You are here: Home (fiction) --> Book
and short story reviews --> F&SF May/June 2010
Vous êtes ici : Accueil (fiction) --> Book and short story reviews --> F&SF May/June 2010
Libling: Why that crazy old lady goes up the mountain
Chappell: Thief of Shadows
Bourne: A history of Cadmium
Sladek: The real Martian Chronicles
Schutz: Dr. Death vs. the vampire
Irvine: Remotest mansions of the blood
Goldstein: Seven sins for seven dwarves
Onopa: The Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe
Hall: The Gypsy's boy
Popkes: The crocodiles
Libling does a lovely job of striking up a smooth, folksy tone right from the start, never descending into parody. He has a subtle grasp of character, and nails down key details with a few well-chosen words: "[Sara] reads books she doesn't need to", "[Kevin] isn't soft-spoken; he's unspoken", feeling "soggy inside" from grief, "he's a good half foot shorter than each but towers over them, he's so pissed", and people at funerals who are "preying" on rather than "praying" for the bereaved. The social undercurrents (boys competing overtly or without knowing it for the girls' attention; the girls balancing petty jealousies with the need to belong) are equally subtly portrayed. Best of all, he perfectly captures the teenaged mix of startlingly sophisticated understanding and appalling naiveté: teens are far wiser than we adults like to believe, even though they haven't obtained the wisdom that only comes with the years.
Libling paints a sparse but compelling picture of the town of Gideon's normalcy, including that of tragedy: "Tragedy provides a nice break from the routine." Both Kevin and Sara have lost parents, though for different reasons, creating a bond between them and reinforcing a melancholic tone that pervades the story. Yet deeper currents run here, and when they run off to the forest to see "God", the sherriff and townsfolk naturally panic: Will grief cause Kevin or Sara to kill themselves or each other? I kept hearing the Tragically Hip's song 38 Years Old as the background music.
[Spoilers] The story background is nominally that Kevin's grandfather, walking through the woods long ago, saw what he claims to be "God" (capitalized, so the Judeo-Christian deity) fall from the heavens and crash to Earth, dead. Thenceforth, that part of the forest becomes home to the souls of the world's dead, and those who are sufficiently mentally grounded can hike to this place and let the souls into their mind, thereby reliving those past lives and making them part of their own experience.
It's a poignantly beautiful concept in some ways; the shared humanity enriches those who share it. Sadly, in tune with the melancholic tone, many cannot accept that gift—if gift it is. Guns are drawn, and—seemingly by accident—the Sherrif dies messily and Kevin dies peacefully from bloodloss. We learn this has all happened before: "Kevin doesn't hear the shot. He never does." Not only has it happened before; it will happen again in largely the same way: "Maybe it's true: we can't change a life already lived." Sara challenges this assertion: "But what about a life that's not yet done? What if I change me?" It's a hopeful note, yet a bleak one: there's no reason to believe the next cycle will be any different.
This story has many strengths. The characters and tone are quickly and skillfully established, and carried consistently through to the end. On that level alone, it's a masterful piece of writing. But the bleak tone makes for an unpleasant read, and not something you should read while feeling depressed. Yet there are hidden depths if you're willing to plumb them. I had trouble with the plot until I tried harder to work things through. For example, why is the death of God necessary as a plot device, and why does it precipitate a temporal loop in which everyone relives the past up to the point of Kevin's death, when things start over again? The two ingredients clash: like oil and water, they never quite mix successfully.
But the title (Crazy Old Lady) hints at the explanation: the only female character of any importance in this story is Sara, suggesting she's the eponymous old lady, driven mad by trauma: her failure to take the gun from her father lets him commit suicide, leading eventually to her mother's death. On that basis, the entire story transforms into something very different: Has Sara slipped into madness to deal with her trauma, causing her to loop eternally through the same horrific events within her mind until she somehow finds escape? God's death then becomes symbolic rather than literal, and everything falls neatly into place. The story remains disturbing, but Sara's realization that there is a chance to change becomes far more hopeful than it initially seemed.
[In private conversations about the story, others subsequently noted that the story is told in present tense for a reason: Sara returns to the mountain, reliving the lives of others each time, so it's not really a temporal loop as such. More that she returns again and again, and chooses which lives she wants to relive each time. That makes the "old lady" part of the title more literal than I'd suspected. In addition, God in the story may be more a sense of how Kevin and his grandfather interpreted events, which have nothing to do with divinity as such.]
In his Shadows tales, Chappell builds his world around an intriguing concept: that shadows bear with them many of the properties of the things that cast them, and that a sufficiently skillful thief can, with appropriate tools and training, separate a shadow from its caster and use it for purposes ranging from the benign to the malevolent.
