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Stories in Fantasy and Science Fiction, November/December 2010 issue

Stories reviewed:

Jablokov: Plinth Without Figure
Sterling: The Exterminator's Want Ad
Roessner: Crumbs
Reed: Dead Man's Run
Bowes: Venues
Oltion: Planning Ahead
Foster: Free Elections: A Mad Amos Malone Story
Alexander: Ware of the Worlds
Kessel: The Closet
Duncan: Swamp City Lament
Bisson: Teen Love Science Club
Cowdrey: Death Must Die

Jablokov: Plinth Without Figure

Frederick is a cross between an urban planner and civil engineer, hired to revamp the Carver Square district of an unnamed city. He's not an immediately likeable character, but he is something of an enigma and therefore interesting: On the one hand, he comes off as a soul-less quant boy, at home only with data and patterns, and he describes his work as nothing more than compiling hard data, divorced of human inputs, to reveal the patterns that let him create a new and more livable urban design. Jablokov nails down that aspect of the character quickly, with deft and subtle strokes of the pen: The character is always "Frederick", never "Fred". He speaks and thinks as an engineer, referring to a sunken park as "below grade", not sunken. He collects data more by measuring biological responses such as skin galvanic response and GPS locations of reactions to the city rather than sitting down and getting to know to the people. He's a complex character precisely because he understands people so well, yet not well enough to form any emotional connection with them. Yet there's clearly more to him than that: he understands the emotional affect inspired by the many aspects of a city that most of us ignore, and does this well enough to recognize the "aesthetic sabotage" that is the signature of (and perhaps a deliberate challenge by) his ex, Andrea, who does similar work and who is clearly sending him a message only he could receive.

A simple but profound quote within the first paragraph sets the tone and the conflict: "Too much data in one place bred superstitions. The mind always imposed patterns." This is both Jablokov reminding us of a fundamental aspect of human nature, and Frederick commenting almost dismissively about the human tendency towards irrationality. (Reminds me of an old XKCD cartoon in which the protagonist calls on God so he can report this as a "bug" in the software.) Though Frederick understands the inner patterns of the people he's observing from a biological perspective (e.g., heart rates, pupil dilation) and from an outward perspective (e.g., the ways they react to their living environment), it's all purely mechanistic: there's no gestalt, and no human connection. As a result, Frederick is always alone: for the first 5 pages of the story, we never see him interact with another person as anything more than patterns in the data. Thus, when we learn that the people he's studying feel the presence of a "ghost" amidst Carver Square, this evidence of superstition and an irrationally imposed pattern seems likely to challenge Frederick's worldview.

When we finally meet Andrea, she's a very different person from Frederick—and the only one who calls him "Fred". Whereas he deliberately places himself in the background, and designs urban and other spaces for unobtrusive comfort ("I let people tell their stories"), Andrea forces her stories on others. He wants to fade into his compositions and leave no trace of the artist; she wants to thrust herself in your face, making herself an overt part of her work that lives on long after she's gone. She desperately wants to not be ignored, and this may be why she had many affairs while she was living with Frederick: Frederick's entirely passionless account of their relationship and the lack of any emotional details of his relationships with his "friends" makes it clear that while he understands human psychology well from a scientific perspective, he has no emotional understanding. This makes it clear why the two lovers came together and why they quickly fell apart—they complemented each other so perfectly that the initial comfortable fit soon evolved to focus on their near-complete incompatibility. Through these characters, Jablokov shows a subtle understanding of human relationships: we must be different enough to complement each other, but not so different we're incompatible.

[Spoilers] The plot, such as it is, recounts their encounter in Carver Square, many years after their breakup, and a failed attempt to gain some sort of closure for their relationship. Frederick interprets the ghost as a sort of gestalt that integrates the many subliminal psychological cues that arise from the urban space he's been shaping, not as something real. In marked contrast, Andrea has obsessively researched the ghost, and learned its identity and story: she's Kathleen, a young girl who was killed by a streetcar nearly a century earlier. Where Frederick feels the archeological history of his area, including the streetcar tracks, as a non-human but living whole, Andrea is the one obsessed by details, and she knows every detail of Kathleen's human story. When Frederick accuses her of subtly reshaping the space he's revamping to create the ghost, she admits to wanting to create a memorial for Kathleen, but insists on the ghost's reality. In the end, it's not clear whose interpretation of the situation is correct—possibly both are. When the couple part in the story's closing moments, the cause of their breakup unresolved, Andrea nearly recreates the streetcar accident by walking into the path of a car, which would have literally made her part of her own work. But Frederick saves her, and when he does, he feels the presence of the ghost for the first time as something real and human.

The title alludes to what is described in gestalt psychology as "figure–ground relationships": the plinth is background or support (in this case, the architectural ground) on which the art is displayed, and the figure is the nominal object we're supposed to focus on. In that context, the story's strength lies in how subtly Jablokov explore's the artist's (and, in a very meta sense, the writer's) tension between capturing something that is completely true to itself, independent of the artist, and creating something in which their own ghostly presence is felt throughout. The story's characters, who are fully realized and deeply human, are another strength; every detail of how they see and interact with their world is consistent and true to who they are, and they're sufficiently complex to be more than three-dimensional. The lack of resolution is also true to the characters: people that different may dance together briefly, and may reflect brilliantly off each other, but can never adhere permanently. The one significant weakness is that if you're looking for an event-driven plot, you may feel that nothing much happened. But taken on its own terms, Plinth is a brilliant little piece of characterisation and psychological exploration, and the emotional plot is a strong one.

Sterling: The Exterminator's Want Ad

This one's an interesting departure from the current crop of doom and gloom stories about our near future. Don't get me wrong: there's nothing remotely cheery about this story. But unusually (uniquely?), here its the Lefties (socialists) who have won rather than the ugly neocons who usually infest most despotic post-collapse stories. Here, the post-apocalypse world is run by the American Left. But because this is Sterling writing in his restrained rather than gonzo mode, the information density is as high as you'd expect and the extrapolative rigor stays rigorous. And nothing is as simple as the Left–Right dichotomy suggests.

Bobby, our narrator, is an unrepentant conservative reactionary, climate change denier, and unabashed mercenary who despises everything that's happened to his world. Before the simultaneous economic and environmental collapse that ended the old world he was so comfortable in, he was a successful hacker, making a good living sustaining a capitalist, extravagantly consumerist, corporation-run America by gaming the social networks to keep his corporate employers firmly in control of the socially networked world. He's not even remotely a nice person, and Sterling portrays him convincingly as a self-centered sociopath who's only interested in seeing that he gets what he wants. Post-collapse, he's been imprisoned by the government of his area for the crime of seeing himself as a victimized revolutionary who still believes the old ways are best, never mind that even Bobby knows that he and his kind were the ones who brought on the disaster. He has nothing kind to say about the "hippies", "Liberated Socialist Masses", and "termite people" who now run his world, and says it at great length and with great vituperation.

If you're a member of the U.S. Republican party, a neocon, a libertarian, or an anarchist, you'll either love Bobby as the unsung hero–victim of this story, or you'll hate him as a cruel but not inaccurate parody of everything you believe in. But Sterling doesn't spare the Left either. Though we only see them through Bobby's eyes, they clearly have their own flaws. These range from the trivial and petty, such as Bobby's suggestion that they don't bathe nearly often enough and smoke too much dope, to the considerably more serious: Bobby and his fellow prisoners are constantly monitored by video, forced to play games ("Dungeons and Decency") designed to teach them "right thought" and to work together for the collective good, and forced to engage in self-criticism similar to the self-critiques the Chinese communists under Mao used to punish political prisoners and party members alike and keep them in line. The latter is the source of the "want ad" in the title; after he's been paroled (after being Amnesty Internationaled, in a nice little irony), Bobby must provide full disclosure of his nasty side to any prospective business partners. Bobby has set himself up as an insect exterminator, and he particularly likes to kill the termites that have infested habitations since the hurricanes that ushered in climate change leveled Washington and surrounding areas. It's no coincidence that he refers to his former captors as "termite people", since it's clear what he'd like to do to them if only he were the one to hold the whip.

[Spoiler] On the surface, Exterminator is in no way subtle: Sterling clubs us over the head with his message, and in case you might be one of the few F&SF readers likely to sympathize with Bobby, he has Bobby betray his former partner and fellow capitalist, Claire, to weaken that sympathy. But look deeper and you'll see a remarkable amount of nuance. Lurking beneath the near-parodic portrayal of Bobby, and his own exaggerated portrayal of the socialists, are some deep truths about the flaws of both extremes. There are also nice jabs at the hypocrisy of the "Right" who criticize behaviors in others that they cheerfully indulge in themselves. And the final message from Bobby that closes the story is that no matter how much we hate people like him, they're a necessary evil because someone has to do the nasty jobs. You might be tempted to disregard that message because of who is saying it, but it's nonetheless a sobering reminder that not everyone is nice, or wants to be nice, and that because such people will never go away, we'll have to find a way to live with them. Ideally a way that doesn't make us as bad as they are, or force them to turn violently against us—perhaps by becoming the title's exterminator. Sterling provides no easy answers and a disturbing sense that the Left–Right polarization isn't nearly as simple as we like to think.

Roessner: Crumbs

Winifred is an old diabetic lady living in an impoverished part of an unnamed big city. As the story begins, she's just putting the finishing touches on an elaborate gem of a gingerbread house, detailed so finely that the roof is even made of overlapping fish-scale shingles. Roessner has clearly done extensive research, since the details of the house construction are precise and create a sense of a true craftsman doing her work (that is, both Roessner and Winifred). But as in the best fiction, only the telling details of that research are retained, and the rest somehow sits in the background, where it creates an overall sense of rightness in the description: everything fits precisely within a larger context Roessner is too skilful to describe explicitly.

It's no spoiler to note that echoes of a far older tale are at play here, or that Winifred is a witch of sorts; when it's time to get the plot rolling, she summons up a breeze and throws carefully hoarded gingerbread crumbs into the wind to summon visitors; some crumbs are sweet, intended to bring the pure and innocent children to an open house she's announced to show off her skills, but others are bitter and intended to bring a very different class of youth. Clearly this is a Hansel and Gretel retelling, updated for a modern age without losing its ancient and historical resonance; the reversal of the role of the crumbs (to lure, not to help the children find their way home) is a clue whose meaning won't be explained until much later. In a delightfully macabre revelation, we learn that Winifred's diabetes may have resulted from overindulging in the sweet variety of children when she was much younger, and now, she's forced to survive on the older, more bitter ones. Indeed, as the sweet ones come and gape in awe at her gingerbread house, their mere proximity almost sends Winifred into a diabetic fit. But to ensure that the bitter ones also come, she's manipulated the local press into publishing pictures of her holding her winning cheque for $1000 to bait the trap. There are several reminders of the origin of the word "witch" (wise one), and Winifred is not the one-dimensional evil villain of Disney stories.

[Spoilers] Roessner returns us to the authentic Grimm's fairy tales—which were grim indeed, not the Disneyfied, diabetes-inducing stories most of us know. Winifred reminds us of the ancient pact between the sheep and the wolves: in older days, forest peasants would release their surplus children into the woods when they could no longer feed them, pretending that they were actually freeing the children to cross the woods and find a new future, but knowing in their hearts that they were delivering the children into the hands of the witchfolk. It's a chilling reminder that things have not changed much even though we nominally left the forests so long ago. [A look back: It's also a reminder about how easily we blind ourselves to reality by choosing what myths we believe.] The youths who eventually come to rob and kill Winifred have themselves been abandoned and turned loose into the jungle of a modern city, their parents fooling themselves that the children will survive and find something better. It's hardly surprising that such children go bad, nor that Winifred turns the tables on them with superhuman strength conferred by the energy she steals from them. When she turns them into her source of sustenance, providing another century of youth before she must kill again to survive, the retelling of the fairy tale is nearly complete. But not quite.

Crumbs is a seemingly simple and unadorned retelling of a faery tale, in which the characters have been updated to take account of social evolution since the story was first told; on that level, it's skillfully done but nothing remarkable. I enjoy such stories specifically for that reason: any story that's stayed with us for centuries and sometimes millennia has something important to tell us, and though the tune may change, the song remains the same. But Crumbs delivers a one–two punch that makes it far more than just a simple retelling. The first punch is purely superficial, in the form of a straighforward and satisfying tale of evildoers getting their just desserts (to perhaps overextend the food metaphor *G*). But the second punch comes when the soon to be dead girl thief that Winifred has captured moans how she should have remembered the Hansel and Gretel story as a warning to children. In a deliciously chilling moment, Winifred gently corrects her: in truth, the story was spread by her people to give children false hope (i.e., to believe that they can turn the tables in the witch until they realize—too late—that the witch holds all the cards). That's a strong conclusion to a tale that is as meticulously and deliciously crafted as the gingerbread house with which it begins.

Reed: Dead Man's Run

Wade Tanner is dead, but this hasn't stopped him from communicating with the friends in his old running group, seemingly to arrange another run so he can participate vicariously in their run. The mystery of how he's communicating with everyone makes for a promising start to the story, told mostly from the point of view of Lucas Pepper, one of his running buddies. Given the story context, with smart phones automatically filtering spam and letting through only callers on an approved list, it seems likely there's a technological solution rather than something ghostly in the supernatural sense.

As usual, Reed's characters are detailed and distinct. Lucas offers a good example: he has "... a raspy voice that always seems a little loud, rolling out of the wide, expressive mouth. Sun and wind can be rough on runners but worse enemies have beaten up that face. The bright brown eyes never stop jumping." The nature of those enemies isn't clear until we learn that Lucas is a recovering alcoholic who wears an ankle bracelet that will inform the police if he starts drinking again. Other characters are equally well drawn. They're real people who are just standing to the side, out of the spotlight, rather than spearcarriers who exist only to play a role on the stage. Each might be an interesting protagonist in their own right from the hints that are dropped about who they are.

Reed also nails his description of the friendships and rivalries and petty frictions that spring up in any group that centers around an activity (here, long-distance running), and the shared sense of purpose that keeps them together despite that. Something about the way the story is written reminded me of the kind of zenlike, meditative state you achieve when you push yourself past a certain level of exertion. (I'm not a long-distance runner, but I've enjoyed a similar "endorphin high" while playing hockey.) Reed tells his story through a series of flashbacks, but never forgets that the present-day part of the story occurs during a long-distance run. The character dialogue even becomes increasingly telegraphic, with chopped-off sentences, as the characters begin to run out of breath from their exertions.

Reed's portrayal of a bleak future America, its infrastructure slowly degrading and falling apart after global warming has drowned Florida and other parts of the Gulf coast, is minutely detailed. Nor does Reed neglect the human aspects of this situation. The people of this age of decline persist and struggle, but they're not the kind of noble survivors who inspire us with their courage; rather theirs is a stubborn, truculent, almost grudging insistence that life will continue. An extensive description of the decrepit and fading YMCA where the runners meet to start their run has the ring of truth; it reminded me of one of the less savory gyms I've visited. Despite the grimness, Reed is not without a sense of irony, running through the list of onerous and restrictive regulations for using the YMCA and concluding with a sign that says "This is your YMCA". Not.

As the story progresses, we learn that Wade is indeed present as an "avatar", a computerized backup of the real person. Unlike most people, Wade had been "blessed" with rich parents who died young, so he was able to afford to copy an ongoing stream of data on his life into his backup. It's enough of an accumulation of information that the avatar has seemingly achieved true sentience, or something close enough that it doesn't matter. As the story progresses, more and more clues are revealed, and we learn through a series of flashbacks that Wade ran afoul of another runner, Carl Jaeger, some time in the past. Jaeger was a better runner, brought to the city to become the star on the local university's track team, and not only did he steal Wade's position on the team, he also stole Wade's girlfriend. When Wade is found dead shortly before the story begins, Jaeger is the natural suspect and he's imprisoned until the legal system finally works out that there isn't enough evidence to convict him and turns him loose.

Did he really do it? Wade's avatar doesn't know, and like the ghost in a traditional supernatural murder mystery (but here, a literal "ghost in the machine"), he charges his friends to find out who killed him. Serious though this is, Reed again finds quiet humor in a throwaway line when Wade is telling Lucas what it's like to be an artificial intelligence. Generally quite pleasant, it seems, but still a work in progress: "Of course, the sense of smell needs work, but that's probably good news. When it's polypro season." That's an experienced athlete's nod to the (in)famously stinky nature of polypropylene, which is a favored fabric for exercise gear because it wicks away moisture and dries so quickly.

[Spoilers] After we've solved the initial mystery of how a dead man is talking to his old friends, the real mystery begins: Who really killed Wade? There's a strong suggestion that it may have been Jaeger, but the clues don't really add up, and we're soon disabused of that notion. During the long run that lies at the heart of the story, the group of friends encounters Jaeger seemingly running the same course, and what started out as a friendly run and a rememberance of Wade turns into something very much resembling hounds hunting down a fox. But when Jaeger is finally brought to bay, he makes a persuasive case that he couldn't have been the killer, and that the real killer may actually have been one of the group of friends. As the friends continue their run, the story abruptly transforms into something very unusual indeed: The isolation of the run becomes startlingly similar to the kind of murder mystery in which the suspects and the detective are isolated in a remote house in the woods or possibly a ship at sea, and nobody can escape until the killer has been revealed and brought to justice. As in a traditional murder mystery, it gradually becomes clear that each of the friends may have had a reason to kill Wade. That's a nice bit of repurposing of a traditional mystery motif into a new and SFnal context.

We gradually assemble a fuller picture of Wade, learning in particular that he had an overly keen sense of what was right: firing employees at his store with no warning and no excuse when they transgress, turning Lucas in to the police when Lucas gets drunk at a party and tries to drive home, and so on. Lucas initially interprets this to mean that one of the victims of Wade's sense of justice chose to gain their revenge through murder—and then, in a burst of insight, wonders if it might be the avatar of a rich but corrupt man Wade once ruined by setting the police on his trail; that man subsequently committed suicide, but it's possible he created an avatar first and that the avatar hired someone to kill Wade. Given how human Wade's avatar has become, and the absence of anything resembling Asimov's laws of robotics for software artificial intelligences (a surprising omission from modern SF!), this is an interesting exploration of the consequences of avatar technology and it makes for a clever variant on a standard mystery template.

As evidence mounts, it seems increasingly likely that an avatar is responsible. Harris, a young runner who has until now been positioned firmly outside the group of friends, seen mostly as an annoying hanger-on they can't get rid of, seems a likely suspect. Once Lucas reveals this possibility, Harris leaves the friends, seemingly offended by the implication. But then he tries to run down and kill Lucas, revealing himself as the killer. Though Harris is much younger than Lucas, he lacks the older man's experience as a runner; he doesn't know his body well enough to husband his dwindling resources and catch Lucas, who essentially runs him into the ground. Lest that seem implausible, I can confirm its reality based on my own hockey experience; an equally old friend and I have beaten a duo of much younger and faster players by outthinking them and knowing how to use our lesser reserves more wisely. But with the killer caught and brought to justice, Reed isn't done with us yet: in the closing moments, Lucas finds himself wondering whether Wade's avatar, seemingly indistinguishable from his original, might also have inherited Wade's insatiable desire to punish those whom he thinks deserve it—possibly including his original. Did Wade's avatar kill him because of some sin only the avatar could know about? We'll never know, for the story ends at this point, and that final mystery makes for a satisfying lack of resolution.

Like the Sterling story in this issue, this is not a happy future. I always find myself of two minds about such things: sure, they're honest, and usually intended to motivate readers to take action to avoid this dystopian outcome, but I suspect most people emerge from reading the stories feeling so depressed they can't even conceive of taking action to prevent the story environment from becoming real. A minor flaw with the story is that it felt too long—possibly by about 20%. I don't think this undermines the story significantly (it never feels "flabby" or padded), and it may even have been an intentional trick by Reed to emulate the sense of duration that accompanies a long run. Despite that quibble, this remains an interesting and skillfully crafted piece of work, with a nice hook at the end.

Bowes: Venues

Another in Bowes' series of autobiographical—or are they?—tales, Venues is a series of vignettes about various readings the author–narrator has given over the years. The series begins with an "arts zoo" in which he and several other writers are literally caged as part of a publicity stunt that gets them some television coverage; "media is our oxygen", as he notes. There's not much in the way of plot here, other than the narrator's gradual seduction of a younger gay man, something mostly described through hints, and the primary narrative progression is the narrator's journey from "terror to nonchalance without, perhaps, ever achieving competence" as a reader-aloud of his own stories.

As in previous installments, Bowes reveals his gift as a raconteur; it's an intimately, honestly, smoothly, seamlessly told tale by the kind of decent someone you'd probably love to have as a friend. But it's not clear to me why it's an F&SF story. The fantasy element is shallow, and possibly nonexistant: the ghosts of various older writers may—or may not—be attending the readings, but it nonetheless seems a bit of a stretch to call this a fantasy. From their descriptions, the ghosts seem to be allusions to various famous SF writers: Brockman (who is "bitter and disillusioned; it's his shtick") sounds an awful lot like Barry Malzberg; Herzog, a small man, almost childlike in stature yet famous for pugnacious feuding, sounds an awful lot like Harlan Ellison. [A look back: I haven't read Saul Bellow's Herzog, so I can't say whether this is a literary allusion. From what little I know of Bellow, it seems a plausible suspicion.] There are others who sounded vaguely familiar, but whom I couldn't quite pin down.

In the end, I confess I'm not sure what this story was really about: it's not literally about "the biz", but neither do the ghosts seem to have much to say metaphorically about the spirit(s) of science fiction that linger in the minds of the current authors, who carry on their tradition. Venues remains an excellent piece of work in terms of its craft. I'm just not sure it's a story, or an SFnal one.

Oltion: Planning Ahead

This is the story of Nathan, who has brought Frieda home after a really promising first date, hoping for (to borrow the coy style of the editor's introduction) amorous adventures. Everything seems to be going well until Frieda heads to the bathroom to freshen up, and discovers that Nathan's run out of toilet paper... and kleenex... and paper towels... and before their nascent relationship can be consummated, condoms. In the kind of scene you'd expect to see in a Hollywood comedy, only better done, Nathan flees his apartment, runs down to the local corner store, and bulls his way to the head of the line, waving a box of condoms and proclaiming the urgency of his mission. The amused fellow shoppers let him through, but by the time he's made it home, Frieda is long gone.

[Spoilers] This experience scars Nathan, and unleashes his inner hoarder. Within short order, he's not only stocked up on toilet paper and other necessities—a rational response—but also on other things that make sense only to a hoarder (e.g., not one, but two backup DVD players). Soon he even has to move into a house to make room for his stuff. This obsessive desire to ensure that he never runs out of anything he might conceivably need, presumably accompanied by the associated personality quirks, lead him to a long bachelor life—though not necessarily an empty one, since he apparently has good enough friends that several stage an "intervention" designed to help him clear out his junk. They fail.

So Nathan returns to his old ways, and when he meets Frieda many years later, the two rekindle some of the magic of their original near-relationship over a long, happy dinner. So far, so good: a sweet, straightforward ending to a straightforward (if slight) story. But the take-home message with which the story ends is that if Nathan became more involved in his community, making the society more stable through his involvement, he would feel less fear of social collapse and less need to hoard. That seems unlikely from either a psychological perspective (hoarding is not a rational decision; it's a psychological illness) or a social perspective—though I hope that the movement towards "transition towns" will prove me wrong on this point. My other quibble with the story is that it really doesn't have anything in the way of SFnal content. It could have happened today, and been published in any non-genre magazine, and nobody would have raised an eyebrow.

[Adult content warning] I conclude with a whinge to the editor: In what way did this story require an "adult content" warning in the editor's introduction? The Bowes story in the same issue lacks one, and is much kinkier and therefore more interesting... er... more likely to offend. I understand the risk of losing subscribers, but it's hard to imagine how Oltion's tame description of the couple "making out" and needing a condom could possibly offend. I could understand the need for such a warning had Nathan and Frieda suddenly realized that good sex doesn't require a condom because it doesn't require penile intercourse, and if Oltion had gone on to give us several pages of hot *ahem* blow by blow descriptions. But he doesn't. Anyone offended by what Oltion wrote probably doesn't read F&SF anyway—and needs a good orgasm or two so they can learn to loosen up a bit. *G*

Foster: Free Elections: A Mad Amos Malone Story

I haven’t read Foster’s work in years, for no reason other than it and I haven’t been in the same place at the same time, so it was a pleasant surprise to encounter him again in F&SF. Here, he’s in fine form as a spinner of tall tales, introducing me for the first time to Amos Malone, “slightly over or slightly under seven feet tall, depending on how long it had been since he last made the acquaintance of a bath”. The story’s full of such witticisms, some right out in plain view or even right in your face (responding to the story’s villain observation that our hero is quite a pile, Malone observes that the villain is “a pile” himself, referring to an uncommon synonym for hemorrhoids) and some a bit subtler (Malone is a both a mountain man and a man-mountain).

The story’s conflict arises when Versus Wrathwell, an elderly fellow with an evil aspect, sets himself atop a town’s only source of water and refuses to budge, leaving the town dry until they pay him a thousand dollars. But this is no casual squat; Wrathwell can’t be moved, whether by man or horse team, and even the town sherriff can’t shoot him, since bullets won’t touch the man (they simply hang there in space). When Malone hears of this situation in the saloon, he wonders aloud about the last words attributed to Wrathwell before he went on his sitting spree: the oldster says he’s going to “set a spell” ("set" being a colloquial variant of "sit"), but Malone wonders whether he might have said “set a spell”, emphasizing the supernatural aspects of the situation.

[Spoilers] Given his description, you might think of Malone as more of a man of action, but it’s clear he’s got a brain the equal of his formidable body. Rather than attempting to move Wrathwell, he instead engages the villain in a battle of wills to see who can sit the longest and eventually, who can sit the stillest. The duel continues, with each man growing ever stiller until (in a bizarre turn), the outermost parts of their bodies begin to fly outward and orbit around them. This continues until Wrathwell’s body dissolves entirely, never to reform; Malone, imperturbable as the mountain he resembles, returns to his original form and continues as if nothing much has happened.

When pressed by the one man patient enough to wait out the duel to its ending, Malone explains that what happened was about all the tiny parts of the body electing to stay together of their own free will in his case, thereby explaining the title, but not in Wrathwell’s case: what we’d call atoms, Malone calls elections because of this behavior. In describing them, he invokes the names of Democritus (one of the first to speculate about the existence of atoms) and Maria Sklodowska (better known to most as Marie Curie, one of only two people to have ever won a second Nobel prize). Clearly, Malone is highly educated, appearances notwithstanding; we already know he's scarily intelligent. The final puns we’re left with are about “setting” in the sense of concrete and “free elections” as a probable pun on “free electrons”.

Like the best tall tales, Elections is restrained in the telling, with no outright belly laughs but many quiet chuckles. Malone reminded me of a cross between Manly Wade Wellman’s Kane (a brooding giant killer with a powerful mind and equivocal morality) and Wellman’s Silver John (a smaller man, but one with a powerful soul and equally powerful faith in God), which is an interesting mixture indeed. This is the first time I’ve encountered Malone, and I think I’ll go seeking more encounters.

Alexander: Ware of the Worlds

This one’s a fun read, with both a mildly serious message and a seriously serious message. Let’s start with the latter: Our unnamed narrator is someone who appears at first glance to be a bit of a redneck survivalist, living on his own in the woods, armed with a rifle and not afraid to use it. But it quickly turns out he’s nobody’s fool—most fools don’t know who Marcus Aurelius is, let alone name their cats after him. He also has no problems with the gay couple who run the local diner (nicely characterized in a few deft strokees, without descending into parody), and largely seems to have a “live and let live” attitude towards life, seasoned with a bit of hardnosed pragmatism about whether the rest of the world will let you live and let live if you can’t, when necessary, muster the force to make them leave you be. The moral of this part of the story is that whatever our feelings might be about gun ownership, we liberal types shouldn’t assume someone’s an idiot or a danger just because they own a gun. (Reminds me of the Bloom County cartoon with Opus sitting in a diner between what appears to be a construction worker and a hippy; the construction worker turns out to be the liberal and the hippy proves to be downright reactionary.)

The milder message is, as our protagonist notes, that we should be careful about what we wish for. Here, the answer to those wishes arrives in the form of a large number of “fabs” (high-tech “fabricators”) that arrive mysteriously on Earth. These devices can create just about anything you can imagine, including living people, simply by reading your mind and creating the substance of your wishes. [Spoilers] Things start out simply, with people wishing for basic wares, ranging from practicalities such as garam masala and a package of cigarettes to luxuries such as diamonds and Rolls Royces. But, inevitably, things get out of hand as people start getting more ambitious in their wishes. Terrorists start asking for nukes, and inevitably, someone makes the mistake of wishing for peace on Earth, presumably by eliminating anyone who isn’t inherently peaceful. This eliminates a large proportion of the world’s population overnight, leaving only a handful of people behind to carry on—including our narrator. It’s not clear how a *fabrication* device could accomplish this, but you can wave your hands a bit and make it work. The devices are, after all, more fantasies about wish fulfillment than they are Strossian technological extrapolations.

Throughout, Alexander writes cleverly and with a folksy, consistently acerbic tone and a fond but somewhat bemused impression of humanity. What terrorists, for instance, would ask for a nuke just so they can wipe out Lichtenstein? My favorite lines: “... I don’t have a problem with government. It’s like mild psoriasis, annoying but ignorable most of the time. If it flares up, you just rub some emolument on it and it goes away for a while. But agents of the government are something else. Kind of like my feelings about Christianity versus Christians; something gets lost in the translation.” Amen, brer Alexander. In case you missed it, note the narrator’s observation early on that he sometimes reaches for the wrong word the first time; that’s a cue to look for a double meaning and here, emolument is both a bribe to get the government off your back and a pun on emolient, a lotion for treating psoriasis. I also enjoyed the line about radioactive Russian space debris raining down on northern Canada; by sheerest luck, I happened to be outside watching the stars on the night in the late 1980s or early 1990s when a Soviet satellite with a nuclear power source re-entered the atmosphere and crashlanded in our Northwest Territories. I saw its fiery trail passing overhead, and didn’t know what I’d seen until I read the paper the next day.

Nothing Earth-shattering, other than for the residents of the story, but a fun story nonetheless.

Kessel: The Closet

This short tale introduces us to Carson, an overly self-involved divorcé who writes advertising copy for a living. On the surface, there’s not much here to discuss: though short, the story is mostly as well-written as one comes to expect from Kessel. But there’s a big “however”.

[Spoilers] The SFnal element of the story emerges when Carson returns home after a meaningless affair with a woman he picks up in a bar. He literally takes off his male identity by removing the skin he’s been wearing and hanging it in the closet beside a matching female skin. Paired with the title, this suggests Kessel was trying for a metaphor about sexual identity and being closeted (since Carson is clearly not a typical human, he may be literally “alienated”), with the message that someone who is bisexual and closeted rather than “out” consciously chooses to alternate between the two identities and that these are separate identities rather than integated aspects of one whole person. Other interpretations are possible (see below), but weakly supported.

Even today, some bisexuals face the problem of being closeted, since most of us hets don’t understand them and, worse yet, some members of the gay and lesbian communities don’t trust them; some of the more political even consider them “traitors to the cause”. But the story is too short to explore this important source of emotional conflict in any depth, and because Carson’s only strong character trait is self-absorption, what little we know about him points to what I hope is a misleading conclusion: that people who claim a bisexual identity tend to be unpleasantly self-absorbed. That seems a rather unlikely reading. A more charitable interpretation would be that bisexuals who have not resolved this crucial (but seemingly contradictory) aspect of their nature become unpleasantly self-involved because they’re forced to keep this identity in the closet and devote much time to unsuccessfully failing to reconcile their dual nature.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to see how the story’s conclusion results organically from what little we learn about Carson, or what message Kessel wants us to take away from the story. Instead of functioning as a thought-provoking metaphor, the swapping of identities becomes a clumsy and artificial surprise ending for a story that doesn’t provide any hooks to justify this conclusion. Not Kessel’s best work, but definitely a concept I’d like to see him explore at greater length and with a clearer message.

Duncan: Swamp City Lament

We need an acronym for this type of story given how common the trope is becoming: perhaps Yet Another Post-Apocalyptic Tale (YAPAT)? But this one’s a bit different, since it combines both the now-expected ecological catastrophe (the title city floods with the daily tides) and more unusually, what appears from the description to have been a limited nuclear war. The timing is deliberately left unclear, but given the protagonist’s age and the fact that people are still surviving on canned food, it’s probably less than a generation (perhaps a dozen years) after the disaster.

Our protagonist is Miren, who lives with her mother Amri in a feudalistic society. Miren is the illegitimate child of the local king (the “Nomarch”, based on the Greek word “nomos”, here meaning the provider of law and order). When the current Queen dies, all the former mistresses return from their exile in the areas surrounding Swamp City so they can mourn the old Queen and compete for the Nomarch’s attention in the hope of becoming the next Queen. Amri seemingly has the inside track, being both fertile and sufficiently free of radiation sickness that she still has all her teeth and hasn’t lost her hair. This offends Miren (in the traditional, “children disgusted by the notion of their parents having sex” way) but also scares her, since there are strong hints that women rapidly succumb to radiation sickness when they move into the Nomarch’s palace.

Miren is a petulant, rebellious, unhappy tweenager or pre-tween—something of a brat, really—and is so frustrated with her life that she’s perpetually ready to bite the hand that feeds her. Some of this undoubtedly stems from natural anxiety about the world she lives in and her future in it. Whether this personality results from tween angst, anxiety, or a combination of the two, she can neither understand nor accept her mother’s desperation to ensure her security by staying in the Nomarch’s good graces and (better still) becoming the next Queen. Amri’s so desperate to achieve this that she’s seduced the King and become pregnant, thereby trumping her less-fertile rivals. When she sees Miren playing with the child of a rival concubine, she confines Miren to quarters to ensure that no hint of Amri’s inside track to becoming Queen will slip out. (As there are never any secrets in a palace, her relationship with the Nomarch is undoubtedly known, but it’s a strong character moment when this anecdote helps us realize just how desperate Amri has become. What’s less clear is why she wants to risk living in the palace when she’s been kept comfortably enough in a gilded cage, a day or two’s travel outside the city, that she can even afford a nurse for Miren.)

Miren’s main playmate–antagonist on these occasions when she returns to the palace is “Belly” (Leonid), the son of a rival concubine. They share the kind of companionable hostility you see between Calvin and Susie in the Calvin and Hobbes strip, but with the sex roles reversed. However, Belly’s a bit older (just embarking on puberty and beginning to outgrow Miren).

[Spoilers] Things take a hopeful turn when Miren and Belly, sitting on the roof in a rare moment of truce, spot a tiny patch of green on the roof of an adjacent building. Borrowing a telescope from Belly’s mother, they discover it’s a plant—something of a miracle, since (presumably due to residual radiation) there appear to be no living plants anywhere near the city, not even as far away as where Miren and Amri live. Miren begins to develop what appears to be radiation sickness (vomiting, hair loss), adding to her misery, but despite this, sneaks away with Belly to the roof of the building, where they discover a solitary plant that has somehow managed to survive there: amusingly, a dandelion that has now gone to seed. (It's amusing because I suspect dandelions will be the plant equivalent of post-apocalyptic cockroaches: they grow anywhere, even in cracks in the pavement, and nothing kills them.) The two youths blow the seeds onto the wind, and this, combined with the Nomarch’s baby growing in Amri, offers some hope that humanity will survive and that the world’s health will someday be restored. But Miren’s sickness is a sour note: not all is well, and the future won’t be bright for everyone.

The story’s scientific underpinnings were incompletely considered. It’s not clear what would kill all the plants and why Amri’s carefully hoarded seeds have been unable to grow. Global warming, hinted at by the city’s tidally flooded streets, has produced a sea-level rise, but we’re not told that the salt infiltration has moved as far inshore as where Miren lives. Nor will even a dirty nuclear blast stop plant growth; for example, the plants at Chernobyl have not only recovered but are flourishing, and many species had recovered dramatically within one or two growing seasons. It’s also not clear how the people in this story could survive purely on canned and preserved foods; such supplies would quickly run out or would become inedible within a few years after the disaster. Moreover, there are no descriptions of tumors or mutations in the children born after the disaster, and no explanation of why so few people are being killed by the presumably high levels of radiation. But despite these flaws, the human heart of the story is strong, and the central characters are generally well-drawn and believable. In particular, though Miren never quite escapes her one-note performance as brat, she does develop more depth as the story proceeds.

Bisson: Teen Love Science Club

This one’s a strange little concoction. On the one hand, it’s almost a Heinlein juvenile, with a spunky anonymous girl protagonist (roughly a tweenager) building a scientific implausibility behind the school, aided and abetted by a sympathetic teacher. On the other hand, it’s a clearly fabulous magical realism tale that tosses scientific rigor out the window to entertaining affect.

The heart of the story revolves around our tweenage narrator, living in a world where “mythological means not in the Bible” and where girls wear masks in the presence of men—even at home with their fathers. “Coed” isn’t remotely on offer; girls and boys are educated separately. If there were any doubt about the lack of female agency, her housewife mother seemingly exists (from the tweenage perspective) only to cook dinner, ask whether her daughter has invited a boy to the upcoming dance, and send her daughter to the “smarty room” for a time-out if her repartee gets too snarky. Indeed, the mere existence of a Sadie Hawkins Day dance (in which the girls get to invite the boys instead of vice versa) is further proof that this is no female utopia.

The aforementioned teacher, Ms. Parnassian, though nominally an agent of the established order, is quietly heretical. (In literature, the Parnassians were a group of poets who aimed for the objective and rigorous over the emotionalism and imprecision of the Romantic poets. This may also be a nod to Terry Gilliam’s film about “Doctor Parnassus”.) Though she publicly dismisses the notion of black holes in the classroom, she nonetheless establishes a science club for the two girls who show real interest in science. The club meets outside of school hours, so the two girls can invite “Trucker”, a boy who the narrator has a crush on, to join the club. (In this world, boys aren’t the smartest tools in the shed; Trucker’s name comes from the sound he makes when he thinks, as if he’s moving in low gear to gain extra torque for his thoughts.)

[Spoilers] The science club decides to create their own black hole, which they accomplish by piling up lead batteries to create a pile the size of a house—at which point, the mass of the pile becomes sufficient to create a black hole, into which Ms. Parnassian vanishes, followed in short order by a careless Mary Lou (the narrator’s friend), Trucker (who guiltily tries to rescue her), and our narrator (who tries to rescue Trucker). We learn that Parnassian isn’t really a teacher, but is instead a universe-crossing adventuress who creates black holes that lead her into another universe whenever she grows bored with the current universe and wants to move on. The narrator has forgotten or lost her mask, and Parnassian tells her that no masks are needed here—the most overt wave at symbolism in the story. Indeed, Parnassian creates a new black hole as the children watch, leaving them to fend for themselves, seemingly heedless of their needs. As the new world that is growing inside the black hole comes slowly into focus, Trucker and the narrator ride off on a boat that magically appears, into what a tweenager would presumably consider a happily-ever-after ending.

Bisson succeeds in creating a delirous tale in which nothing quite makes sense—yet everything follows a fractured internal logic of sorts, namely the self-centered worldview of the tweenage narrator. The writing style is simplistic and unadorned—naïve, almost—but nicely captures aspects of the tween’s budding identity, including the narrator whispering an invitation to the dance so quietly that Trucker can’t hear it (“for practice”). Nothing of any remarkably note is accomplished, but it’s a skillfully crafted tale that stands out from the herd because of its odd, almost dreamlike logic.

Cowdrey: Death Must Die

This is the story of Martin, a cheefully cynical but definitely not “noir” PI (psychical investigator), living in the mostly quiet town of Greenwood Falls. That quiet is sometimes disrupted by “nonpersons of interest”, or in more familiar terms, ghosts. The story begins as a new client arrives; Stephen Preston James is a lawyer currently representing a group that opposes the death penalty. Their name is “Death Must Die”, and therefore the seeming source of the title.  All would be well, save only for an inconvenient problem: James has moved his family into a home formerly occupied by Wellington Meeks, a former hangman whose shade inhabits the house. The cohabitation is generally peaceful, unless someone in the house violates Weeks’ prissy sense of what’s proper (including, in a pointed jab, "Democracy").

Thus deftly, Cowdrey establishes the central conflict, and it soon manifests (you should pardon the choice of words) with Meeks invading a meeting of the “Death Must Die” group and introducing them to some of the more horrific of the murderers he’d executed. The characters, as always, are quirky, though not quite as exuberantly so as in most of Cowdrey’s earlier work. Martin, for instance, attempts the Sherlock Holmes trick of reading his client; he correctly deduces that the client is in good shape through exercise, but guesses wrong about why (bicycling, not jogging) and how long the exercise lasts. (That’s also a sly poke at the Holmes shtick, which always struck me as unlikely.) Martin also manages to invert the client’s name and fails to correct himself until James gets quite irate about it. James’ wife is named Alsatia (after “Alsatian”, the less familiar name for the German shephard dogs that are often used as attack or guard animals), and lives up to her namesake by attacking her husband verbally and threatening to divorce him if he can’t get rid of the ghost of Meeks in short order. Into the middle of this steps Martin, hired by James to get rid of Meeks or at least help the combatants find some kind of modus vivendi.

[Spoilers] Martin’s ace in the hole for dealing with matters supernatural is his dear departed mother, whom he can easily summon simply by setting out an Old Fashioned for her to quaff and remembering her fondly. Like any good Mom, she’s eager to return to help her son, but in this case, she’s run into someone who can outstubborn even her: she attempts to talk Meeks into moving on and leaving the James family in peace, and fails. But Martin isn’t licked yet; he asks his mother to help him counterattack by finding some of the men Meeks executed and who have reason to hate their hangman, and plans to stage his own haunting—of Meeks. The plan works, and Meeks flees in terror of these ghosts from his past, banished to whatever reward awaits him.

The frame for this story is that it’s nominally Martin’s account of this supernatural conflict in an article for the Journal of Psychical Research, and in an afterword, we learn from the journal's editor that Martin himself died peacefully in his sleep shortly after solving the case, but that he may have posthumously added a few words to the account on his computer to let readers know that he’s gone on to a seemingly happy reward. Both that frame and the afterword add nothing to the story, and could easily have been omitted.

There’s nothing much here that’s deep—the closest thing to deep is the pun in the title, which refers to both the aforementioned group of protesters against the death penalty and (as we soon learn) the hangman himself. Because the language and characters are more restrained than Cowdrey’s usual, the story lacked the punch of his other stories. It’s still a quick and pleasant read, and an accomplishment most writers would be pleased to have created.

©2004–2018 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved