You are here: Home (fiction) --> Book
and short story reviews --> F&SF January/February 2011
Vous êtes ici : Accueil (fiction) --> Book and short story reviews --> F&SF January/February 2011
MacEwen: Home Sweet Bi’ome
Wilhelm: The Bird Cage
Norwood: Long Time
Lawson: Canterbury Hollow
Stoddard: Christmas at Hostage Canyon
Young: The Whirlwind
Cowdrey: The Bogle
Pronzini and Malzberg: Paradise Last
Lupoff: 12:02 P.M.
Foster: Ghost Wind: A Mad Amos Malone Story
Corradi: The Ghiling Blade
The bi’ome (biological home) of the story’s title is a custom-tailored habitat for someone with multiple chemical sensitivities (what MacEwen calls “hyperallergic syndrome”). It’s bred directly from the person’s own cells, leading to what the narrator took for granted but I found more than a little creepy: windows grown from cornea tissue, floor tiles from teeth, and (perhaps the shaggiest aspect of what would be a shaggy dog story were it longer) a carpet grown from pubic hair. Then there are the erectile “nipillows” on the bed... an amusing, if mildly improbable, notion.
The story begins when our protagoness wakes with an unbearable itching all over her body and calls for help (an EMT for her house). Help arrives in the form of Reynard Fox (cruelly so-named by his mother for love of the French pun on “renard”, a fox), a multiply-pierced and tattoed youngster. There’s considerable witty wordplay between the two, particularly when Rey recognizes the nature of the carpet. A favorite line: “Paralyzed by the sudden suspicion that my house might have more of a social life than I did...” But a troubling connection has arisen: we learn that owners and their bi’omes occasionally develop something of a symbiosis, and what one feels the other may feel too.
[Spoilers] Like any other biological organism, the house can become infected—and when the narrator wakes one morning to all-over itching, she discovers her bi’ome’s been infected with chicken pox. The chicken pox was transmitted, we subsequently learn, by “nubats” that have been genetically engineered for resistance to some of the bat plagues that are currently decimating bat populations throughout North America, but unfortunately, some of the transgenes used in this process were human, so the bats become vulnerable to carrying and transmitting human diseases. When the bats took shelter for the winter under our narrator’s roof (entering through vents that resemble nostrils), they infected the house. Since the same infection seems to be striking other bi’omes, the government quarantines everyone in their infected home, and Rey, a bit slow in leaving, is trapped alongside our narrator. The government delivers many gallons of calamine lotion so the two can paint the house, which makes things easier, but there’s no cure for chicken pox other than time, so the two are stuck there.
The romance that inevitably blossoms between the two quarantinees will surprise nobody, but it’s still sweetly handled. (Stretching a point, one can also see a bit of a pun in the way Rey “gets under her skin”. [A look back: Had the story been written as a serious exploration of the mind–body problem, it would have been an interesting metaphor for the mind or soul and the physical home it lives in. That clearly wasn't the intent here.—GH) The SFnal premise takes a bit more suspension of belief than usual, but is still a fun thought exercise in the consequences of biotechnology. All in all, a slight but well-crafted and fun romp.
Grace Wooten is doing research for millionnaire Edward Markham, who’s dying of Parkinson’s disease. Her goal isn’t to cure the disease, but rather to induce a form of cold sleep (hibernation or suspended animation) that will preserve the patient until a cure can be found. Like all good medical researchers, she has severe ethical qualms about moving to human trials before she’s satisfied with the results of her animal trials; like anyone who’s dying, Markham wants to skip the careful science and go right to the human trials in the hope that Wooten can save him before he deteriorates so badly it no longer matters. (My father died of Parkinson’s, and it’s not a clean death. I instantly understood Markham’s desperation and the pressure he places on Wooten.)
This is the kind of ethical dilemma that’s increasingly arising as people become more medically knowledgeable (through education or the Internet) and more desperate to try any cure, no matter how farfetched, to preserve their life. The problem’s exacerbated by the increasing ability of medical research to turn up seemingly promising solutions; most non-scientists completely fail to understand how long it takes to pursue such leads until it becomes clear whether they will ever live up to their potential, and place enormous pressure on doctors to take any risk to save their life. I blame this on what I call the Star Trek syndrome, in which Dr. McCoy solves in minutes or days medical problems that would realistically take years to solve, no matter how brilliant the researcher. We see this most egregiously nowadays in House, M.D., which I love for Hugh Laurie’s acting but despise for its cavalier treatment of medical science.
In short order, we meet Jean Biondi, salesclerk at a fabric store, and Trevor McCrutchen, who’s playing poker with his buddies. Jean experiences a exquisitely detailed flashback—accompanied by a deliberately jarring shift into present-tense narration that made me backtrack to see if I’d missed something, and which therefore became a very effective technique for feeling what Jean must have felt. The incident is from her youth, when a childhood friend fell through the ice in a pond after she urged him (against his better judgment) to walk out onto the pond. Jean immediately feels chilled to the bone, as if she were herself experiencing the accident. Similarly, Trevor flashes back to his youth, but this time the accident involves firecrackers and a grass fire, and instead of ice, he feels his brother’s burning legs instead of the burns he suffered to his own hands while trying to extinguish the flames. The uniting link between the two stories is that both flashbacks center on Cody, Jean’s childhood friend and Trevor’s brother. So what’s going on here?
[Spoilers] Jean begins repeatedly reliving the events at the pond, as Trevor endlessly relives the events of the fire. Both are so traumatized by the vividness of the images they can barely sleep, and become increasingly exhausted. Simultaneously, Dr. Wooten has been pressured into starting human trials of her technique, and we learn of a mysterious young man sleeping in her study room, chilled nearly to the point of fatal hypothermia, while Markham waits with increasing impatience for his turn at treatment. For a reader of F&SF, the evidence points to an inevitable conclusion: the sleeping patient must be Cody, who volunteered to be a human guinea pig, and something about his sleep state is causing him to project shared memories to anyone who shared a traumatic connection with him in the past. This is where many authors would go astray, playing to the reader’s expectations (i.e., assuming that we know what the author knows). But Wilhelm remains true to her characters, who aren’t fen and can’t know that they’re in an F&SF story. They must collect evidence to convince themselves what’s going on.
That evidence builds when Cody’s ex-girlfriend commits suicide, and his mother crashes her car. The last words she utters before they take her in for surgery are to ask Cody for forgiveness. (Two more pieces of evidence for those who have not already reached the correct conclusion.) Jean and Trevor meet when Jean comes searching for Cody, hoping to expiate her guilt and eliminate the flashbacks. They stay together out of fear that if either has another flashback, perhaps while driving, nobody else will be there to watch over them; Wilhelm effectively captures the despair they feel that their torment may never end. But they’re not helpless, and in their subsequent investigation, they reveal Cody’s connection with Markham, and learn that he is indeed the guinea pig in Wooten’s study. The buildup to reach this point in the story went on too long for my taste, but it’s an important authorial choice: the characters must live through these events before they can understand what’s going on, even if we’ve reached the conclusion long before they did and are waiting impatiently to move on.
The central conflict in the story becomes Wooten’s choice: Cody survives the experimental treatment, apparently unharmed, but it’s difficult even for Wooten to ignore the possibility that Cody involuntarily (or perhaps voluntarily, via the urgings of his id) harmed many people and killed at least one. Can Wooten ignore this evidence by focusing on the importance of her research and ignore her conscience long enough to try the treatment on Markham, knowing that if she guessed wrong Markham will harm a great many people? In the end, Wooten’s solution is to kill Markham, aided and abetted by her long-time assistant Sumner, in such a way as to make it look like he died naturally in his sleep. I can certainly believe this choice; if anyone can manage a murder without being detected, it’s a doctor. I can also accept their willingness to kill Markham—we humans being consummate rationalizers, and Wooten having been clearly established as someone capable of fooling herself in the service of her research. But I couldn’t swallow the notion that both Wooten and Sumner would so violate their Hippocratic oath without any evidence of the emotional cost (they do not debate this solution in any way), nor do I believe they could give no sign of what they’ve done when the police arrive to investigate the death. I’m told by people who should know that only a true psychopath or someone with considerable experience at murder can kill another human with no emotional consequences, or can hide those consequences from a trained investigator. It’s simply too much of a stretch for both doctors to be psychopaths, and the story’s final resolution is therefore unsatisfying.
Wilhelm’s writing is simple, lucid, and straightforward, with few flourishes, but there are many nice elements to the story. The way that Jean and Trevor work together to watch over each other (constantly talking while driving so that the passenger can take over if the driver has a flashback, Jean watching while Trevor cooks to prevent a kitchen fire) is nicely done; two people come together under serious adversity, and don’t immediately fall into bed, as they would in any Hollywood film or lesser work of fiction. The difference between the two scientists in how they look at the world (Sumner skeptical but willing to consider the possibility that something weird is going on, Wooten refusing to believe it because of the consequences for her research) leads to the source of the title, based on one of Wooten’s long-ago remarks (and one of Wilhelm’s rare flourishes): “the mind is a bird in a cage that has no door”. The cold sleep treatment that she and Sumner have been exploring apparently frees the bird, with potentially dangerous consequences. This raises the dilemma of whether it would have been ethical to try the treatment on someone as nasty as Markham, since he would be a very different and nasty bird to release. But this dilemma isn’t resolved, only postponed, since Wooten will clearly continue her research and try the technique on other patients. A thought-provoking tale, if not entirely convincing.
Long Time is the story of John Smith (“... I told him, using the Sumerian word for ‘Smith’, of course”), an immortal and possibly a demi-god, roaming the legendary world of the Sumerians Gilgamesh and Enkidu, who appear in the story with the narrator’s trademark irreverence as “Gil” and “Enki”. John is a hardened, cynical survivor who thinks nothing of luring his army unit’s inevitable bully into flirting with John’s new wife, Enhe, just so he can kill the man like swatting a fly to warn away others—yet John is also a gentle and considerate lover, has considerable empathy for those who deserve it, and is a good judge of his fellow men.
The story gets rolling when Ishtar gets involved in events, as she does in the Gilgamesh legend. I don’t recall (and a quick search didn’t find) any associations between Ishtar and the color violet, which John describes as the glow emerging from her temple and from Ishtar herself when he meets her again later in the story. Purple has traditionally been the color of royalty and power, since up until relatively recent (medieval?) times, it was only available as an expensive dye (Tyrian purple) made from sea snails that were found only in Asia Minor. That seems the most likely explanation for the color. Given that Ishtar is wearing purple clothing and eating purple grapes at the time, it’s possibly just a goddess/vanity thing. However, violet is also sometimes used as a symbol of sexuality (due to the flushing of some skin that arises during lovemaking), and since Ishtar’s goddess portfolio includes sexuality, that’s another possible explanation. Or it may just have been colorful stage dressing, and a clue that John is something more than mortal given how he sees the violet when nobody else does.
John reminded me strikingly of Odysseus, who is a considerably darker character than many readers remember, and many aspects of his personality match those of Homer’s sort-of hero, with strong dashes of Zelazny’s various immortals thrown in for good measure. For example, John defeats the three giants from the Gilgamesh legend through guile, not brute strength. Norwood’s description of the giants is innovatively different from most other depictions I’ve seen: As Norwood describes them, they are far too strong for even a mortal hero like Gilgamesh (who is taken down a great many pegs in this story) to confront directly, and they’re not stupid monsters; not only do they beat a strategic retreat when necessary, they are in many ways more sympathetic than the humans who are hunting them for no good reason other than to build Gilgamesh’s legend (they are brothers and they “kept themselves cleaner than civilized people”). Gilgamesh’s men worry at the giants like wolves attacking a bull moose, eventually fatiguing them so greatly that the giants are forced to retreat to the shelter of their fortresslike home, where John sneaks in and assassinates them before they realize what’s happening. Compare this with Odysseus and the Cyclops and you’ll see many similarities, except that John is far more courageous than his Greek counterpart, if no less cunning. Gilgamesh subsequently takes credit for this victory, as leaders are wont to do, and Norwood skillfully reminds us of how memory becomes myth. He reiterates the point when he describes the legendary slaying of the “bull of heaven” by Gilgamesh and Enkidu as a staged slaughter of an animal that was drugged rather than a heroic feat. Of course, this also raises the question of just how reliable John is when narrating his own story.
[Spoilers] We subsequently learn that John’s curse is the result of his grandfather having offended “Pan” (though John notes this was not the god’s actual Sumerian name), forcing Pan to take his revenge on the man’s descendants down through the generations. “No hard feelings, though,” Pan tells John, offering an insightful glimpse into the ways of gods: they’re petty, but they take their duties (especially revenge) terribly seriously. John tells us that he kills Pan many years later in Egypt, which is true to the anecdote in Plutarch’s history, though it’s not clear whether Pan actually died, and if so, who killed him. This kind of behind-the-scenes history is lots of fun. We also get to see, from sufficient remove to appreciate the irony, how Gilgamesh’s rejection of Ishtar’s advances in favor of his lover, Enkidu, leads inevitably to Enkidu’s death. But spurned goddesses have a long memory, and Ishtar isn’t done making Gilgamesh suffer. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh goes mad, as in the legend, and among many other sins, he kills John’s wife, Enhe. The only reason John doesn’t kill Gilgamesh in short order is that he prefers to see the King suffer. Gilgamesh’s newfound desire for immortality leads him on a quest for the local equivalent of the fountain of youth, encouraged by a slyly malicious Ishtar in the guise of the tavernkeeper Siduri (as in the legend). She sends him in search of Utnapishtim, immortal as in the legend but also a devious con artist well known to John. John accompanies Gilgamesh across the Sumerian equivalent of the River Styx, enjoying his enemy’s descent into ever more abject misery. (A favorite line along the way: “There are many stories of love between gods and mortals, and none of them end well for the mortals.”)
The overall tone is cynical, convincingly told by someone who’s had the lessons of the centuries to burn away any romantic delusions. For example, John remarks that the region’s incessant wars at this time were a symptom of the eternal battle between older and younger men, and that the wars were a way to both keep these youths from troubling their elders at home and to thin down the population enough to ensure that the harvest would sustain the survivors. Some patterns such as this one have aquired a different veneer over the millennia, but are still recognizable in essence today. Many of the accompanying details are very nicely done indeed, like the lake-blue lapis lazuli and the observation that John recognized royalty because “they [still] had all their teeth”. Some works less well. “Memory is time’s fool” is a near miss, because the possessive form suggests a king’s jester, and it’s more work than necessary to get past that image and reach the powerful heart of the metaphor and the story, namely that memory is an unreliable witness.
Interestingly, John doesn’t seem to have any correlates with mythological figures I’m familiar with, pre- or post-Sumerian. [A look back: After posting this review, a reader kindly suggested that John is actually Cain. That makes a lot of sense given that Cain was cursed to wander eternally, and is also strongly supported by the army sergeant's allusion to John's seemingly Jewish name. The allusion is so obvious that the only reason I can think why I missed it was because I consider the Jewish foundation myths to come after, not before, the Sumerians. But given that one core of the story is how myths change and evolve as they pass from civilization to civilization, I see this as authorial cleverness, not a narrative error.--GH] This makes sense if you consider that to survive, an immortal would have to slip under the radar to avoid attracting the kind of attention that today would inevitably lead to capture and vivisection to see what makes him tick and whether it could be bottled and sold. Also, there’s no major character arc in this story: John begins and ends as largely the same person. That’s also not too surprising given that we all tend to fall into familiar patterns as we age, and given that John is very old, it would take a major shock to jolt him out of patterns learned as a tool for survival. I hope we’ll eventually see another story in which John experiences that jolt; the results would be fascinating.
Only one detail misses the target outright: John describes dickering with Enhe’s father for the bride price, and not knowing whether he or the father would be paying that price. This earns points for recognizing that dowry practices vary over time and among cultures, but loses points because John should know instantly who would be paying based on which direction the price is headed. A potentially more significant flaw with the story is mostly of interest to nitpickers and writers learning the trade, because it’s a structural flaw that results from the use of an immortal narrator speaking of his distant past. The flaw emerges when John refers to “Ishtar”, who was the Babylonian equivalent to Sumeria’s Innana. Since the Sumerians came before the Babylonians, and Gilgamesh is Sumerian, John (from an older age) should have referred to her either by her older name (Innana) because that’s correct for the story’s time period, should have chosen an even older name for a fertility goddess to give us a clue to John’s origins, or should have made it clear this was a memory slip. Norwood patches this up as a memory slip several pages after he introduces Ishtar, but it seems an awkward solution given that John has no other memory lapses that stood out. The slip should have been patched immediately when we meet Ishtar (as Norwood does when we meet Pan) to make it clear this is intentional, and an example of unreliable memory, rather than lingering for several pages as what appears to be an authorial error.
My usual quibbles notwithstanding, Long Time is a fine story with an engaging protagonist, an adventure story with more depth than might at first appear if you focus only on events, and apart from the few glitches I’ve noted, skillfully and entertainingly crafted. The overall moral is how myths and legends come down to us altered beyond recognition from their original circumstances, often concealing the true heros and raising the (mis)fortunate to undeserved prominence. Norwood also makes clear, without coming right out and saying it, how tragedy does not change who we truly are, but rather reveals and exaggerates our true selves.
Musca is a (literally) sunscorched world, settled during a rare period of stability when its binary suns provided an environment suitable for human life. But the settlers were Nivened—a term I coined to describe the fate of the Crashlanders, Wunderlanders, Canyon residents, and many others in Niven’s Known Space universe who end up on nearly uninhabitable planets because of poor choices by the mission planners or sheer random malevolent luck (being in the wrong place at the wrong time). Here, the problem is that Musca’s primary star has gone unstable and burned away the planet’s atmosphere, forcing the settlers to dig deep underground to create caverns in which they can survive. As in Niven’s stories, it’s a hugely resonant background if you’re willing to think through the human consequences of trying to find love and live your life under severely constrained circumstances. Lawson has clearly thought this through.
So it is that we meet Arlyana and Moko in the “sundome”, the only viewing port where the surviving humans can come to the surface and watch the sun. The two stay long after most other citizens have fled the rising sun, and even take an automated bus out onto the surface to explore the ruins of the nearby city, including what’s left of an orbital elevator. The elevator provides a strong clue to the strength of the civilization’s original technology level, but is also an image that reminded me irresistably of Shelley’s poem Ozymandias. When the sun flares during their excursion, and radiation levels increase to unacceptable levels, the bus’s AI system tells them it must return to shelter to preserve their lives, but both characters hold up “ballot cards”, revealing that they’ve been declared superfluous to their society. We learn that despite the settlement’s powerful original technology, and the presence of the robots and AI systems, this is a civilization clinging desperately to survival. Sophisticated though their civilization once was, it lacks the near-magical technology that would be required to create water and air from scratch, and in the absence of alternative supplies, the environment has a severely constrained carrying capacity: to make way for new lives, some citizens are randomly chosen to die. Much like in Godwin’s infamous The Cold Equations, there’s sometimes little mercy to be found in a cold and uncaring universe.
[spoilers] Both characters claim to despise ballot romances (the desperate last-days flings people engage in as their time nears), yet they’re drawn together by their commonalities (e.g., a shared desire to see the sun that has killed them before they must die) and—to be honest—because protests notwithstanding, both want some profound human contact before they die. It’s an eminently believable rationale for their relationship, and far more plausible than most of the excuses authors invent to bring two people together in the tightly constrained space of a short story. Moko has no ambitions for his final days until he meets Arlyana, whose ambitions are to revisit her society’s whole life cycle before she dies: visit the First Chamber (the survival shelter the settlers built when their fate first became apparent), leave a drop of blood at the Heritage Wall (a family tree of sorts where people leave a blood spot and name behind to commemorate them after they’re gone), and make the difficult climb to the eponymous Canterbury Hollow, which we eventually learn is the cathedral-like “recycling” center where everyone goes to die and return their organic remains to their society so the remains can sustain the lives of the remaining settlers. We learn towards the end that both could have escaped their fates: Moko could have joined his brother on a spaceship run by a religious order, the Brothers of Light, but can’t make himself live the lie that would be required; Arlyana sacrificed her life by taking her sister’s ballot, believing her sister to be pregnant and only subsequently learning she’d been manipulated and that her sister only became pregnant afterwards.
The story context is strong and poignant without being manipulative, but what really shines are the two central characters. Moko is resigned to his fate, yet maintains the rituals of daily life (e.g., shaving his face). Arlyana seems initially the stronger and more decisive of the two, taking active control over her fate rather than waiting passively for the end, yet there are things in her past that she’s hiding from Moko and powerful emotions she’s denying. And Lawson nails the details. When Arlyana finally begins to weep, Moko comforts her: “Not knowing what to say, Moko said nothing, which was exactly right.” Arlyana chooses to split her (longer) remaining time with Moko so they can stay together longer, and it’s a heartfelt touch; the quality of the lives we live at our end is more important than their duration. Both accept their collective responsibility to help their fellows survive rather than raging against their fate, and that sense of duty is something that often seems missing from Western society. Arlyana’s plan is to climb the pinnacle above Canterbury Hollow and then leap to her death, making death a matter of her own choosing rather than something finally imposed upon her by the powers that be; Moko agrees to come along, and they tie their wrists together before they jump. I think I’d personally rather do the Romeo and Juliet thing (die while slipping into the darkness in the arms of my lover), but “different strokes” as they say.
The only major mis-step is a two-paragraph didactic blurb at the end about evolution and the value of death to the survival of a species; it’s badly out of place, and though it’s true to the spirit of the story, it makes explicit what was working perfectly up to that point by being left implicit. It’s an inappropriate authorial intrusion that adds nothing to the story. However, I also confess to wondering why the settlers stay in a system that, no matter how good the technology, will eventually run down as crucial resources of water and oxygen are lost; we’re not given enough background to understand why they haven’t simply been evacuated by starship to other places or why they haven’t imported raw materials from elsewhere their solar system, such as cometary water and oxygen. (We know they have quite good capacity for interplanetary travel because one of Moko’s brothers is “50 light-hours” away from the planet in a ship, and that there may be multiple ships.) These issues notwithstanding, it’s a poignant and heartfelt story, and one I’ll remember.
Irrepressible Eric (9 or 10) and his more serious older (young teen) brother Daniel are traveling with their parents to visit their childless aunt and uncle in Hostage Canyon, so-named because it was where the Apaches used to ransom back their captives. Right from the start, with phrases like “the family rolled like tumbleweeds through the flat expanse of West Texas”, it’s clear this will be an exercise in style, not just plot. And it’s a delightfully acerbic style, playful without being obtrusive, mingling humor and serious intent in interesting ways. When Eric is too excited to sleep, he is “tired but unwilling to turn loose of the day”. Any tale about youth will inevitably be compared with early Bradbury; Hostage Canyon is Bradbury without the sepia tones.
Details are lush without overwhelming, as in Stoddard’s understated but unmistakable contempt for Christmas excess: “inflatable choirs on the lawn generated music” (i.e., mechanically and with no soul), and in what world does it make sense to have inflatable Power Rangers as Christmas lawn ornaments? Favorite lines that are both cleverly worded and important statements of character: After learning from Daniel that Santa is not real, “[Eric] idolizing his big brother, who sometimes teased but never lied to him, ... not without a period of mourning, thereafter realigned his theology.” After learning where his parents hide the unwrapped presents, “Eric had a fairly accurate picture of the intentions of the Claus organization.” And last but not least (so I don’t end up quoting half the story), “Daniel had accused [Eric] of being afraid of the dark, a butal denunciation since it happened to be true.”
The plot gets rolling when, amidst the festive excess of a community where everyone tries to outdo their neighbors with decorating their property, Eric spots a mysterious and deeply scary creature, like “an elf gone bad”. And nobody else sees it, so when the elf threatens Eric with “death on Christmas eve”, we know he’ll be alone in facing it. Is this is all just a bad dream, brought on by fatigue, overexcitement, and a youthful mind overstimulated by video games? Indeed, after an uneventful night’s sleep, Eric finds his previous encounter with the elf just a little bit unbelievable, which is very true to how sleep tends to distance us from life’s greater and lesser traumas.
[spoilers] When the elf breaks into the house, waking nobody but Eric, it smashes in the front door and trashes the living room (including beheading the angel atop the Christmas tree—a macabre touch that has symbolism we’ll shortly discover). When Eric tries to wake his parents, the doorknob to their room recedes faster than he can reach for it. All of this dreamlike detail suggests that what Eric is experiencing could indeed be nothing more than a dream, and some authors would leave the reality of Eric’s perceptions an open question, but Stoddard has no intention of leaving us hanging. When the elf reveals that it’s an ancient evil, long-term foe of humanity (hence the beheading of the Christian angel), and that it must kill Eric to give it permanent access to the human plane of existence, it invokes the darkness of the winter solstice as a traditional time when evil things cross over into our world. By referring to places of power such as Auschwitz and the Soviet Solovski gulag and even Hostage Canyon, it’s clear that despite the nightmare imagery, this is all too real. These are all symbols few 10-year-olds could possibly know about.
There are many touches both subtle and powerful in this story. The echoes of the darker pre-Christian past, expropriated by the early Christians to create the Christmas holiday and banish the old fears of this time of year, give the story depth and strength. The elf’s true evil is revealed not by Hollywood special effects, but rather by how skillfully it lies about its intention to kill Eric, then offers instead to kill Daniel in his place, playing on all of a 10-year-old’s worst instincts to make the sale. But Eric overcomes that temptation, relying on his mother’s constant insistence that Eric do the right thing, his father’s example as a soldier (the shortsighted modern disrespect for the profession of soldier notwithstanding), and even the example of comic-book heroes such as Captain America.
It’s no coincidence that when Santa arrives to save the day, he’s armored like a comic book knight. Most of us forget that the modern “jolly old Saint Nick” started his life as Saint Nicholas. Though the historical saint was not a literal warrior, he was nonetheless a saint, and thus a metaphorical warrior against evil. Here, he appears in a guise that a 10-year-old eagerly awaiting the chance to open his video game gift (Monster Hero) would expect a saint to assume. The most potent symbols are those that have personal meaning, and in this case, Santa is simultaneously the force for good that one would expect from a saint and a youngster’s image of the form such a force would take. That personalization of the symbol is an insightful touch, but also a sly reference back to Eric having to rewire his theology as his worldview changes. A somewhat tongue-in-cheek swordfight ensues between Santa and the elf, though the point and the stakes are deadly serious: the elf seems to be on the point of winning, having Santa down and awaiting the coup de grace, when Eric seizes the baseball bat (a gift from his brother) [a look back: which has been clearly dangled, like Chekhov's gun on the mantlepiece--GH] and gives the elf a whack, distracting him long enough for Santa to regain his feet and triumph. Whatever one’s opinions of the relative combat strengths of Christian saints and Unseelie knights, I suspect that Santa staged this moment to give Eric one last chance to act rather than being exclusively acted upon. In a final playful moment and tip of the hat to The Night Before Christmas, Stoddard’s Santa escapes up the chimney when his work is done and flies away with his bison-sized reindeer.
One of the pleasures of writing these reviews is researching things I didn’t formerly know (and frequently being reminded by readers of things I did know or should have known *G*). When Santa refers to himself, among other names, as Hoteiosho, I looked up the name and found this to be the name of a Japanese Buddhist monk with a role similar to that played by Santa in western mythology. It’s a clever invocation of archetypes—eternal forces and symbols that span cultures, like Campbell’s “hero with a thousand faces”. Whatever you may think of the theology, it’s a fine tale, rich with symbol yet not overburdened by it, entertainingly told, with both warm humor and serious intent at its heart.
Ben Lawton wakes, weak and amnesic, in a crappy shed in a dusty desert. He’s woken by an angry and very crusty Sig Svoboda, who tells him “the whirlwind” needs to see him. Dazed, confused, Ben staggers out of the shed—only to see what really appears to be a talking whirlwind. He’s got no more idea of what’s going on here than we do, but we quickly receive clues: Sig observes bitterly that “we’ve all been edited here”, then confirms for us that we’re in some kind of VR situation when he grabs a passing rattlesnake, lets it bite him, then shows Ben that there are no marks and no apparent effect from the venom. The whirlwind tells Ben he must forgive Kyla Chen for her role in the crime that brought them all here, and try to help her; she’s become partially paralyzed, for reasons that are initially unclear, but bringing her to the local hot springs should heal her.
The whirlwind then deposits her at Ben’s feet. With Ben’s help, the two move slowly towards the hot springs. Kyla tries to learn what Ben knows, and then starts to fill him in: she is clearly (and clumsily) trying to hide something, initially telling Ben only that the software “Administrators” she created to govern this VR world never listen to her advice, but that her whole purpose in creating this simulation is to heal Sig by making him less antisocial and more empathetic. Sig, of course, has no intention of going along with this; he likes what he is and doesn’t want anyone to tamper with him, and he’s prepared to hurt people to get his way; Kyla’s paralysis probably resulted from an ongoing software battle between Sig and Kyla. The hotsprings do indeed heal Kyla, and the conflict resumes.
[Spoilers] Along the way, Ben learns that the three humans are here because Kyla (his Boss) ignored his advice, as corporate ethicist, to not let Sig proceed with his nanotech research. As a result, Sig’s plan to use nanotech to scan humans down to the quantum level and upload them into computers is implemented, resulting in the current situation. Unfortunately, the scanning process requires killing the person being scanned because the process dissassembles them at a molecular level. It seems likely this would take some time, and would not be at all pleaseant if you’re conscious during the process—and Sig gives us no reason to believe this would bother him in the least. As if that’s not unpleasant enough, we learn that one of Sig’s last acts before releasing the nanotech was to ensure that Ben wouldn’t be uploaded after his scan; in effect, Sig murdered Ben. This is already disturbing, but it gets worse once you think through the implications of a final bit of uniquely nasty unpleasantness: the Administrators tell Ben they don’t really understand humans, but they’re trying hard by reconstructing him forensically from whatever was left after his botched scans so he can help them fight Sig. This will only take a few seconds in the real world, they say, but “it doesn’t really matter, Ben, because here in the substrate we have all the time in the world.” That’s every bit as nasty as the fate suffered by the protagonist in what may be Harlan Ellison’s creepiest tale, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. Whirlwind may not be a direct descendant of Ellison’s exercise in exploring human torment, but it’s clearly a spiritual cousin. Here, though, the malice is inadvertent and arises from a simple lack of understanding rather than deliberate intent. Kyla and Sig have clearly sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind, as the title foreshadows, and receive the usual reward for their hubris.
Though the plot is strong and effective, I had some problems with the characters that initially kept me from appreciating the story. The use of Ben’s editing-induced amnesia to let Kyla provide infodumps that bring him up to speed is a clever narrative device, but it flirts with the wrong side of the line that divides infodump from effective narration. More seriously, it distances us from Ben, enough so that I never felt any real sense of him as a person. That’s perfectly consistent with the story’s internal logic, but it’s problematic from a literary perspective because of the resulting distancing effect for the reader. Sig’s megalomania is clearly foreshadowed, so it comes as no surprise that he’s a nasty piece of work (i.e., it’s not telegraphed, but rather a logical evolution from the evidence we’ve been given). There are strong echoes of Sturgeon’s Microcosmic God that hint at more depth.
Here’s the problem: you might not see that depth. As nastiness is Sig’s only real characteristic, this makes him seem somewhat less than fully realized. The literary problem with these characters is that the entire plot seems motivated by a love triangle seen only from inferences about the much larger, shadowy background to the story—one that you’ll miss unless you’re willing to do the detective work required to reconstruct it. There are strong implications that Kyla loved Sig so much that she looked the other way and let him scan himself and others purely so that she could apply her software skills to healing him once he was in the VR environment. Sig’s madness then made him so jealous of Ben’s seeming influence on Kyla that he felt obliged to murder Ben. But we don’t see any aspect of Sig other than his madness, so it’s not clear what Kyla saw in him.
A story that initially didn’t affect me much acquired a much more powerful impact when I thought about what original reality must have cast the VR shadows of itself that we see in this story, and what the events of the story actually meant for the characters living through it. One of the virtues of a deeper reading is that it often reveals something very interesting in what superficially doesn’t seem to be much of a story. Here, that story packs a powerful punch once you realize how carefully Young has left a wealth of key background details fully implicit. It’s a technically impressive piece of craftsmanship, but its punch may be lost for many readers because it provides too little character detail to inspire a casual reader to dig deeper and get to the real story.
Donny McClachlan is our POV character. When the story begins, he’s 15 years old and just returning from his mother’s funeral. Within a few short sentences, we learn his age, that the story’s set in Maryland, and that a “bogle” (which Donny’s father subsequently tells us means “something from beyond”) was somehow involved in a traumatic recent event. Much like showing up early for a theatrical performance where there’s no curtain, the stage is set and we can settle into our seats to learn how the director will use it once the drama begins.
That drama begins with the story returning some 8 years into the past. We learn that Donny’s much older brother (10 years) Tommy is gone, missing in action after the first major North Korean counteroffensive of the Korean war. Tommy was always Mama’s special boy, and Cowdrey hints right from the start that Papa may not have been the father, and may instead have been manipulated into marrying Mama so that her boy wouldn’t be born out of wedlock. But he was also a nasty piece of work; a real hellion, he once beat Donny with a baseball bat for leaving his catcher’s mitt out in the rain, and later nearly killed a kid with his switchblade (iconic bad-boy gear from the 1960s) in a drunken brawl. So Donny is actually rather relieved that his brother won’t be coming back. Then, one day, Papa sees an apparition: “it was thin and bluish and fluttered in the wind like wash on a line”. Not long afterwards, as Donny is returning home from school after sunset, having stayed late due to a detention, he sees the bogle on the front porch, and from how it moves and holds itself, he’s certain it’s Tommy. Is this Tommy’s shade, returned to haunt them?
[Spoilers] Yes and no. We learn that Tommy nearly died in Korea, and that at a MASH unit, a clerk misidentified him in the records and that it took some time to straighten out the mess because the Army couldn’t contact the other person’s family. Tommy is now in a coma, and Mama insists on bringing him home to care for him. There’s a certain shared literary convention in SF/F that when someone is in a coma or similar state, their mind is freed to wander. That initially seems to be what’s happened to Tommy, but things are far more sinister. When Donny is hit by a car outside their home one night, he nearly dies; Papa must revive him through artificial respiration. While Papa is outside, Tommy’s body dies, and when Donny wakes, his personality has changed for the worse. Mama’s reaction to Tommy’s death carries more than the surface meaning: “For weeks, Mama was almost out of commission. Even when she began to function again, her dour spirit darkened the house, for while God made the weather outside, Mama made it inside.” That isn’t just a casually clever turn of phrase, since we learn that Mama had long ago stopped praying to God (if she ever did) to return her son, and instead turned to a capital-F “Friend”. It’s not hard to guess who this must be.
Most readers will guess what has happened to Donny, but Cowdrey remains true to his characters and must let them figure things out within their story context. So we learn a few clues through the eyes of the parents. Initially, Mama doesn’t see what has happened, and only Papa notices when “Donny” begins letting slip details only Tommy could have known, such as the coldness of the wind from Siberia near the Chosin Reservoir, where Tommy nearly died of cold and wounds—which harks back to the description of the bogle (cold to the point of blue and waving in a cold wind). We also learn why the Army clerk misidentified Tommy: when Tommy found a wounded American soldier who had newer and warmer clothing, he stole the man’s clothing (including his dog tags in a pocket) and left the man to freeze to death.
Papa is suspicious, but it would be hard for most real-world characters to believe what must have happened, and Cowdrey never forgets this. Papa is clearly still trying to be a good father, and when he remarks to “Donny” that the boy’s growing up and getting tall, Tommy responds with a particularly vicious pun: “I’m not Short Stuff [Donny's nickname] any longer.” Papa, now certain what’s happened, watches his son’s progress with horror, but there’s nothing he can do about it: he lacks any resources to deal with such a situation. (Were he a religious man, he would perhaps have consulted his priest, but like many churchgoers of the time, Papa seems to have attended for the community, not out of any religious belief. Indeed, he makes it clear he’s suspicious of all such spooky stuff.) There are hints that Donny is still around and struggling to return (fighting with or haunting Tommy), but in the end, he can only return when Tommy is hit by a baseball during a game, and the resulting concussion (combined with Tommy seeing himself in a mirror, a traditional talisman against the supernatural) lets Donny return. When Mama starts praying to her Friend to return Tommy to Donny’s body, Papa kills her rather than letting this happen.
Cowdrey is the kind of author who works in a raft of details below the water line, almost invisibly, to support the surface details. For example, we learn outright that Tommy is a troubled, aggressive kid who’s both a drinker and a fighter. But did you notice that he chooses to be the baseball team’s catcher, the player most likely to come into violent physical contact with players on the other team when they try to make it back to home plate? Mama’s manipulative nature is clear enough that even a 7-year-old boy can see it, and that’s not a narrative mis-step; it’s both a recognition that children are far more perceptive than we sometimes like to think, and that there’s more to this marriage than meets the eye. Cowdrey slips in many nice turns of phrase without ever drawing too much attention to them: the night sky near sunset is “the purple-black of Scuppernong grapes”, and banners in a wind “boomed like spinnakers in a squall”. These kinds of details permeate his stories, creating a nearly tangible three-dimensionality, and there’s a comfortable rhythm to his style to lead us through the tale.
Cowdrey never forgets what his characters are thinking. My favorite example is his description of the family TV (something new and exciting at this time) as “the big console with the twelve-inch screen”. In an age when most F&SF readers have a netbook or laptop with a bigger screen than that, never mind the 50-inch plasma screen in the living room, this kind of detail is how one immerses oneself in a character’s POV. The relationship between the two parents is cleverly done, and it’s not nice: In an era (the 1950s) when men nominally ruled the roost, the battle of the sexes was often waged like the Cold War. (Sadly, some people still cling to that notion of how a marriage should be.) Here, it’s clear that Mama is the real power behind the throne, and that Papa opposes her rarely and at his peril. This kind of tension between the sexes gibes perfectly with what I’ve inferred from the stories told by parents and others who lived through this era, but the truth turns out to be more sinister (details below).
Papa is in a nasty situation, seemingly helpless to save his son. When he hears Mama’s prayers to her Friend, he’s too intimidated to confront her over this and shrugs it off as just one of those weird things about one’s life partner you learn to accept and ignore. But when Donny was hit by the car, Papa instantly knew this and rushed out to save him; despite his 1950s male reserve, he loves his son and there’s clearly a deep bond between them, and it’s a very different bond from the one between Mama and Tommy. Papa’s words to the ambulance attendants when Mama cries out in anguish from inside the house (“my wife’s son just died”, emphasis mine) make it clear he was never fooled about whose child Tommy was and that a dim sense of rebellion has begun stirring within him. And in the end, when his son is threatened, Papa finally reaches his breaking point; he kills Mama rather than letting her harm Donny by bringing Tommy back.
The events of the story seem simple and straightforward until you piece together the various clues, including Mama’s remark to Papa that she knew certain ways of birth control (in an era before the pill) and that Donny was an accident she never wanted: in hindsight, these methods must have been dark magic, reinforcing our sense of who her “Friend” and Tommy’s father really was, and that magic proves unreliable. This also confirms our suspicion that Mama used what she learned from her Friend to manipulate Papa into marrying her and subsequently keep him under her thumb. She was a far, farmore malevolent character than we at first suspected. Donny’s eventual return is not precisely a happy ending in the conventional sense. Papa’s poignant recognition that his son has learned things during his absence that the father can never imagine, and that he’s growing up, is one of those bittersweet moments all parents must eventually face. But it’s a satisfying and optimistic ending to another powerful tale by Cowdrey.
The zombie craze apparently *ahem* still has some life in it. Ellen Folkes is a zombie, with few memories of her past life, but while wandering through the industrially named Cemetary 6, she encounters a fellow zombie, Leonard Jessel, and is smitten. It’s passionate love at first sight—"paradise last", as the title says—or at least it would be if Leonard weren’t heir to all the ills of the (decaying, male) flesh.
[Spoilers] Leonard, seemingly grown bored with Ellen or perhaps fearing commitment even after the grave, strays, taking up with a bleached (embalmed?) blonde by the name of Rebecca. Ellen, loving Leonard despite his sins, follows Rebecca back to her grave and murders her by pushing the tombstone down upon her, crushing her rival into dust. Leonard, chastened, returns to Ellen, and they (un)live happily ever after.
As always with Pronzini and Malzberg, the writing is simple and effective, and though the details of zombie love are perhaps not for the squeamish, they’re handled with tact and delicacy. Paradise Last is almost a sweet story of finding love after the grave. Almost. There’s a jarring infodump midway through that explains how the zombies arose (they were apparently created as menial labor after “World War III”), which adds nothing to the story and mostly just disrupts the tone. More seriously, the story somehow... um... lacked much life. The twist (substituting zombies for mortals) doesn’t really move this much beyond a conventional “wronged woman gains her revenge and wins back her man” story, and though I empathized with Ellen, I couldn’t quite understand what she saw in Leonard (other than perhaps as a panacea for post-mortem loneliness). Apart from the novelty of the idea, Paradise Last strikes me as a minor story that doesn’t leave much to ponder.
Myron Castleman awakens on a familiar street corner in New York, having done this already countless times. We quickly learn that he’s been reliving the same day endlessly, experiencing what a physicist he consults calls a “time bounce” that lasts no more than an hour; at the end of the hour, it sends him back to the same time when he started. Sadly, Myron is the only one who seems to be experiencing this phenomenon, and everyone else’s memory is rewritten to start over again at 12:02 PM each day. He can’t even leave notes to himself, since the notes also disappear.
Myron is an employee at the oddly named firm of Glamdring and Glamdring. (Glamdring was a sword from Lord of the Rings, forged for an Elf king but eventually acquired by Gandalf. It’s name nominally means “the foe hammer”, which is an odd name for a cutting weapon, though given that it’s a two-handed sword that would indeed carry the impact of a hammer's blow, it sort of makes sense.) The relevance of this allusion to the story isn’t clear to me, though I haven’t read the prequel to the story, and that might have clarified it. But a little Web research suggested that 12:01 P.M. was an extended metaphor for the kind of office worker who both literally and metaphorically works himself into a rut.
[spoilers] The SFnal premise is a bit hand-wavey, involving a metaphor of a collision between two adjacent universes in much the same way as two superballs might collide. As a result of the rebound, Myron is being time-looped. He’s not yet panicking, but it’s clearly not a happy position to be in, and he wants out. But what can you possibly hope to achieve in only an hour? As the story progresses, the alert reader will note (as Myron soon does) that his clock is advancing by 1 minute each time the time bounce repeats (i.e., his window of time between reboots is growing shorter), and that Myron is aging a minute at a time (hair greying, joints hurting), even as the rest of the world returns agelessly to its starting point. In addition, there may be some parallel universe factors at work, since late in the story, Myron notices the name on his identity papers has changed from Castleman to Kastleman.
This is the clue Myron needs to brainstorm his way into a solution: if the superball analogy is valid, he reasons, then it should be possible to put a bit of a spin on the balls in such a way that they miss each other the next time they rebound. Indeed, the decreasing height of each subsequent bounce (the advancing clock) suggests the analogy is sound. To apply that spin, he waits until the final second of his allotted time (now less than an hour), then flings himself out a window high above the ground. That change in his behavior is sufficiently drastic to change the time loop, freeing him from his gradually tightening trap. It’s a clever idea, but seems a bit contrived. It’s not clear why Myron is one of the millions of New Yorkers subjected to the time bounce, or why any act on his part could change the behavior of two whole colliding universes. Possibly this is something hinted at in the prequel? [A look back: Gordon van Gelder posted a link so you can read the prequel online and decide for yourself. I didn't see any particular elements that improved 12:02 for me, but it's a decent story on its own merits.—GH]
On the other hand, it occurred to me that any fictional character is effectively trapped in a rut: no matter how many times you and others read the story they’re living in, it never changes. If you’re the kind of author who always feels a bit guilty abusing your characters for literary ends, and if you’ve read any of the stories in which fictional characters understand that they’re fictional and being forced to endure repeated relivings of their adventures (I’m thinking Jasper Fforde’s books, for instance), one can see 12:02 P.M. as a metaphor for the lives of these pour souls stranded in the world of story. In that sense, it’s kind of nice of Lupoff to return to his story world of 37 years ago and finally free Myron.
Foster rejoins us with another entry in his series of tall tales about Mad Amos, a man-mountain mountain man. How big is Malone? He’s so big that we see“[e]merging from the prodigious eruption of grey-peppered black hirsuteness lying at the head of the two beds, a thunderous great concatenation of torso, arms, and legs sprawled across the pair of groaning mattresses.” In this episode, Amos is grappling with the mundane perils of a head cold, with symptoms as heroically outsized as Amos himself. As the innkeeper remarks to the doctor he’s called in to heal his disruptive guest: “When he sleeps, he snores, and when he snores, the vibration starts to workin’ the nails out o’ the walls and the floor beams. If he coughs, he wakes every guest in the place and the horses in the stable next door try to bolt. And if he blows his nose—if he blows his nose... You don’t want to know, Doc.”
His supernatural opponent this time is the “ghost wind”, which is the logical (if you contort your logic to fit the spirit of the tale) consequence of asking the question of just what happens when “the wind dies”, as it does periodically even in the windiest places on Earth. Mostly, the ghost that remains is peacable, but sometimes it’s downright nasty. This time, Amos is facing the nasty variant. When Doc Stanton wakes the sleeping giant, Amos' supernatural senses instantly tell him something is wrong, and that something is the ghost wind. If nobody intervenes, he realizes, it will tear apart the town. Feeling a certain obligation to the local hooker (the aptly named “Addie the Well”), he dresses for battle and leaves the inn to do battle with the wind, which by now has risen to hurricane intensity and threatens the small town south of Denver.
[Spoilers] To defeat the wind, Amos sucks in a prodigious lungful of air, much like Paul Bunyan drinking down a lake, and propels it right into the face of the wind, twice managing to fight the ghost wind to a standstill. But he’s not in his prime because of the cold, and the wind manages to catch him by surprise and blow him off his feet. The only thing that stops him from winding up somewhere across the nearest ocean is a desperate clutch at the reins of his “horse” Worthless, a steed of similarly titanic proportions with a “Gibralterean” rear end, who is entirely unfazed by the wind (other than to turn his back to it). Amos regains his feet, and just as he’s gathering himself to blow the wind to a standstill, he’s saved by his cold. He sneezes so hard that he entirely shatters the ghost wind, dispersing it and sending it on to wherever dead winds go. In the ensuing calm, the townsfolk emerge from shelter to take stock of their situation, only to find Amos gone (presumably having propelled himself to some other part of the world), leaving only a stranger in his wake. But the stranger is from Nebraska, having been blown a very long way indeed and not quite having realized what happened to him.
Nothing much more to add. Ghost Wind is unabashedly a romp, and an entertaining, easy read that strikes exactly the right balance between the over-the-top description required of a tall tale and the restraint required to turn it into a credible piece of fiction.
Dah’nok is a fisherman of the Selestrii, a poor people in socioeconomic thralldom to the Dinisistrii—free, not slaves, but forced by economics and a rigid caste system to live near the docks by the sea, paying tribute (“quotas”) for the privilege of living by the harbor. The Dinisistrii live atop the cliffs above the harbor, where giant sea spiders use their webs to draw cargos to the top of the cliffs—just the first hint that we’re in for a treat. The town is wraith-haunted, with the wraiths taking both physical form (e.g., the “sharp-toothed guard wraiths” used by the Dinisistrii) and not completely metaphysical form (e.g., describing Dah’nok’s sometimes sharp-tongued wife Suriah as having a wraith wrapped around her heart). The phrase "wraith-haunted world" kept coming to mind, but I couldn’t pin down its source; the wraiths also reminded me strikingly of the “elementals” in Zelazny’s Lord of Light because of their ability to take over a human mind and body.
The Selestrii, who are born to serve and labor and endure, are very different from the Dinisistrii, who are born to rule. It’s not clear whether the people of this story are human, but if not, they’re our cousins under the skin, right down to Corradi’s description of how Dah’nok’s frustration over his lot in life turns to anger, which in turn leads to defiance, an argument with his wife, and flight to the comforts of a harborside tavern and the sympathy of strangers. Dah’nok is an intensely sympathetic character, mostly resigned to his lot but in no way happy with it, and although his wife is very clearly a supporting character, she’s equally sympathetic and believable. Some of Dah’nok’s most human moments come while he teaches his son the ways of the Selestrii, and particularly the management of one’s “ghili”. Ghili is an odd blend of telepathic awareness, spiritual strength, and magic, including the ability to control certain aspects of the world if one possesses ghili related to that aspect. Dah’nok’s ghili, for instance, is related to bone, and when he fishes, he can feel the bones of the fish swimming beneath him.
The plot gets rolling when Dah’nok discovers that his ghiling blade, formerly hung in his shop window until neighborhood disapproval forced him to hide it beneath the floor of his workshop, has gone missing. The blade’s meaning is not initially clear, though because its name contains the root word “ghili”, it clearly has spiritual or magical importance. Fortunately (or not) for Dah’nok, there’s a place where lost things inevitably end up: the Temple of the Obixx. So to find his blade, Dah’nok climbs rickety stairs up the cliffs (stairs only the Selestrii use) to seek his blade amidst myriad lost things, ranging from the concrete (heaps of jewels) to the intriguingly metaphysical (laughter, virginity). The temple is pre-human and otherworldly, with insect-bodied but human-headed statues, floating obelisks, and a sky that is purple rather than the familiar blue seen from the harbor. Its geometry is a blend of an Escher blueprint and the Tardis, and the Obixx is a powerful and sinister nonhuman being with four arms, a snake’s neck, and the hint that it’s being carried about on a cart suspended by one or more legged beings—possibly damned souls who made injudicious bargains with the Obixx.
[Spoilers] As Dah’nok wanders the temple, he encounters increasing strangeness, ending in the room of Lost Stories. As he experiences them, he finds himself particularly attracted to The Journey of the Bone Masters Twenty, who traveled the world mastering their ghili and eventually became powerful enough to defeat the ancient Seelee, whose cities now lie drowned offshore from Dah’nok’s village. He’s nearly lost for good in these stories, until he’s rescued by a small memento his wife foresightfully gave him, an onik shell that contains echoes of her voice and that of their son, “repeating the captured sounds for those who cared to hear them”. In the temple, we learn that Dah’nok’s neglect of the blade let it be lost, and thus it ended up in the temple. But Dah’nok is too late, for the Obixx has already sold it to traders from another dimension who passed through a Portal between worlds. The Obixx offers Dah’nok power in the form of ghili, reminding him of his ties to the bone masters of the lost tale, but Dah’nok is wise enough to know there will be a price he’s unwilling to pay. Recognizing the value of what he already has, he flees the temple and returns to his life.
One of Dah’nok’s lessons to his son is that ghili is a limited resource, and that the Selestrii strive to develop internal strength so they can cope and endure even when ghili fails. Dah’nok tells a clearly autobiographical story about a young Selestrii who tried to earn a place as an apprentice ship-builder, though his ghili wasn’t up to the task and other Selestrii who built ships were far more skilled. He only finds a place because he works cheaply in exchange for the chance at a better future. Yet Dah’nok has freedom, while his co-workers are indentured, and they resent him for it. During his apprenticeship, he creates the eponymous ghili blade, endowing it with much of his ghili, dreaming perhaps of the adventures of the Bone Masters and a greater destiny. After a time, he feels he’s being stalked by a Seelee wraith that is sabotaging his work, and when he turns on it with his ghili blade, he finds himself attacking his master. He’s beaten bloody in punishment, and though his fellow Selestrii mocked his hubris, in the end they feel enough solidarity to rescue him from death.
Dah’nok returns home to the docks, where his own people despise his former arrogance and his pretension that he’s somehow better than they are. Despite this, he finds a companion “not of simple bone but of flesh and blood and complex emotion, one to accompany him not on a journey to the edge of the world, but on an adventure to the end of life”. It’s a lovely and heartfelt description of his wife Suriah and of the real treasures of life, and an unexpectedly happy denouement after his former hubris. We learn that Dah’nok’s wraith has been a part of him for at least as long as Suriah has known him, and that it comes and goes in tune with his fatigue and frustration and pride—yet she loves him enough to bear it and tolerate his flaws because of that love. This is both emblematic of the Selestrii skill at endurance, and a recognition that when you love someone, you forgive them their inevitable imperfections and focus on the things you do love about them. But Dah’nok is shamed by the revelation he was oblivious to his wraith—doubly so because of his criticism of other Selestrii for being blind to their wraiths.
There’s no mundane way to remove Dah’nok’s wraith, and the mystical means are neither trivial nor free of consequences. So he sets himself to do what the Selestrii do best: endure. But because his wraith is ancient and powerful, endurance won’t be enough. Under the wraith’s influence, fights with Suriah escalate until, in a final fit of rage and despair, Dah’nok storms through her workshop, wrecking the place with fists and ghili and even striking Suriah for the first time. Horrified at what he’s become, he overcomes his pride and seeks aid, sailing across the sea to the island of Sulantis where a “water witch” lives; the witch is an ancient spirit, bound eternally to the heart of a wrecked warship, who trades magical favors for a chance to relive the dreams of those who aren’t bound to her island. But she can’t cure him: the wraith wrapped around his heart can only be killed by relinquishing his selfish dreams of a heroic future and focusing his heart on his family. To kill the wraith will require his ghili blade, which can restore the missing piece of his soul he stored in it long ago—while also coming to terms with the fact that the blade (and the adventures it promises) cannot rule his dreams any longer.
Dah’nok leaves to find his ghili blade, ending in the merchant and portal city of Boroxis (a real “bonfire of the vanities”, to borrow a phrase). When he eventually learns of a Phalantian ship (essentially a giant sea-going snail) that may have taken his ghili blade from the Obixx, he pursues it until he can stow away and begin searching the ship for his blade. He succeeds, in part because his exhaustion has made his wraith is so overt he seems one of the crew; by this time he’s become almost more fish than man under the wraith’s influence. When pirates destroy the ship, he surrenders to despair, becoming a fish and losing himself in the sea. But in a nicely foreshadowed turn of events, once he becomes Lost, he’s inevitably found by the Obixx and returned to its temple. The Obixx has his ghili blade again, but also the onik shell that contains the voices of his wife and son, and dangles that shell before him so it can dash whatever remains of his hope. When Dah’nok reaches for the shell, the Obixx pins his hand to the floor with his own blade—but in so doing, restores Dah’nok’s stored ghili. His newfound strength lets him vanquish his wraith, but also leads him to attack the Obixx and wound (perhaps mortally) its own dark wraith. As the magic that holds the temple together fades under the Obixx’s anguish, Dah’nok flees, the temple collapsing around him and flinging him into the sea, where he’s rescued by the other Selestrii and taken home. When Dah’nok wakes, he is himself again, but Suriah sees that his wraith remains, and stabs him with his ghili blade to drive it forth; Dah’nok then (mostly) kills it. It’s no coincidence they do this together, when neither would have succeeded alone.
There are a few small glitches in the story. First, the density of fascinating new things borders on too high. It’s not that Corradi overdoes it, but rather that the story would be a bit offputting to an inexperienced SF/F reader; experienced readers will plow right through it, enjoying the rich texture and waiting for everything to fit together and become clear (which it does in a very satisfying way). Second, it’s not clear why Dah’nok feels the one Phalantian ship he comes across is the one that took his ghili blade. It seems unlikely there’d be only one trade ship, but more unlikely that Dah’nok would fail to sense the blade’s presence or absence with his ghili; like calls to like, and given that he can sense distant fish beneath the ocean’s surface, this seems an inconsistency. Third, it’s not clear how the water witch (previously described as irrevocably tied to her wrecked ship and unable to leave) could come to Suriah and the Selestrii and warn them that Dah’nok needs their help. (Here, I assume that the witch’s situation is not as simple as it might seem on the surface; there are clear hints that she’s a more benign spirit than her legend might suggest.) Lastly, the destruction of the Temple of the Obixx struck me as too Hollywood for the rest of the story, and not in keeping with the rest of the tone.
Nitpicking aside, there are fascinating parallels between the Selestrii and the life of the sea that provides their living. The sea shares the Selestrii nature of tireless endurance, wearing away even the hardest rock with its obdurate patience, not to mention Dah’nok’s restless nature. Yet despite his dreams of a greater destiny, Dah’nok is humbled by his experiences, and finds a way to abandon dreams of glory that his mediocre ghili can never sustain, and to content himself with the gifts he does have (his family foremost among them). While remaining a fisherman at the end, he devotes the rest of his life to hunting and killing the wraiths that periodically slip into his community. Though it seems all of his ghili has been returned to him, by implication leaving his sword a mundane blade, he still uses it to defeat other wraiths. It’s a telling point: the true magic of a hero lies within, not in the tools the hero uses to accomplish their ends; indeed, Corradi makes this explicit with the closing message, that you cannot choose the gifts nature has given you, but that you can choose how you use them.
The language of the story is restrained but rich and heartfelt without ever being manipulative, with many striking images and a deep-felt sense of the importance of the human relationships at the heart of Dah’nok’s story. The Selestrii are fascinatingly human and three-dimensional; they possess many virtues, endurance being only one, but are no saints; they are prey to all the weaknesses of the human heart, and though downtrodden, they are not immune to human pettiness (e.g., adultery, spousal and child abuse, dreaming rather than working to secure their future). The world is equally rich, with portals between dimensions, ghostly wraiths, a caste system that may be based on genetics or something more interesting, the struggle to escape the destiny imposed by one’s caste, and the mystery of the Seelee. It’s the kind of world that could easily sustain a novel, not to mention a great many short stories, and I hope we’ll get to see both kinds of exploration of this world. One of the strongest and most memorable F&SF stories in recent memory.
©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved