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Stories in Fantasy and Science Fiction, September/October 2010 issue

Stories reviewed:

Bailey: Eating at the End-of-the-world Café
Matheson: The Window of Time
Cambias: How Seosiris Lost the Favor of the king
Chwedyk: Orfy
Wilber and Dichario: Blind Spot
Swanwick: Steadfast Castle
Duncan: The Door in the Earth
Gerrold: F&SF Mailbag
Liu: The Literomancer
Bisson: About It
Chappell: Uncle Moon in Raintree Hills

Bailey: Eating at the End-of-the-world Café

Eating is yet another entry into a recent series of stories of nasty dystopias. Here, the framing context is hellish—literally, given the city’s name (“Acheron”, river of pain) and the fiery pit at the heart of the city’s concentric rings (as in Dante’s Hell) where citizens are tortured and cremated for unspecified crimes. Like detritus circling the drain, it’s only a matter of time before each citizen spirals down into the pit. The writing is suitably dark and brutal for such a context. Bailey describes of one of the local Gestapo stand-ins as a man "lean and sharp as a straight razor [who] gashed the air before her... his own eyes were glittering chips of mica, set deep over cheekbones like upturned blades. His mouth was a slit, unsmiling.” The man’s cutting nature is conveyed relentlessly.

Eleanor, our protagonist, is caught in a morass of despair. A former exotic dancer and now single parent after her boyfriend/pimp replaced her with a younger model, Eleanor has a sick (probably dying) 11-year-old daughter, Anna, and she’s forced to hire a nanny (Mrs. Koh) to tend Anna while she works long hours as a waitress at the eponymous coffee shop. There’s no hope of human connections, apart from weak, unsatisfying interactions with her café coworkers. Even her daughter seems more attracted to Koh than to her own mother. It’s grindingly depressing, with no hope of escape and with a continuously looming nightmare in the background, charnel smoke drifting throughout the city and clinging to the clothing of the pit workers who come to the café to briefly escape their hideous work. How can the human spirit endure under such circumstances?

All of this changes when Eleanor bumps into the abovementioned Gestapo agent, who offers her a ticket out of her current dead-end job—an application form to work for the state, though with a terrible price implied. For contrast we have Carl, a regular at the coffee shop who’s been watching Eleanor for some time. A fellow waitress suggests that Carl’s in love with her, despite her fading beauty, but Carl’s interest goes deeper: like the Gestapo agent, he works for the state, doing the Devil’s own work down in the inferno. Whatever else he may feel for Eleanor, he seems honest in wanting to atone for his sins by helping someone—anyone—escape their troubles. But when he offers that escape to Eleanor, she throws it back in his face, having already been betrayed by too many men.

Noreen, another waitress, suggests Eleanor shouldn’t be so quick to judge, reminding her that we each make many compromises to find a little affection and maybe even love, and that Carl seems like a decent guy, particularly given the alternatives: “...what a man does isn’t necessarily what that man is”. It’s an interesting and subtle point that sounds only superficially wise, since we always have choices, including the choice to not do something unethical just because of difficult circumstances. Yet under the horrific circumstances Bailey has created for his characters, it’s hard to condemn anyone for wanting to survive at whatever cost. Though Bailey’s story is exaggerated for effect, we must never forget that such situations, minus the SFnal trappings, exist here and now in most impoverished areas of the world, not to mention our own inner cities.

[Spoilers] Driven by rage and despair, Eleanor accepts the Gestapo agent’s offer and goes to an office by the edge of the pit to apply for the job. But when she unfolds her application form, there’s only one word on it: “Name”. Without thinking, she fills in her own name, but the clerk shakes his head and hands her a new form: she must name someone else instead. And she does, though we’re not told who. This is no triumphant gesture of rebellion or saving one’s own life; it’s the perhaps inevitable coda to a grindingly depressing situation. Eating is very effective at what it does, but what it does isn’t pretty. Don’t read this one if your antidepressants aren’t working at full efficiency.

Matheson: The Window of Time

This is the story of Richard Swanson, an 82-year-old widower living with his daughter and her family. Because they have a small home, he feels he’s getting in their way and trying their patience, so he decides to seek a place elsewhere. He finds the Golden Years retirement home not far away, in the neighborhood where he grew up. An old woman lets him in, shows him to an available room, and leaves him to inspect it. The room seems pleasant enough—until he looks out a window and sees the Church Street of his youth, some 70 years earlier. Intrigued, he steps through the window and into his past, though he himself doesn’t change physically.

Initially, the story raises an obvious question: Has Richard really traveled back into his past, or has he had a second stroke (a common occurrence after surviving a first stroke) and is now lying on the floor, reviewing his old memories as he dies? Or is this just a hallucination or early signs of dementia? The scenes Richard describes are vivid: watching through a restaurant window as an expert makes pancakes, basketball in a church basement, and the voices of worshippers through the back door of their synagogue, opened to let air into a pre–air conditioning place of worship. The profusion of memories and Richard’s difficulty keeping them at bay so he can concentrate on his environment suggests the mundane explanation, but Matheson doesn’t reveal the cards in his hand that easily.

A particularly interesting riff on the familiar theme of an older family member living with their children is that Matheson tells the story from the parent’s perspective. That’s not unheard of, but it’s far less common than telling the story from the child’s perspective, with a focus on that child’s musings about aging and the inevitable changes in the parent–child relationship. Possibly this is because by the time most older authors find themselves in this situation, they’re no longer able or eager to write about such a personal subject? Another interesting riff is how Richard refuses to take his excursion into the past for granted; instead, he constantly questions whether it would be safe, appropriate, or even interesting to meet people from his past. He’s even unsure whether it’s safe to stray too far from his point of origin, with the risk of leaving the bubble of history in which he finds himself or even finding himself stranded in the past. Too often, literary time travelers (and the authors who recount their adventures) simply go about their business with no thought of these and other consequences. Nicely done!

“Golden Years” is a poignant pun: it refers to both the euphemism for (not always so golden) old age, and the narrator’s gilded recollections of his youth. The writing style is restrained, which is highly appropriate for the slightly overwhelmed sensation of someone who has lived 82 years through trying times and is now beginning to fade; the lush descriptions recounted by a youthful Bradbury protagonist wouldn’t fit here. Richard’s voice and the details he recalls are appropriate and thoughtfully handled throughout, though the lack of intense emotion adds a certain distancing effect.

[spoilers] When Richard eventually succumbs to the temptation to cross his own timeline, he does so to revisit Adeline, his first (and thoroughly unrequited) true love, who he remembers as perfection incarnate—almost certaintly because his younger self never found the courage to speak to her and spend enough time with her to destroy that illusion. No real woman (or man, of course!) can live up to the purity of one’s idealized first love—yet the more realistic love that follows from spending a lifetime with someone and coming to love (or at least tolerate) their imperfections becomes far deeper and more satisfying.

Though Richard tries to persuade his younger self to speak to Adeline, he fails. As young Richard hotly notes: “... you’ve lived your life. Now let me live mine!” This may be a rare false note (the diction and message seem too precociously wise for a 12-year-old boy), but I suspect it’s a hint that 82-year-old Richard is the real author of this dialogue. The story’s punchline and moral show that Richard has learned a valuable lesson: “No point in trying to change the past. It’s gone. Only in memories. Which are, face it, indelible; not subject to rewriting.” When he returns to the Golden Years home, he finds himself back in 2009, and chooses not to (literally and literarily) stay there and live in the past. Instead, he returns to live with his daughter in the present, awkward though that present might be. It’s tempting to suggest that the old woman running Golden Years is the long-lost Adeline, but Matheson’s too much of a pro to permit such a facile ending, and he provides no evidence to support this suggestion. He also leaves unresolved the issue of whether Richard really returned to his past, or was merely conducting an internal dialogue while indulging in the kind of memory reverie we all sometimes experience.

Though it may not be sufficiently “fantastic” for some readers, Window is a strong story, with much to ponder.

Cambias: How Seosiris Lost the Favor of the King

In this story, Cambias tells (through the voice of the servant, Senehem) the story of how Seosiris, court wizard to the Egyptian Pharoah, is pushed away from the court by a northern magician who arrives to usurp his position. Seosiris is a gentle, philosophical soul, in love with learning and his books; more importantly, he’s sufficiently wise and humble to be content with his lot in life, and feels no ambition to seek anything more than knowledge. In contrast, the Northerner is hungry for power. He takes the place of Seosiris at court as a direct challenge to the Egyptian wizard, who refuses to take the bait; Seosiris sees no need for strife, and is wise enough to know that those who seek ever-more earthly goods usually come and go with little fuss.

The plot gets moving when the Northerner sees an opportunity to seize power and comes to visit Seosiris, asking the Egyptian to work together with him to rule the land. But Seosiris will have none of this: he wants only stability for Egypt and a good life for its people. Reluctantly, when he cannot persuade the Northerner to let things lie, Seosiris enters into magical combat with the wizard to prevent him from destroying Egypt’s peace—but only after the wizard has left his home, since the obligations of hospitality towards one’s guests must not be violated, even for such an important cause. The combat that ensues is nicely handled, based on traditional kinds of magic (plagues of flies, water turning into poison, assassination by crocodile) rather than through elaborate Hollywood special effects. The language in support of the tale’s telling is appropriately old-fashioned without being either quaint or antique. On the whole, it’s very well done indeed. The only misstep is the title: I’d have preferred “lost the Pharoah’s favor”, since “king” is a very different concept from “pharoah”.

The magical battle escalates until Seosiris conceives a seemingly desperate plan: he sends Senehem to seek the Book of Thoth, a collection of magical lore that would potentially make Seosiris as powerful as the gods. Unfortunately, the book has been lost at the bottom of the Nile. Because the mission is urgent, Seosiris sends his servant up the Nile by boat, driven by a magical wind, supplied with enough money to hire an army of men to seek the book. [Spoilers] Senehem’s mode of travel and his activities upon reaching his destination are hardly inconspicuous, and as one might predict, the Northerner discovers the plan and rushes to intervene. When Senehem’s workers find the book, the Northerner steals the book out from under their noses—and receives the comeuppance you’d expect from the Egyptian god Thoth, who reserves such knowledge for himself or perhaps for Egyptians, but certainly not for foreign interlopers who have no respect for the gods. The ending is easy enough to predict if you’re thinking outside the Western fantasy box, but isn’t telegraphed and fits perfectly with the cultural context.

One particularly nice touch is that Seosiris (a real historical or perhaps mythical figure) is the good guy here. Stories with a non-Western protagonist are increasingly common, but it’s still nice to see the Western character (the Northerner) play the bad guy. More significantly, although Seosiris has done the ethical thing by protecting his Pharoah and Egypt, he has also transgressed by depriving his master of a useful wizard. In penance, he must leave Egypt before he is caught and punished, and he rewards his loyal servant with a gift of all his lands and books before he leaves. Both the departure and the gift are nice narrative touches because they are fully what one would expect from this character, and because this avoids a pat ending with no consequences for Seosiris. Sadly, good deeds do not always go unpunished.

There’s nothing groundbreaking about this story, but it’s a pleasant semi-historical tale, skillfully told and well crafted.

[An afterthought: It occurs to me belatedly that the ending of this tale is a literal deus ex machina. What makes it rise above what is often considered a clichéd technique is that the conclusion is, once the leadup has been established, inevitable. The technique fails when (as is most often done) it’s a way for the author to extract him- or herself from an otherwise insoluble plot problem. When it’s done as well as it was here, it’s hard to see anyone objecting.]

Chwedyk: Orfy

A confession in advance: I haven’t been a fan of this series thus far. Something about cutesy dinosaurs just rubs me the wrong way—and it’s not because Chwedyk is being twee. He really, really isn’t. Possibly it’s related to my longstanding aversion to the vast majority of tales involving dragons, the mythological kin of dinosaurs. (Possibly Anne McCaffrey scarred me as a child? *G*) So, with that caveat, does Chwedyk tell us a good story about his “saurs” (intelligent dinosaurs ranging in size from hamsters to small dogs, specially genetically engineered as house pets)?

Let’s start with the characters. They’re diverse and distinct and three-dimensional, ranging from the eternally grouchy and pugnacious Agnes through the meditative and wise Doc to the ebulliently enthusiastic Axel. (Ironically, the herbivores are usually more pugnacious than the carnivores, a subtle touch.) Axel would annoy the hell out of me if I had to deal with him for any length of time; if he were human, he’d be diagnosed with ADHD and (over)dosed with ritalin, but he has a way of helping you see the world in a new light, just as one’s own children do. As Doc notes, after an encounter with Axel, “That world out there was filled with war and poverty and greed and tragedies—but there were birds flying from tree branch to tree branch in the rain-washed yard.” (The resonance of birds, the ancestors of the dinosaurs who scientists reinvented to create the saurs, is another nice touch.) Though micro-dinosaurs by design, the saurs were , in many ways, created in the image of their creators (i.e., us), and they have the same laudable and less-laudable instincts. But the fact that so many of them seem to love reading, and read books aloud to each other as a communal thing (even when, as with Joyce’s Ulysses, they don’t understand them) should instantly endear them to readers of F&SF.

On to the narrative: Because Orfy falls in the middle of an ongoing series of stories, and the last story happened 6 years ago, it suffers from “middle book of trilogy” syndrome: some things don’t quite make sense if you don’t remember (or haven’t read) earlier stories. Though there are no show-stopper omissions, this time lag between stories makes it necessary to re-establish the characters and context—and during the first 20 pages of the story, nothing much happens while Chwedyk accomplishes this. When events finally do get rolling, it’s caused by the death of one of the saurs, Diogenes, as a result of a heart defect he concealed from the other saurs. Agnes, one of the most traumatized of a large group of saurs who are recovering slowly from post-traumatic stress disorder, reacts particularly badly to the death, expressing the anger and distrust of humans that’s been building in her since she was first brought to the house where the saurs live, safe from humans.

There are a great many nice points in the story, such as the many small (profound, not showy) wisdoms that emerge naturally as the characters interact. I particularly liked Doc’s observation that “... grief and solitude do not always meet to advantage. Like a couple of drunken companions, they can get themselves in trouble.” When the saurs mourn, each one does it in a way that’s deeply true to their character: Agnes turns her fear and pain into rage and hurls that rage outward at everyone, Axel naively but optimistically seeks ways to solve the problem (here, to resurrect Diogenes) through entirely impractical SFnal schemes, and Doc reflects deeply and at length on the loss. Orfy is a masterful piece of character building, and Chwedyk makes it very clear how human the saurs are—and yet how alien. I still find the saurs childlike, but no longer “cutesy”.

Sadly, as is so often the case, most humans won’t accept that the saurs are sentient beings. The Bad Guys in the story, who have been trying to steal copies of saur DNA in previous episodes, are still trying to suborn the saurs’ human associates to obtain a sample, repeatedly phoning to harass Tom—nominally the saurs’ keeper, but really more of a parent or older brother. But when Doc takes the phone away from Tom, and suggests the caller should ask the saurs directly whether they might want to donate their DNA, the caller has no answer and hangs up the phone. To him, the saurs are potentially lucrative merchandise, nothing more, no matter how sentient and likeable they seem to us readers. I don’t really buy that a major corporation wouldn’t simply hire a pro to sneak in and steal one of the saurs or a sample of its blood, but that didn’t throw me out of the story.

[Spoilers] We eventually learn that the eponymous “Orfy” is Axel’s attempt to remember the legend of Orpheus. After the funeral for Diogenes, Axel is one of the last saurs to leave the graveside, and he’s the one who debates the finality of death with Agnes, who has a predictably and bleakly utilitarian take on the problem: death is the final end of existence, and you’re fooling yourself if you think otherwise. But Axel, having learned from another saur (Geraldine) that time is eternal, and that each of us continues to exist in each moment of the past leading up to the present, won’t buy that explanation: like Orpheus leaving the afterlife with Eurydice following him, Axel resolutely refuses to look back, knowing that so long as he keeps his eyes fixed firmly ahead, Diogenes will always live for him—and in him. That’s a lovely message, and one that has always comforted me against my own losses.

Chwedyk uses Preston, the writer saur, to remind us of the heart of science fiction: “... the real stuff I put in is what’s inside the characters. All the gadgets and laboratories and space ships—I make that part up.” That’s a pointed reminder, enhanced by Axel’s irrepressible marveling at the universe; it’s a tidy demonstration that the fabled “sense of wonder” doesn’t require space opera pyrotechnics, just a willingness to see the world with fresh eyes. I started this review by saying that the “baby dinosaur” aspects of this series rub me the wrong way. That’s become less true with time, but it wasn’t until I forced myself to dig into why this might be the case that I understood something important: at first, I thought I might have liked this series better if the saurs had been uplifted dogs, or at least non-terrestrial aliens, but upon reflection, Chwedyk’s true achievement here is to turn something ordinary and outwardly cute and cuddly into something much more: reflections on and of a deeper reality that emphasizes both the similarities that allow humans and saurs to forge tight emotional connections, and the differences that make the saurs something unique. That would have been hard to do with a more familiar group of “pets” like a pack of dogs.

In the end, it was possible for me to accept Orfy for what it is: a superbly crafted, emotionally affecting tale that kept me engaged despite my bias. Not an easy trick. What I found particularly interesting is that if I hadn’t made time to write this review, and had just burned through the story to get to something I’d enjoy more, I might never have understood the story well enough to grudgingly like it. That’s perhaps one of the too-infrequently acknowledged benefits of being a reviewer, and a reminder of just how good a writer Chwedyk is.

Wilber and Dichario: Blind Spot

Though I had some dim hope of making the inter-city baseball team when I was very young (but for a fatal batting slump during the tryouts that quashed my hopes), I was never particularly passionate about the sport. As a good Montreal boy, hockey was my thing, and it was an obsession much the same way baseball is an obsession in the U.S. So I’m not fond of baseball, and baseball stories generally leave me cold. Thus, at first glance, Blind Spot wasn’t the kind of story I’d be inspired to read, except that I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Wilber that I disliked. (I’m not familiar with Dichario’s work.)

As expected, the writing is smooth, unornamented, and affecting: it’s the familiar tale of a drunken father who had the potential to be one of the great pitchers in baseball history, if only he could have controlled his temper, and of the family he abused and alienated. When the story begins, Danny McCabe is seriously considering not going to his father’s funeral after having not spoken to him for decades, but in the end, he comes to the funeral from a sense of duty or perhaps a need for closure. The story’s a well-worn cliché, and choosing an Irish family (right down to the son’s name, Danny—at least nobody sings Danny Boy!) doesn’t improve on the stereotypes. But despite those flaws, the story’s written so well that I kept reading, even though there’s no evidence it’s anything but a mundane story until right at the end. For a cliché, it’s done flawlessly, and the writing is honest and heartfelt throughout rather than becoming pastiche.

[Spoiler] The “blind spot” of the title is about the way each of us blinds ourselves to certain things. Here, it’s the fact that Danny’s father long ago reformed and turned his life around, after his wife left him and his older son died of a drug overdose (by implication, caused by drunken adolescent beatings by his father that drove him to drugs as his escape). The fantasy element is that the father never had a chance to sign the game ball from his one perfect game for his son—yet somehow, mysteriously, a signature has appeared on the ball. But because of his personal blind spot, Danny seems to be the only one who can’t see it.

Despite the quality of the writing, I ended the story thinking that Blind Spot really belonged in a sports magazine, and that the mysterious signature was bolted, post hoc, onto a story that had no need for it whatsoever. There’s no reason in any of the lead-up to this revelation that would lead us to expect a supernatural agency is involved or required, and the story would have been equally satisfying—probably more so—with a purely mundane ending. None of this detracts from the quality of the writing, but I see little or no justification for publishing this story in F&SF. Any literary magazine worth its salt would snap up the story, and that’s where it probably belongs.

Swanwick: Steadfast Castle

Swanwick’s such a consistently entertaining writer that we sometimes forget just how technically skillful he is. The present tale is a case in point: on the face of it, it’s a bog-standard police procedural that starts out as a missing-persons investigation and turns into something far more interesting, but it’s also a virtuoso exercise in “what if?” from the technical perspective of how to construct a story. Swanwick clearly wondered: “What if I dispensed with all the function words, like ‘he said’, and all the narrative details, like ‘he stumbled on the loose stair’? What if I even eliminated the quotation marks?” You wouldn’t think this would work, yet it does, and it works quite elegantly, creating a short gem of a story.

The context for the story is a world in which people are constantly monitored via biometric cards, so that if anything happens to them, someone is notified. In this case, when the house owner’s card and that of his girlfriend malfunction in a way that suggests foul play, a police detective soon arrives to figure out what happened. But this is also a world with de facto artificial intelligence, and the man’s house (the steadfast “castle” of the title, nicknamed Cassie by its owner) enters into a game of cat and mouse with the detective. There’s some nice little deception that doesn’t fool the detective for an instant. All of this done without a single adjective or adverb to tell us what something looks like or how something was said; like mime (the good kind, not the kind where you want to shoot the mime *g*), everything is communicated (with crystal clarity) purely through the words the two actors choose, how they deliver them, and the details they add to or omit from their statements. All of this done without a single narrative detail in which the author tells us what the two actors are seeing or feeling; everything is communicated by the features of the situation that the actors choose to focus on. And despite Swanwick's deliberate impoverishment of his writer’s toolkit, the literary equivalent of tying one and a half hands behind his back, he manages to tell a compelling and interesting tale, with a few flashes of his trademark tongue-in-cheek humor. I’m in awe.

[Spoilers] The detective seems firmly in control of the situation, spotting all the key details and drawing all the key conclusions that will tell him and us what has really happened. I won’t spoil it for you, because it’s a masterful bit of detective work (both on Swanwick’s part and the detective’s), and it’s a pleasure watching the true picture gradually emerge. But the final punch comes from a growing sense that the deduction isn’t emerging quite as smoothly as the detective thinks. That sense grows right up to the moment when we realize that in the detective’s unthinking and arrogant belief that he’s the one in control, he’s forgotten that Cassie is a real person, and one who is desperately and self-sacrificingly in love with her master. Given the detective’s skill, I don’t think he’d make the same mistake with a real woman, but it’s a logical and satisfying consequence given how successfully he’s maneuvered Cassie into revealing all the facts of the case. Looking back, the warning signs are clearly present, but the ending comes as a chilling reminder that criminals, even artificial ones, shouldn’t be taken lightly no matter how smart we think we are. No Asimov’s laws of robotics here!

A stunning piece of work. Bravo!

Duncan: The Door in the Earth

This is the story of the Merrick family, a few years after Mom left Dad to run off with “a white man”. (This suggests the protagonists are Black, but nothing more is made of that detail, so it’s not clear.) Reynard (Ren, 19 and trying to avoid going to university or getting on with his life) and his brother Trey (11 years old and not at all worried about the rest of his life) are driving with their father to visit their mother, the first time they’ve seen her in years. They’re in for a surprise: the mother who formerly spent so much time at the hairdresser (straightening and coloring her hair) that the two exchanged Christmas gifts has now let the grey show through and her hair’s natural frizzyness return, and has changed her name to “Astra”. She and her new boyfriend, Ian, have gone “off the grid” in a vaguely new-agey way, and are now living somewhere in the Appalachians (unspecified but seemingly near Asheville, North Carolina) in a jury-rigged and jerry-built coldwater shack they’ve half built into a crack in the bedrock of the hills that has widened into a cave. Dad leaves the boys for 3 weeks with their mom, and the story begins.

Ian and Astra gaze upon each other like young lovers still on their honeymoon, and mostly interact that way, but there’s something mildly creepy about this setup. I’m not sure I can pin it down without dissecting the life out of the story, other than perhaps to note that the couple have been living in their cave for some time yet still haven’t actually built anything resembling a functional home. But it’s one hint among many that not all is well. Soon enough, Astra’s behavior becomes slightly more disturbing: never overtly creepy, but rather like she’s sleepwalking. Ren notices this quickly. Adding to the creep factor is a mysterious door at the back of the cave, from behind which come half-heard whispers that wake Ren from his sleep and send him to investigate. Initially, though, all he finds is Astra and Ian cuddled up on their bed in front of a cold, black door. When pressed, Astra suggests that the door conceals their root cellar.

Whatever the door really conceals, it’s creeping Ren out in a major way. When Ian asks him to fetch some cooking supplies out of the cold room, he can barely force himself to open it, and when he does, the handle chills him to the bone and he’s barely able to force himself past the threshold and safely out again. This and other details of the characters are all handled well. Ian’s thoroughly likeable, so it’s only natural when Trey, a completely convincing 11-year-old boy, starts to like him. Ren’s well-drawn too, right down to his resistance to Ian’s charm; this is soon revealed as a deeply buried resentment at his mother’s departure that suddenly emerges under the stress of the situation. In the catharsis of Ren confronting his mother and releasing all his pent-up anger, Astra emerges as a real person for the first time, not the cipher she’s been up until that moment.

Is the creepiness of the situation only Ren interpreting things in his own way, poisoned by his long-suppressed feelings of having been betrayed by his mother, or is it something more sinister? When Ian disappears, the latter hypothesis suddenly seems more likely. [Spoilers] When Astra goes missing too, Ren suddenly notices that her boots and Ian’s are still beside their bed. Clearly they didn’t go marching barefoot through the woods, so something’s amiss. Screwing up his courage, Ren goes through the door in search of his mother, and descends into the ever-colder darkness of the deep cave, which narrows in on him until the voices start whispering again. When he can stand it no longer, he scrabbles his way back to the light and relative warmth of the cave home, scraping himself bloody and raw, without having found or rescued his mother. The boys are left on their own in the woods, far from any human assistance and possibly at the mercy of something horrible.

It’s a well-written story, with interesting characters and a creepy setup, but the ending comes too abruptly: Safely back with his brother, Ren uses the building supplies lying around the half-built home to build a wall to seal off the door and the supposed evil it conceals. Is this a purely metaphorical bricking away of the past, with hints that Ren has gone off his rocker and killed his stepfather and mother and hidden their bodies deep in the cave? There are only hints to suggest this (his wounds, for instance, might be from the stone or might be from the struggles of his victims), but nothing rules it out. Is it a traditional Lovecraftean ancient evil lurking beneath the hills to draw unwary visitors to their doom? Possibly, but if so, why hasn’t the ancient evil long since claimed Ian or Astra? The situation is sufficiently ambiguous to support either interpretation, and possibly even a combination of the two (e.g., Ren, driven mad by Lovecraftean voices from the deep). Yet Ren clearly experienced something subjectively real, whether or not he’s an unreliable narrator.

If you like your endings ambiguous, you’ll probably like this story. But for me, it failed to provide enough evidence to let me achieve closure, and that undermined its potential power.

Gerrold: F&SF Mailbag

A short but sweet installment of Gerrold’s wry humor, but with an SFnal hook to it. Nominally Gerrold’s letters to Gordon van Gelder (or perhaps von Gelder, his alternate-reality alter ego?), the letters are a series of scurrilous assaults on our beloved editor’s character: outsourcing the writing to parallel-world authors who work for less money, misuse of time-travel devices, the use of artificial intelligence to create stories authors might have written were they still alive (Fritz Leiber's CSI: Lankhmar was my favorite), hiring illegal (literally) aliens to write their own biographies (passed off as SF), and even cloning authors so they can compete with themselves. Each slander is more amusing than the next, but with a different focus, each might become an interesting “what if?” basis for a thought-provoking science fiction story.

Though the goal is primarily humor, each of Gerrold’s assaults represent serious extrapolation: any of these things, with appropriate technology, could become real. Okay, the time travel seems unlikely, but what’s to stop a future unethical magazine editor from creating all the magazine’s content via artificial intelligence writer agents? Less than you might think, and like the best humor, that makes Mailbag more thought-provoking than one might expect purely from the surface giggles.

Liu: The Literomancer

This is the story of Lillian (Lilly) Dyer, a child visiting Taiwan with her parents about 50 years ago, shortly after Taiwan’s self-declared independence from China. Liu neatly captures the sexism, racism, and xenophobia of that era through observations like the child who claims that the only good Chinese food is found back in the U.S. (That reminded me of the time I was part of a delegation visiting China, and found myself the only one who ate everything our hosts offered; most of the rest of the delegates were pining for American food within days.) If you don’t have a sense of what the 1960s were like, find time to watch the often-brilliant series Mad Men. I can’t imagine a more SFnal experience than watching that show and being completely boggled and appalled by how different those times were—how alien, and not in anything resembling a good way.

Lilly has been transferred to Taiwan along with her family; her father is doing some kind of top secret work, and Lilly is being educated at a local army base’s school for the military children. As a pre-tween, she’s having the predicted trouble fitting in, exacerbated by the problem of liking the local Chinese and being willing to embrace at least some of their culture, unlike the rest of her schoolmates. After a particularly rough day of hazing by the other girls, she heads off on her own, and tries riding a local water buffalo; it carries her to the river where local Chinese boys are watering their own water buffalo, and they throw mud and stones at her to chase her off. But she’s rescued by their teacher, Kan Chenhua, the literomancer of the title. He’s accompanied by his adoptive grandchild Chen Chiafeng, who has taken on the nickname “Teddy” in honor of his baseball idol, Ted Williams.

Literomancy is a form of divination related to traditional Chinese characters, but also allows the use of those characters to project certain types of magic. For example, Kan gives Lilly a fragment of a mirror enchanted by the addition of several Chinese characters, and when Lilly shows it to the girls who are tormenting her, their leader sees her own monstrous reflection in the glass. It makes literal what all dedicated readers already know in the abstract: the power of words to reveal the truth. Throughout the story, Kan describes the meanings of various Chinese characters and how they morph to create new words, but always with keen insight into the truth behind the words. Along the way, we learn much of the history of modern China in a clearer, more poignant way than many other descriptions I’ve read.

Lilly’s father turns out to be an American intelligence agent, both spying on the Chinese communists on the mainland and advising Washington on the situation and how best to exploit it to topple the Communists. Lilly discovers this when she comes across a couple pages of one of her father’s reports lying on the floor—unlikely at best, given the stringent security protocols typically followed by such agents. (Dad won’t even tell Lilly the nature of his job, let alone the specifics.) Nonetheless, these pages set the larger political stage for us, if not for Lilly: American agents are supporting the Taiwanese in an effort to overthrow the communists at any cost short of total war, including the possibility of a nuclear strike. It’s a chilling reminder of the tensions of those times.

But there were worse times before that, as Kan reveals to Lilly over dinner. Kan left China to study law in America, and when the Japanese invaded Manchuria, he rationalized not returning home to fight by convincing himself that he could do more good after the war. But when his village was invaded and his family killed, he returns to China and joins the army to fight the Japanese. There, he learns the power of abstract words such as “China”, and the myth that a nation (rather than its people) can want anything. He learns more about the power of words when the Nationalists and the Communists turn on each other as soon as the Japanese have been defeated. When his army group is captured by the Communists, he joins them, but only until he can flee China, eventually reaching Taiwan.

There are many nice touches to the story, including recognition of the differences between boys and girls. When Teddy offers to teach Lilly to fight the girls at school so that they’ll respect her, she notes that “Boys were simple, and fists could do the talking for them. The magic of words between girls was much more complicated.” The descriptions of Chinese culture ring clear and true from my own experience, including the taking of Western nicknames to facilitate dealings with with Westerners; the initial emotional distance of the Chinese children until Kan encourages them to accept Lilly into their circle, followed by the way they let her hit a home run during a pickup baseball match to apologize for their former rudeness; and the warmth of Chinese towards foreigners, and particularly those who are willing to make an effort to understand Chinese ways. But there are also unpleasant and faithfully rendered historical details, such as the disappearance of Teddy’s real parents during the “228 incident”: on 28 February (228) 1947, Taiwanese protestors against the government formed by the Kuomintang (recently exiled from the mainland) were slaughtered. It took nearly 50 years before the massacre was officially remembered and commemorated as Peace Memorial Day.

[Spoilers] When Lilly innocently tells her father about Mr. Kan’s story, the astute reader will have foreseen the inevitable consequences: given her father’s role as a ferocious opponent of the Communists, and Liu’s clear description about the terrible fear the Taiwanese have of Communist spies, we know this will not end well. Indeed, by the next day, Kan and Teddy have been arrested, their cottage ransacked and their neighbors too terrified to even open their doors to Lilly. Lilly eavesdrops on her father later that night, and he reveals the worst: Kan has been tortured nearly to death by the Taiwanese intelligence service (a horrific description that’s not for the fainthearted), yet will not admit to being a spy (i.e., will not lie) even to save his life; when it’s clear he won’t break, the torturers bring in Teddy to apply additional leverage, and when the boy tries to save his grandfather, he’s shot to death. Lilly’s father eventually shoots Kan to spare him further torture, but not before he catches a glimpse of himself and the monster he’s become in the old man’s eyes.

What makes the narration even more harrowing is how firm the torturers are in their belief that they’re doing the right thing—they never pause to question whether Kan might be telling the truth. The echoes of the modern era of “justifiable” torture are clear and troubling. We like to think that we’re better than those who came before us, but as Liu quietly illustrates, we’ve been fooling ourselves.

Much of the story’s power derives from the fact that whether or not it’s based on a true story, it’s written so well that it could easily be real history—and that’s not a comforting thought. The one grace note is that Lilly, before she leaves Taiwan with her father, seems to be enough of a kindred spirit to have understood Kan’s explanation of literomancy and to have inherited the germ of his skills, which may blossom into something much greater in the future. However, there are a few jarring notes that detract from the story, such as Lilly’s incomprehension. Much of her father’s papers, such as the more abstruse geopolitical concepts, are clearly beyond her, but her lack of reaction to the easily comprehensible parts didn’t fit. Similarly, the reason for her lack of reaction to overhearing her father’s confession about what he did to Kan is unclear. But in the end, Literomancer remains a powerful and disturbing warning about the path that we (as a society) have allowed our governments to take, and a compelling example of the magical power of literomancy to make us think.

Bisson: About It

Short but sweet: Emilio, our narrator, is a working-class guy who happens to clean a lab that cooks up genetically engineered critters. Not all of them work out. The “It” of the title is a test-tube sasquatch designed in the lab, and when it doesn’t find a home, the lab folk are ready to euthanize it and try to figure out how to do a better job the next time. But Emilio has taken a liking to It, and offers to bring it back to his place and give it a home. The lab folk agree, which is a nicely nuanced touch; in the standard postmodern cliché, one of the lab’s scientists would simply kill it, conduct a post-mortem, and move on to bigger and better things with nary a qualm.

The narration of the story, told almost as a series of bullet points (short, punchy paragraphs), is as simple in structure, vocabulary, and style as the narrator—and in this way, in his contemplative silence, he’s a perfect match for It. The two set up a friendly little domestic menage, with only the neighborhood kids really understanding that anything unusual is going on. It is close enough to human, despite its inhuman shagginess, to pass as human if you’re adult enough to “know” that sasquatches can’t and don’t exist and if, like Ernesto the neighborhood cop, you’re willing to take Emilio’s word that It is his black-sheep cousin, and not worthy of any fuss. But the kids know better, and invite It into their world. We know from the start that this can’t last long, since Emilio has told us of the short lifespan of such creations, and that makes About It a surprisingly poignant tale. I’m not sure I believe that the kids would be that kind and gentle—possibly Bisson led a sheltered childhood, or possibly he’s eliminating the rough edges of childhood to focus on the sweetness. He’s not telling a Steven King story, after all.

Bisson weaves some clever parallels into the tale, such as Emilio and It getting along so well because they’re both, at heart, simple creatures, and such as the abused kid with a terrible father who’s the only one who can truly touch It. The details of the sasquatch’s habits and how it spends its days also work well, particularly its interactions with the neighborhood kids. The end of the story, with Emilio musing about the brevity of life (“its brief life came as a surprise to it, as it does to us all”), isn’t terribly new or profound, but it’s also quintessentially true and more to the point, is a completely appropriate observation from Emilio’s perspective.

Despite these good points, the story comes off more as a preliminary sketch than one of the fully realized paintings Bisson is capable of. (I’m currently rereading The Prehistory of the Far Side, and therefore saw some interesting parallels with Gary Larson’s account of how he moved from conceptual sketch to final cartoon.) The sasquatch is, clearly, a quiet and gentle creature, but because of how strongly Bisson plays that card, it comes off as lacking affect. I’d like to see the story done at greater length, with more room to explore It and create more of a character than a placeholder for one.

Chappell: Uncle Moon in Raintree Hills

Claudia and her baby brother Jasper are youngsters, about 9 and 7 (respectively) I’d guess, living in a mundane suburb by the name of Raintree Hills. The story is set in the days leading up to Halloween, creating a nicely sinister and atmospheric tone. The children live with their father and recently acquired stepmother, Barb, next door to their grandmother (Grammer). The fact that the kids don’t refer to Barb as “Mom” is one of many examples of how skillfully Chappell weaves clues into the tale about the situation. Grammer is dying, seemingly of natural age-related causes, though the children can’t understand this, watched over by a mostly drunken and sleeping Uncle Hobart, Barb’s brother. The children have nicknamed him Uncle Moon after a character in a favorite book, The Moonlight Robbers, because of his face (round, florid, and vaguely disturbing in the way of long-term drunks).

Each night for 13 nights the kids escape their room, don their guises as Princess of Thieves and her Sturdy Helper (the latter a delightfully self-referential metafictional name), and slip from their room, across the roof and down a trellis to reach Grammer’s home. It’s very “over the rooftops and houses” in the best kind of way (Peter Pan, not Genesis’ Entangled). The tale is full of such childish magic, including the floppy black hat that hides Jasper in the dark and Claudia’s moon-silver hair that hides her beneath the moon. But most importantly for the plot, there’s the Golden Net she has enchanted following rituals of her own devising and that they will use to catch the Raptor Spirit that swoops down out of dreams before it can steal away their Grammer. (The Raptor isn’t portrayed as evil, just as something incomprehensible and therefore frightening because it will take away someone important in the children’s life.)

It’s all a lovely bit of imagining of what the world looks like from a child’s perspective, but there may be more to it than that. Jasper seemingly has the gift of seeing into dreams and recounting them to Claudia, which is how they know of the Raptor. Is this merely an acknowledgment of how literally children project their desires and imaginings onto the world, or is this something deeper? When the two adventurers capture the Raptor in their net to save Grammer, while Uncle Moon snores, apparently oblivious, in the next room, we’re about to find out. As Burns noted (to paraphrase), the best laid magics gang aft agley; the children fail to capture the Raptor, Grammer dies, and it turns out (creepily, if you ponder all those tales of child abuse by near-relatives) that Uncle Moon watched them with their grandmother and knows what happened. Worse, he seems to know something of their magics, and thus, has been spying on them.

Soon, the sinister uncle acquires a malevolent air that was only foreshadowed by the discomfort created by his drunkard’s visage. (Children have a gift for seeing differences, and their willingness to imagine the worst of anyone different is what leads to many of the tragedies of childhood, from ostracism to bullying.) In addition to following the kids and overtly spying on them, their uncle seems to be responsible for the growing numbers of creepy orange balloons that are appearing, with faces drawn on them that resemble the Uncle Moon of The Moonlight Robbers and by extension, Uncle Hobart. Claudia maintains a brave front, but is clearly scared; Jasper is unabashedly terrified. Claudia manufactures a childish spear from various scraps lying around the house, and uses it patiently to puncture each balloon as it appears, but this is only coping; it doesn’t seem to be solving anything. Do the children have a good reason to be afraid, or is this just childish fears exaggerated by a creepy uncle?

[Spoilers] We never learn the answer, as Chappell deliberately leaves everything unresolved. I appreciate that technique more than I used to (I’m a recovering scientist; we’re uncomfortable with ambiguity). This style paints a very different picture of the world from that of science fiction: the real world isn’t nearly as Analog (*ahem*) as some like to believe, and doesn’t always provide easy or definite answers; the world seen through the distorting lens of fantasy is even less certain. Towards the end, Jasper imagines he sees the Raptor in Uncle Moon, suggesting that the uncle’s time has come and that he’ll soon be taken away from the children. When he’s carried off by Halloween revelers, the world suddenly seem less sinister, though it’s not clear this removal will be permanent—and if it is, and if Jasper saw things clearly, it bodes ill for Claudia, in whom Jasper also sees the Raptor beginning to grow. More likely, Jasper sees the growing light of adulthood in his sister, but multiple interpretations can be sustained here.

Chappell’s a poet, and it shows in his skillful use of images and childhood tropes, including the old widow whose house nobody wants to visit on Halloween. (We had one of them too when I was a kid. It seems a ubiquitous thing.) There are echoes of vintage Bradbury, but Chappell’s is a very different poetry from Bradbury’s: it’s child-literal rather than childhood-as-remembered-by-an-adult, and this makes the story feel more real than the intensely romanticized Bradbury version. It’s a significant achievement to be able to meld the separate worlds of children and adults so skillfully and to successfully remind us of how the worldview of childhood, though naïve, is anything but simple. In particular, Chappell does a great job of illustrating how children construct their reality by trying to impose some sort of comprehensible logic upon it; lacking the ability to understand adult logic, they impose a very different logic (such as that of The Moonlight Robbers) that is easier to grasp and that better matches what they see. I found this story a serendipitous reminder of how in science fiction, we impose one specific explanation on our world and try to ignore the grey areas where it doesn’t fit, which is where fantasy lurks and offers an alternative explanation. Very nicely done.

©2004–2018 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved