some degree of sympathy so we want to take them seriously, and the good characters mustn't be so perfect they unintentionally become parodies. For me, the contrast between the Graebers and the de Caminos was simply too sharp, and the contrast between their two story worlds was too awkward to let the story achieve its potential.

Langan: City of the Dog

[Multiple spoiler alert: read the story first] In City of the Dog, Langan gives us a fairly standard Lovecraft-style tale in which the safe and comforting consensus reality the characters initially see is a sham, overlying a world of madness and horror. What saves this story from becoming mere pastiche of that genre is the skillful writing, combined with the accelerating inevitability of the horror in the latter half.

The first portion of the story felt overlong to me, though not as fatally so as in Park's story in the same issue. A minor trimming would fix that, and how much to trim (if any) would be a matter of personal taste. Langan skillfully establishes the narrator's character through his self-perceived view of an empty, unpromising life that is going nowhere, and his obsession (not even remotely the same thing as love) with Kaitlyn; that obsession becomes toxic jealousy that blinds him to anything else in the world. The details of the club scene and "clothing as personal statement" are keenly observed, but we learn next to nothing about anyone else in the story—not even the narrator's name—because of the extent of his self-involvement. Even Kaitlyn is an object, not a person. This is not a sympathetic protagonist.

That proves to be an effective narrative technique, because when Langan drops the floor out from under us and turns it into a chute pointing downwards towards previously unsuspected depths, we have no way to see this change in direction coming, and that intensifies the impact of the slide. Events quickly accelerate downhill from there. Though effective, this change in direction felt somehow awkward to me, for reasons I can't quite put my finger on. In hindsight, I suspect it's because Langan drew me so skillfully into the narrator's inner world during the buildup that, like the narrator, I had to force myself to pull back and determine what had changed and how I should feel about it. Standing outside the story, I was able to do that, as the narrator cannot do until it's far too late. This suggests a relatively minor structural problem—a small speedbump rather than an axle-wrecker Montreal pothole. I'm not sure how it could have been fixed, or even if it should be.

In the second half, Chris emerges as a real character for the first time when he forces the narrator to actually look at him and at the world of the story. The contrast is jarring, and despite the narrator's self-involvement and resentment of Chris, we quickly develop some sympathy for Chris during the brief time we get to know him as anything other than the narrator's nemesis and object of hate. When Chris offers up his life to save Kaitlyin—in vain, as it later turns out—we appreciate it, even though the narrator cannot. In the end, the selfish narrator survives while Chris is taken by the Ghûl—bad things happen to good people in horror stories. Chris then joins Kaitlyn in a deeply creepy and tragic twist on the "together forever" romance that Chris and Kaitlyin might have achieved in the absence of the narrator in a very different (parallel!) story universe.

Some of the events didn't initially make sense to me. For instance, it's not clear why the Ghûl we meet in the opening scene doesn't kill the narrator, or drag him off to become another Ghûl. Did it see Kaitlyn as somehow more attractive and steal her instead? Her disappearance from that point onwards strongly suggests this. It's also unclear why the Ghûl let Chris live after his accident, when there's a significant risk that his research will expose them, possibly leading to open warfare with humans if he can convince anyone. Possibly there are two things going on here. First, the Ghûl have clearly been around for a very long time, and having survived for this long (even in the absence of a line of Van Helsings to hunt them) suggests they understand how to play the long game. Second, I was misled by my expectations of what ghouls should be, aided and abetted by Langan having Chris misunderstand the intentions of the Ghûl who tried to drag him away. If, as we are told, these creatures live beneath the cemetary, this presumably provides a ready source of food, so they don't need to hunt living humans. Instead, they would be more interested in obtaining willing converts (for unspecified mystical reasons), with Kaitlyn serving as the bait that causes Chris to sacrifice himself (in vain). That's far more chilling than the initial, bad-enough suspicion this is only about hunting people as food.

As a rule, I don't particularly enjoy horror; I see enough of that in the daily news that I don't want it in my fiction too. But despite that caveat, I found City of the Dog an effective, disturbing tale.

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