In this installment in the tales of Falco, the long-suffering apprentice, we learn the origin of his apprenticeship with Master Astolfo, a semi-retired thief who continues to make his living in the shadow trade, though usually by less (ahem) shady means, and his relationship with Mutano, Astolfo's manservant and the bane of Falco's existence. It's a classic tale in the mode of the rural bumpkin who turns out to be at least as wise as (and often substantially cleverer than) the urban sophisticates who mock him, as well as a tale of the apprentice growing towards mastery.
There are many pleasures in this series: the clever banter among a cast of roguish schemers, rich but never cloying and rhythmic yet never obtrusive language; lovingly embellished details; and exploration of the implications of the shadow concept that provides background and plot for the stories. (The shadows are said to have mass but not weight. One can imagine, 1000 years of scientific progress into the future, they might become the source of antigravity.) It reminds me of Matthew Hughes' work, with a dash of Jack Vance's Cugel the Clever thrown in for spice.
Here, the tale appears simple: Astolfo's colleague Pecunio presents him with a shadow whose origin must be identified. It may be the dread pirate Morbruzzo, or it may be someone else entirely, and only an expert of Astolfo's skill can tell for sure. But there's a time limit: if it's Morbruzzo's shadow, the pirate will waste no time descending upon Pecunio to regain it, leaving only enough of Pecunio behond to be identified through his dental records (DNA analysis not yet having been invented). The plot within a plot is whether Astolfo can turn the tables on Pecunio, transforming a situation that endangers all our protagonists should the shadow indeed prove to be Morbruzzo's into a lucrative opportunity (Astolfo being the cleverest double dealer you never want to cross wits with).
[Spoilers] In the end, the element hidden in plain sight, Pecunio's big-booted but waifishly slim blond servant, is revealed to be the prime mover of events, hinted at when Astolfo hints to us that big boots oft conceal slender feet. Astolfo has correctly inferred this servant to be a woman in disguise, and the source of the stolen shadow, and so it proves: she's a fellow shadow thief, one Fleuraye, who tore the shadow not from Morbruzzo but from her faithless paramour Belarmo, who she is punishing for his infidelity with a tavern wench. A confrontation ensues, Fleuraye fences with and overcomes Falco, and at the last instant, Astolfo saves his apprentice by throwing the malevolent shadow over her, lifting it only once she has been cowed into submission. Astolfo escapes the situation doubly enriched: by Pecunio's payment for saving his life, and by Belarmo for being united with his stolen shadow. In doing so, however, he earns himself a deadly enemy.
It's not a story that pushes the boundaries of the rogue's or apprentice's tale. But it's clever, witty, stylish, and a thoroughly pleasant read. What more could we ask for?
Bourne shows her artist's sensibility in a tale both visual and visceral: we have garnet wine and cadmium-yellow leaves, but also the deliberately flat "yellow" skin of her dying "aunt" Julia. The visceral touches include cold rain, smooth clay, and the loose joints of pregnancy. As in a great painting, the colors are all there if you look, but they never draw your eyes from the narrative unless you focus on them to inspect the craft. I'm not sure what the painterly equivalent of "poetic" is, but that's how the writing often felt.
I found but two descriptive mis-steps: Fallen moon-colored maple leaves doesn't work if, like most people, your primary experience of the moon is silvery white or grey (its most common colors); "harvest moon–colored" would have solved the problem by hinting at the ruddy or golden cloak the fall moon sometimes dons. Describing a painting as having "razor sharp" images also fails. Vivid is certainly possible, but paint is never really "sharp"; what separates painting from photography and line art is how the images are always soft around the edges, and how the mind nonetheless imposes form and meaning and vividness upon them. That's what gives paintings their magic.
Our narrator is Caddie, daughter of Cassie, a painter famed for vividly realistic paintings that have an almost magical ability to show what the painter saw; that vision can be so intense that Julia, her lifelong best friend, actually burned two disturbing paintings (Cobalt and Viridian). That's appropriate for an artist who's namesake Cassandra had the gift (curse?) of prophecying things people would not want to hear. Naming her child Cadmium—both a source of brilliant color and a dangerously toxic metal—is a significant choice because of its painfully mixed message.
As the story begins, Cassie is recently dead, and Caddie is cleaning out her house, mostly throwing away anything she can't sell. Her rejection of anything to do with painting (not even glazing the clay pots she chooses as her artistic medium until Julia persuades her to try), and the lack of a single kind word about her mother or even a fond post-mortem memory, shouts out that Caddie has serious mother issues. We learn that Cassie and Julia shared a wild youth, seducing handsome young men (sometimes together), and that Caddie has no idea who her father was. Cassie focused so intently on her painting that she virtually ignored Caddie, who follows her mother's path, becoming pregnant without any desire to involve the father in raising their child—but at least she knows the father and plans to devote herself to her child. This seems unlikely to succeed as she expects; her passionless claim to be "interested" in her husband's career ("he invested or mortgaged or something") suggests a coldness that may have driven him away, or at least an obliviousness to the fact he was using her. The future may not be so rosy.
[Spoilers] Bourne neatly pulls the rug out from under us by revealing that Cassie and Julia were pregnant at the same time, but that Cassie lost her baby due to the toxicity of the cadmium and other pigments she was mixing by hand. Julia, pregnant by a different man than the one she intends to marry, gives birth at the same time and replaces Cassie's stillborn child with Caddie.
If you pay attention, you'll notice the eponymous painting, Cadmium, morphing slowly over the course of the story; there are echoes of Dorian Gray. Cassie, it appears, has literally put herself into the painting, and it's her final gift to her (unknowingly adopted) daughter. The story ends with the painting showing "an untrodden path [that] leads through a tangled landscape", an apt metaphor for the emotional complexity of the preceding narrative and where it will lead. This fantasy element is thinner than I would have liked, but it's still a lovely piece of work.
Not really a lot to say about this one, other than that it's a short and sweet sketch of a quintessentially British-seeming family that has emigrated to Mars. The father has been hired as a bureaucrat to design British-style postal codes for the new world, and has nothing kind to say about any of the neighbors, including the neighbor's boy who is working on a "hideous American car". (Sladek apparently spent his young adulthood in Britain in the 1960s, and was clearly paying attention to his cultural surroundings. You have to understand something very well indeed to parody it this well.)
The parents are oblivious to everything going on around them, including their own children, who fall (repeatedly) into the Martian canals. They're also contemptuous of the local scenery, something most readers of F&SF would find exhilirating, at least at first. In a finely dismissive bit of description, we're told the local mountains remind mother of "upended baboons' arses", and the big volcano (Olympus Mons?) therefore reminds father of "a baboon with piles"—a description that Mother objects to as "vulgar", even though she's the one who first descended into vulgarity. The parents are self-righteous prats who are contemptuous of anyone other than themselves, and probably of each other too.
It's all dryly amusing, almost the antithesis to Heinlein's The Rolling Stones or Podkayne of Mars, and a very cleverly done parody of a certain British stereotype that will be intimately familiar to most American readers. Whether it has anything more profound to say than its subtext about how Americans stereotype the British, I can't say. A cheerful and largely forgettable way to spend 5 minutes.
It's been long since I traveled by long-distance bus, but Schutz immediately recreated the experience: like air travel, but without the pleasures of standing in line for hours, being irradiated, and undergoing cavity searches. (Anyone else old enough to remember when flying was fun?) It's a promising start to a story told by a cheerfully misanthropic narrator. The writing is smooth and effective throughout, with enough detail to convince but not enough to interfere.
There's good reason for misanthropy: our narrator, the eponymous Dr. Death, is an empath who literally feels how people experience their emotions and bodies, so he's seen the best and the worst of us. But he's also an "almost superhero": his non-super superpower is empathy, but he uses it to identify who needs to die. Here, "almost" resonates on another level; he tries to walk "the fine line between a superhero and a real wacko nut job", but doesn't always fall on the hero's side. He reminded me of the protagonist in my own story, The Phantom of the Niebelungen.
Schutz gets in some nice digs: Dr. Death describes the emotional vampires he hunts as "the kind of people who keep all their pencils lined up in order of length on their desks", and claims to kill people by intent, unlike the doctors and nurses who can't be bothered washing their hands between patients. (Scary fact: Consumer Reports published a study showing that insisting your doctor or nurse wash their hands before they touch you was one of the best ways to survive a hospital stay.)
Schutz's grasp of biochemistry (including descriptions of DMSO and pentothal) is excellent—far better than most writers who dabble in science. He's clearly sweated the details, right down to the fact that DMSO is said to taste like garlic (ironic, given that Dr. Death uses it to deliver a knockout drug to the vampire). Don't try his suggestions at home, kids; they probably work as described.
Arthur, the title vampire, is also an empath, but he and his kind feed on the pain of those who are suffering. He's accompanying an elderly woman dying of a brain tumor, and feeding off her pain. Dr. Death notices her, but does not initially notice Arthur. He kills the old woman (apparently painlessly) by slipping her a nasty drug cocktail that stops her heart, but in so doing, Arthur spots him. The story then becomes a duel of wits between the two: Dr. Death wants to kill Arthur (one of the seemingly unalloyed good deeds he and his colleagues in "the League" do), but Arthur wants to bring Dr. Death home to his clan so they can use him to feed on others more efficiently. Arthur notes, with some justice, that he and his fellow vampires aren't really that bad: after all, they're just feeding on something (suffering) that would exist without them. In short, he's not monstrous, just monstrously callous.
Schutz deals with the thorny ethical issue of euthanasia, and doesn't force any conclusion upon us. But Dr. Death is clearly not a benificent force. His estrangement from his fellow almost-superheroes in the League is one sign of megalomania; proof is that he never asks his victims what they want. Many would undoubtedly accept his offer of a clean death if asked—but he doesn't ask, and that arrogation of the right to decide is what makes him scarier than Arthur and a villain, self-justifications notwithstanding. The parallel with modern medicine, which claims the right to make life and death decisions for us without asking our opinion, isn't obtrusive, but it's implicit. Indeed, the cynical might argue that doctors, like Arthur, benefit from the pain of others.
This is a skillfully crafted, compelling tale about a morally questionable protagonist and how unquestioning belief in your own rightness can lead one into evil. Thought-provoking without being preachy, which can be an exceptionally difficult balance to strike.
This is the story of Arthur and Maria, in the Central American town of Caracol after an earthquake has literally and spiritually shaken things up. Arthur is here to escape his old life and seek mysteries he can hardly imagine; Maria lives here. In an extremely clever symbolic moment, Arthur leans on one of the remaining walls of his shattered house, propping himself up and ignoring the open walls behind him.
Equally clever is how differently the two imagine themselves and others: Arthur's a hopeless romantic who imagines he's in love with Maria, 19 years younger, though he knows little about her beyond her name and age. He doesn't even know that she knows he's watching her or that she's been watching him in turn. He's emotionally immature, ignoring the (unseen to us) woman of his own age who is his sometimes lover. Maria's clear-eyed and practical; she knows she wants to be in love, and she's methodically evaluating the romantic candidates.
Arthur's life has no sense of meaning or control, and his chaotic and uncontrollable dreams reflect this. He knows only that he's seeking mystery. Maria Rios (Spanish for rivers, thus a steady flow?) knows precisely what she wants, and therefore dreams lucidly: she controls her dreams, which reflect her strong, analytical waking mind. Her potential lovers compete for her in the eponymous "mansions of the blood", where the dead linger until their loved ones stop dreaming of them and both can move on. In these struggles, Maria is ranking and comparing the candidates, but something stranger is also going on.
A confession: I don't really "get" the tropes and protocols of magic realism. I don't read it enough, and I don't enjoy the style. What do the mansions of the blood really represent? Best I can tell, they symbolize the human heart, a literal mansion of the blood but also a metaphorical portrayal of the ways we reimagine our lovers and beloveds through the filter of our heart's longings. In that sense, the mansions are the little emotional boxes in which we store others, and the title's "remotest" mansion is the one most difficult to reach: it's a final, realistic portrayal of that person's reality, stripped of the fantasies we impose upon them.
[Spoiler] All of this setup is literalized in a closing dream sequence set in Arthur's remotest mansion: Arthur kills the dream-demon he names Otros Gringo ("the other honky"), who represents the demons in his soul and his layers of self-deception. By dream-eating that demon and stripping away what it conceals, he symbolically uncovers his would-be lover's true shape—though we never learn what that shape is. This was Irvine's only really serious mis-step: after establishing Maria as an interesting, powerful character, Irvine disappears her from the story. I imagine it was necessary for Arthur's illusion of Maria to "die" so he could metaphorically triumph over self-delusion, and that in magic realism, such things are par for the course. But given that Maria is a real and compelling character for the first half of the story, the result felt more like Irvine eliminating a female character who'd served her purpose, not an organic evolution of his metaphor.
In Spanish, "caracol" refers to a spiral pattern. This is literalized by the snails that one character harvests for the purple dye that can be produced from them. But it's also metaphorical, as the story spirals around its inner core until Arthur finally reaches his own inner core.
"Mansions" shows how the maxim "show, don't tell" can be ignored, mostly to good effect, by a skilled writer. Whether you'll like the result is less clear. I found too much "tell", which made the puppet strings the author was dangling too obtrusive. Irvine's puppets had little freedom beyond what was necessary to accomplish the story. There is interesting, sometimes lyrical, writing, but in the end, the story failed to satisfy.
One of the fun things about SF/F is how endlessly the old tales can be reworked and merged with other tales to produce something new. Here, the tale is "Snow White and the seven dwarves". As in the original, Snow has been banished to the forest and falls in with seven dwarves. But these are not Disney dwarves; they are darker, more mysterious figures who have been charged with some mysterious but very important service they must perform, and who don't want Snow around to distract them.
Their service relates to mysterious "voices", and the dwarves sing each night before they sleep to keep those voices at bay. They are also digging a very deep hole (their mine) to bury something that has not yet been revealed. Their bedroom is a mystery, locked with three keys that must be used in a specific sequence to prevent the door from being barred against further entry, and when Snow hears a voice beyond the door, she persuades September, the youngest dwarf, to let her in so she can see what lies beyond the door. The dwarves' room has seven beds and seven locked chests, one of which calls out irresistably to Snow. Unable to help herself, she reaches out to touch the chest, and an orgasmic encounter with some mysterious force within the chest ensues.
Is this nothing more than gratuitous eroticism to keep the guys in the audience reading, or a clue to something more interesting? Yes to both. [spoilers] It turns out each chest contains a demon that represents some form of sin, possibly the seven deadly sins (not all are named, so we can't be sure). It seems clear the first chest Snow touched contained "Lust". Unus, oldest of the dwarves, fears that Snow may learn too much about the chests, and he replaces Snow's stepmother in this story: he places her in an enchanted sleep via the traditional poisoned apple that gets stuck in her throat. But September has fallen in love with Snow, and shakes loose the apple to free her.
The tale of Pandora then ensues, which is a bit surprising given that up to now, Snow has been much stronger and smarter than her Disney counterpart: Sure that Unus has already released and been possessed by his demon, Snow plots with September to sneak into the room while the dwarves sleep, so she can open Unus' chest to prove her suspicions. (The clever way to do this would have been to ask each of the other dwarves to touch the chest; it would be easy for them to feel whether it was still occupied.) Unfortunately, she has guessed wrong because Unus switched chests with another of the dwarves. As a result, she releases one of the demons ("Invidia" = envy). In the ensuing mess, she is possessed by the demon, and September smashes open Unus' real chest to prove it empty. Enraged, Unus kills September. It's not clear from the description whether another demon is released: "nothing but the exhalation of old air, like the last gasp of a secret" can be a description of the demon, or a literal statement that the demon was already gone. The latter seems most likely given that the chest contained Vanagloria (boastfulness), and Unus has been nothing if not boastful at his prowess in claiming to have defeated his own demon.
The writing is simple and largely unornamented, never gets in the way of the story, and is mostly effective. I found it less clear towards the end, and had to reread the last few pages to be certain of what had happened. Possibly I just wasn't sufficiently caffeinated. Snow tells us the dwarves have chosen to release the remaining demons, on the principle that this will in some way prevent any one demon from becoming too powerful, but it's not clear why this makes any kind of sense. Also, unlike in Pandora's tale, there is no sense that any of the chests contains hope. The story ends on an ominous note, with Snow hinting that she's going to be around far longer than a normal mortal lifespan. And since she's still hosting the demon, that's clearly not a "happily ever after" ending.
Bailey rapidly and skillfully immerses us in a boy's highschool nightmare: Philip is the chosen target of the school bully, Junior Starnes, and within a few paragraphs we're living his nightmare. The tone is perfect, at least from the perspective of the older Philip recalling his teen self, the writing completely fades out of the way and draws us into the story, and events get moving swiftly.
One day, trying to evade an after-school beating by Junior, Philip runs into the woods. There, he hears a high-pitched, emphatically non-human sound that nonetheless speaks to him of desperate sorrow and pain. He's the kind of kid who has rescued a wounded rabbit from a cat, only to have it die in his arms, so he can't resist helping. Drawn by the sound, he stumbles across a creature he can't initially see, other than as a blur, but that is nonetheless real. It reminded me of one of the stick-figure Sidhe in Charles de Lint's Newford series. He reaches out to comfort the wounded creature, it in turn reaches out to him, and they comfort each other.
As in the case of the creature Philip meets in the woods, the story's heart is about seeing the unseen that most people miss. The supernatural echoes how Philip's teachers, and more seriously, his fellow students, manage not to see him or help save him from being bullied. It would be nice if teachers paid enough attention to stop such things, or saw the symptoms and asked a social worker to solve the problem at its roots (the bully's home environment), but all we ever hear about in the media is the lack of any assistance. Similarly, though we often hear of teen gangs "swarming" (and beating) other children, they never seem to band together to attack bullies. Some teachers don't even recognize Philip well enough to know his real name, and call him "Peter"; it's painfully ironic that Junior knows his victim's name better than they do. Even Philip's parents also don't see him as well as they should; they're working long hours to afford his older sister's university tuition and save for his tuition.
Right from the start, Philip's adult self, narrating this old history, equates Junior with a monster, and proceeds to tell us this will be a story about "the thing in the woods", hinting at another monster. [Spoilers] We know instantly where this is going: Junior will follow Philip into the woods, and the "thing" will kill "the monster", thereby repaying Philip's kindness. Only that's not what happens, and it's a nice subversion of our expectations. In a fit of terror, pursued into the woods by Junior, Philip gathers the wounded thing into his arms and begs it to be silent so Junior won't find them. And when it won't be quiet, he holds his hand over its mouth to silence it—and in so doing, possibly smothers it. (It's wounded, and does not struggle against Philip, so it may also have died on its own.) The thing's subsequent silence is echoed in the silence that greets Philip when he leaves the woods and returns to his world: all sound has symbolically vanished along with the creature's life. Is this a literal retelling of events, or is the creature's death purely a symbolic retelling of the crushing of Philip's soul? [It occurred to me, looking back while revising this review, that smothering the creature may have been a way of showing Philip symbolically smothering himself. Possibly too overt a symbol?]
The writing style belongs to the Bradbury school, but without being nearly so ornate or drenched in imagery and not nearly so nostalgic; it's distinctive, not an hommage. (Besides... did Bradbury ever write a "childhood as horror story" tale like this one?) Still, Bailey's voice is resonant and at times even poetic, and the details (such as portraying the bully and his enabler as Grendel and his mother) are excellent. A powerful, evocative piece.
This is the tale of the Blessed Lady of Dark Forever, Lady Death by another name, and I chose that namesake deliberately: in Forever, Pollack is writing in Neil Gaiman's Sandman vein. That's not to say her writing is in any way derivative or a pastiche: she has her own distinctive voice and goals, and shifts her voice gracefully from the poetry of Forever's supernatural world to a more mundane style when Forever enters the human world for a time.
Here, the story starts as one of sibling rivalry, as often happens in Sandman, with the rivalry taking the form of a seemingly innocent contest: Forever's sisters propose a contest in which each must predict the fate of a human, and the loser must spend a day on Earth in a human body. Forever sees no harm in this, and tries to "fix" the contest by choosing someone she is certain will die within a year—and as Death, she knows whereat she speaks. However, her sister Sky must always win these contests, and Forever knows this: that makes it surprising she doesn't suspect a trap. Ocean and Sky predict the dying woman will be transformed into a tree, which is the kind of unsubtle hint the contest is rigged that Forever should pick up on, yet Forever fails to notice. As her sisters predicted, the dying woman transforms through (their?) divine intervention into a lilac tree (the form taken by the nympth Syrinx to escape Apollo's love). Subsequently, the tree woman acquires a reputation for healing the sick.
Having lost the bet, and angry at herself for being so foolish, Forever descends to Earth and enters the body of a young woman, Karen. Although she is nominally there for only a day, something happens that prevents her from leaving the woman's body, or even remembering her true identity. She lives in Karen's body for months, reminded daily at the time of her first entry into the woman's body that something is wrong, though no doctor or psychiatrist can determine the cause of her daily malaise. That cause, a reminder that she has finished her day's penance and can return, is unlikely to be discovered by mundane means. When she turns to the spiritualist Andrew Crow-Talker for help, he catches a glimpse of the reason and her true identity, but she turns away and refuses to press him for details.
Karen seeks many remedies, eventually settling on romance. She falls in "like" with Bob Hand (the relationship is described so dispassionately it doesn't seem to be love), and when she meets his sister Eleanora, develops a far stronger bond with her. It's not carnal in any way, but rather a reflection of Forever remembering her bond with her supernatural sisters. [Spoilers] When Eleanora sickens with a rare disease that will soon kill her, Forever fixates on saving her—but nothing works until her doctor tells her of the lilac tree that heals the sick. Forever takes Eleanora there, and the tree offers to save her on one condition: Forever must return to her home and take up once more the mantle of Death. We learn the true reason Forever never returned home after her day was over: she wanted to run away from her responsibilities, thereby explaining her lack of foresight and inability to escape her fleshly prison. From the love she bears Eleanora, she returns home, and the story ends.
The premise is skillfully established, and events follow naturally from it. There isn't really anything vastly new here, since the notion of Death needing to learn sympathy for her human and other charges is an old, well-trodden literary path. But it's still a well-written, entertaining story. I found insufficient clues that Forever was dissatisfied with her deathly responsibilities, making the concluding explanations ring a bit hollow, if not precisely false. Another mis-step is referring to The Kindly Ones using the phrase "as some called cancer"; the Eumenides have too much resonance as the Greek Furies (gods of vengeance) to be used in this way. These problems detract from, but don't ruin, what is otherwise a decent entry into the genre of Death stories.
This story starts out and continues in full-on Bradbury mode, with an elegant and simple writing style that completely vanishes behind the story despite occasional lovely flourishes, such as describing the model train couplers as "linked fists" (perfect!) and "racing moonlight" (pretty!). I never really "got" the attraction of model trains as a child, but Onopa helped me understand why others like them by evoking a nostalgic flash back to one of my own childhood treasures: a tethered model helicopter that swung around a tiny (1-foot radius?) circle and let you maneuver it to pick up and drop cargo around the circle.
This story offers a dramatic contrast with Silence earlier in this issue, since the overall atmosphere is much happier—at least initially. The Atchison is part of the genre of "let's take a familiar idea and move forward a few years to see how it changes" stories. Here, the trains are equipped with surprisingly sophisticated artificial intelligence, the landscape grows and changes, and the model people move around and interact. Very nanotech, or perhaps microtech since everything's large enough to be visible. All very well so far as it goes, but there are hints something stranger is going on; most significantly, the train set's microcosmic world appears to be growing even though Matt, the kid who received it as a gift, is certain he didn't build some of the new additions. When Matt makes the two parts of this world overlap (the "retro" people from the world of steam trains and the futuristic people from a world with an advanced monorail), fighting breaks out. Something has clearly gone nastily wrong.
[Spoilers] Sure enough, the artificial intelligence in the system has evolved, and is beginning to run more than a little amok. One of the lead characters in this virtual universe (call them "The Sims" for convenience), "The Chief", is the conductor of the steam train and serves as Matt's main interface with the virtual world. Matt asks him to arbitrate between the two worlds to stop the fighting before it gets any farther out of hand. That seems to work just fine; the fighting stops and people from both worlds happily intermingle. But it turns out not to be such a good thing that two worlds are now collaborating. The Chief has an extramarital affair with the conductor of the future train, children begin to appear and multiply, and the Sims begin raiding Matt's garden and kitchen when they need more resources. As the Sims grow more sophisticated and more real, their expeditions beyond their tiny world grow ever bolder.
Matt becomes sufficiently scared by their independence that he feels the need to reboot the system—and fails, since the Sims saw this coming and have taken measures to protect themselves and make backups. The story ends when they capture Matt's parents and truss them up in bed, like Lilliputians capturing Gulliver. Then they capture Matt too...
Early on, Matt works with the Chief to fix minor problems. But the Chief soon turns nasty, stalling for time and blaming Matt for what has gone wrong with the virtual world. Nothing in Matt's personality suggests he's subsconsciously seeking such a nasty outcome. Because the leader of the future portion of the Sims' world strongly resembles a younger version of Matt's mother, this hints that the virtual world's artificial intelligence is trying to manipulate Matt. Onopa has written an interesting little cautionary tale about our software creations escaping our control. It's meant to be chilling, as in the best of Bradbury's darker work, and it largely succeeds.
This starts out as a simple pastoral tale of a young boy who is sold by his parents, who already have more children than they need, to a Gypsy in exchange for a horse that they do need. (As an etymological note, there is some debate over whether "Gypsy" is considered to be as offensive to the Romani peoples as "Eskimo" is to the Yupik and Inuit. Self-identification varies, but I suspect the characters in the story are more likely to refer to themselves as Romani or various variant forms of that name.) When the boy is blinded at an early age by a fever, his new owner beats him and almost abandons him, but instead sells him to an old Gypsy woman who has no family of her own to help her, and who needs a strong set of hands. She names him Bireli. I couldn't find any translation of the name in a quick Google, so I can't say whether the name is symbolic.
The two develop a loving grandmother–grandson relationship, as she teaches him all the skills he needs to survive and help her with her own survival. It's a necessary symbiosis, but also clearly a loving one, and Bireli flourishes, growing and exploring his world with his other senses, and gradually coming to understand the world in a way the sighted often cannot. It's not that we lack the ability, but rather that we are so distracted by sight we tend to take the easy way out and let our other senses wither.
When the old woman dies, Bireli is left alone, and although there are many things he can do without sight, there are many he cannot (such as driving his wagon to a town where he can sell his wares and obtain food). Fortunately, a wind spirit happens along while he is still mourning his loss, and takes pity on him when he calls out to her. So few humans can see her or her kind that this is something remarkable to her, and as in so many fairy tales, the two quickly fall in love and commence an *ahem* tempestuous romance.
[spoilers] Things seem likely to become a "happily ever after" until Bireli begins to imagine what his lover looks like, and that imagination quickly becomes a desperate need to actually see her. When his frustration at being unable to see her turns into unbearable sadness, he weeps, and this causes her to weep too. When she does, her tears drip into his eyes, healing them and restoring his vision—and when he turns his gaze upon his lover, he sees what one might expect: nothing. And because he sees nothing, it becomes impossible for him to see her any more, and their happiness is ended forever. The wind spirit flees into the sky, never to return to Earth, and Bireli goes on to a future that is at least temporarily bleak; though he can now see and take care of himself, he has lost his lover.
On the one hand, this can be seen as nothing more than a tragic love story in the classical mythological tradition. But on a deeper level, the story is about how we create fantasies about those we love, and how we risk losing them if we insist on those fantasies and then make the mistake of looking so close that we discover the reality and wreck the fantasy. It's also about how these fantasies are not necessarily harmful, since they often give us what we need to ignore the imperfections of our loved ones—and vice versa, of course. Like all the best morality tales, this message is implicit rather than waved in our faces, and as a result, it's an eloquently conveyed moral and a compelling story.
Popkes delivers a nightmare scenario that can't possibly end well: Max, our narrator, is pressganged by the Gestapo to assist in medical research on a particularly nasty disease that creates tote Männer, the German term for dead men (i.e., zombies). Popkes provides a mostly credible scientific explanation for how the infection spreads into the brain, and posits that zombies crave brains to spread the disease. The latter isn't credible, since once eaten, brains could no longer provide a means to spread the disease. We can handwave this by assuming it was a revision error: if the zombies crave flesh to sustain themselves, not brains, then the explanation hangs together well enough to be a plausible hard SF premise.
Max is an unsympathetic character, though he's married and clearly loves his wife and son. But he's completely, monstrously indifferent to the Gypsies and Jews provided by the Gestapo as lab rats. Trained as an engineer rather than a biologist, he takes on the role of helping to weaponize the zombies as literal shock troops and to ramp up production by applying a little "German engineering". His investigation of the problem is a nasty parody of the hard SF "scientific inquiry" genre: Max solves technical problems such as how to deliver zombies to the target and keep them warm enough to fight in winter. Like the title crocodiles, they function only under warm conditions, when they become formidable killers. Of course, you don't want them turning on your troops either, and that's another engineering problem Max helps to solve.
[Spoiler] Inevitably, the zombies turn on their creators, and the Nazis are hoist on their own petard. But in the field (outside the lab), the zombies have evolved in ways that weren't seen under laboratory conditions: they can feed themselves and build fires to survive the winter. Whether England (infected via V2 rockets and wounded troops returned home for treatment) and Germany (bombed using Allied versions of the zombies) will survive the growing apocalypse is doubtful.
The story's title is also a pointed metaphor for Max et alia, who are cold-blooded killers who lack the excuse of their reptilian namesakes; crocodiles, after all, must play their evolved role to survive. Crocodiles sharply critiques scientists who work in the defense industry and believe they're doing nothing more than solving interesting engineering challenges, with no human implications. Popkes also reminds us of the perils of modern genetic engineering and biotechnology; it's easy to foresee experiments escaping the lab, particularly when conducted with malevolent intent. The results probably won't be zombies, but may be equally unforseen and nasty. (Don't buy it? See the current issue of Scientific American for thoughts on future bioterrorism.) Crocodiles is as chilling and horrific as anything I've read since Yolen's Briar Rose, and will leave deep wounds in my peace of mind for some time.
I have only one serious criticism: we see no evidence of any Germans with a different perspective than Max's. You can handwave this as the author's choice of a self-involved narrator who focuses exclusively on his own concerns. But an author as skillful as Popkes should have hinted somewhere that other Germans exist—by reporting horror on the victims' faces, or having someone try to destroy the project—thereby showing that Popkes knows Max isn't typical of all Germans. I saw no such hints, turning the Germans into unnuanced villains. Recent historical research has confirmed not only that most Germans eagerly embraced Nazism, but that a sizeable proportion knew of and encouraged the horrors being perpetrated by their government. But many Germans resisted actively, even risking their lives (I personally know two Germans whose families suffered terribly as a result). That weakens an otherwise powerful and scary story.
©2004–2018 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved