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Stories in Fantasy and Science Fiction, July/August 2011 issue

Stories reviewed:

David: Bronsky’s Dates with Death
Beagle: The Way It Works Out and All
Chilson: Less Stately Mansions
Reed: The Ants of Flanders
Aiken: Hair
Saylor: The Witch of Corinth
Bowes: Sir Morgravaine Speaks
Alexander: Someone Like You
Kamza: The Ramshead Algorithm

David: Bronsky’s Dates with Death

Bronsky (“He had a first name, but it atrophied from lack of use”) is an excellent salesman. He’s sold just about everything, including “body parts (genuine, don’t ask)”, just about everywhere, in part because he’s afflicted with something of a curse: during the war (“Pick one. There’s always one.”) he was shot in the head, and this seemingly damaged the governor that stops most people from talking without cease and that lets us censor what we say. As a result, he can speak only the truth as he sees it, and has no inhibitions whatsoever about doing so. His sales success came from his unwillingness to sell products he doesn’t believe in, unlike most salesmen; people therefore sense that they can trust him. Now retired, he’s taken to musing at great length about the inevitability of his death and how ready he is for it—not because he hates his life, but rather because he really doesn’t fear death.

[Spoilers] Death, it seems, has some serious issues with this attitude. As we soon learn, he’s suffering from a major case of what might well be performance anxiety or perhaps just peevish resentment at having to live up to everyone’s expectations, and while he asserts that he could force himself to take someone who’s just waiting to be taken, he vastly prefers not to. So he comes to Bronsky and begs him to stop this behavior and to accept death as a surprise and something that he’s not willing to embrace when it finally arrives. Bronsky accepts the advice, but can’t bring himself to stop blabbing. Indeed, he immediately tells his wife about his meeting with Death, and she fears for his sanity (there’s never any suspicion he might be lying) and insists that he visit a shrink to find out what’s going on—only the shrink turns out to be Death once more, who repeats his warning, noting that there are other, far more sinister, Deaths who will come for Bronsky if he doesn’t get with the program.

But Bronsky is unable to stop himself, and also tells his wife about the unexpected appearance of Death at the doctor appoinment. She grows increasingly worried, having suffered through her father’s lingering senility and death. She calls their daughter, Penny, and asks her to return and try to talk some sense into him; if he’s growing senile, they want to put him into a home to spare her the terrible burden of caring for him during his decline. Enraged by this seeming betrayal by his beloved daughter, he storms off in a fury—only to be picked up by D2 (a second and more sinister Death) in a Bronco. D2 threatens him with dire consequences if he doesn’t comply with D1’s advice, namely the death of his daughter and other loved ones. When Bronsky insists there’s nothing he can do about his babbling, D2 suggests this is just an excuse, and tries to run over Penny to prove he’s serious. Bronsky experiences the fear of death for the first time, and tries to save his daughter by grabbing the steering wheel and fighting with D2. In that moment of vulnerability, D1 comes for him; the car crashes, Bronsky dies, and Penny lives, but she’s haunted by what she sees in the driver’s seat of the car (i.e., D2) just before the car swerves past her.

Dates is permeated by a gentle sense of humor. Bronsky’s first date with death is announced by a humble mouse that brings him a note asking for a meeting, and when he meets Death, it is in the form of a cat. (The meeting is scheduled for precisely 11:37, which rang a bell—possibly a Biblical reference, though I don’t know which book. Biblical scholars feel free to chime in!) While waiting for the supposed psychotherapy session, Bronsky notices when his turn comes that no other patients have emerged from the doctor’s room while he’s been waiting; indeed, Death is waiting for him in the room, but still can’t take Bronsky because he hasn’t stopped talking about his death. Instead, Bronsky turns the tables and begins counselling Death in a spot-on skewering of the shrinkage process. All of this is done with profound affection for Bronsky, displayed in a folky, somehow quintessentially Jewish narrative style that fits perfectly with the protagonist’s sweet befuddlement.

There’s even a moral of sorts, since Penny spends the rest of her life deeply regretting how her last conversation with her father turned into a fight over whether or not he was growing senile—a potent reminder to each of us that we never know when a loved one will be taken from us, and that we should treat each interaction with them as if it might be our last, and therefore the kind of interaction we’ll want to remember with a smile forevermore. David builds so much sympathy for his decent, pleasantly skewed, characters that by the end of the story, when we learn that Bronsky has replaced D1 (who has moved on to other things) and has come for his dying daughter many years later, it brought tears to my eyes. (Yes, I’m a sucker for such endings. Still...) A poignantly funny piece, masterfully executed—you should pardon the choice of word.

Beagle: The Way It Works Out and All

This is one of those stories in which the main character seems so real it almost must have happened, only it couldn’t have. (Could it?) Beagle tells us a tale of his younger days, a couple decades ago, when his old friend Avram Davidson, who seems to have been quite a character, sent him a series of postcards over a period of a month—each witty in its own individual way, each delightfully skewed, and each impossible because it was postmarked from locations too far apart for Davidson to have reached them in time to send a postcard. Is this all an elaborate hoax on Dom Pedro (“Pedro” being Peter in Spanish, and therefore Beagle’s nickname), or something more interesting still?

[Spoilers] Indeed, the Davidson who should have been has been hopping around the globe like one of Zelazny’s Amberites moving through Shadows—only here, the travel is via the “Overneath”, a kind of plumbing that connects the many distant parts of the world, not to mention some places more mysterious still, if only one knows the correct hop, skip, and jump, plus miscellaneous contortions, to reach them. Davidson has figured out the necessary gyrations—mostly—and is gleefully circumnavigating the world, all the while en route to solving some mystery that only he’s aware of. The initial postcards seem to have a plumbing theme in common, and that’s no coincidence; the Universal International Brotherhood of Sewer Personnel and Plumbing Contractors may be involved in some secret Nicolas Cage-ian conspiracy of global, if mysterious, import. Presumably it has to do with that other form of plumbing, the Overneath, but we never really learn the details.

That’s okay, because The Way It Works isn’t really about plot (or secret plots); it’s a celebration of Beagle’s old friend and a gleeful romp through Davidsonian word antics and Beagle’s own riffs thereupon. The journey carries Davidson from Jornada del Muerto (the Path of Death) to a search for the entry to Pellucidar at the north pole before Beagle himself enters the picture. Dom Pedro knows his old friend is in trouble because he actually arrives on time for lunch, scheduled precisely at 2:22—an unprecedented occurrence, since that time is their private joke about Davidson’s refusal to be tied down by anything as mundane as a schedule. Along the way, we’re treated to divers wordplay, such as the postcard despatched “by fast manatee” from the southern hemisphere, Davidson’s use of “namporte” to mean that something doesn’t matter (from the French n’importe), and Beagle’s own observation that, “Like a cat, I prefer that people remain where I leave them.” And Avram, “it could be said, of him, lived to digress, both as artist and companion.” So too digresses the world once Beagle has fallen down the rabbithole: after a lunch in which the mystery is revealed, he emerges into “an afternoon turned strange... not foggy, exactly, but indefinite, as though all outlines had become a trifle uncertain, willing to debate their own existence.”

Postcards are a vanishing artefact from the developed world, largely being replaced by things like Twitter tweets, FaceBook updates, and other forms of transient social media—a shame, because postcards are literal snapshots of a moment from the past, making such memories tangible and enduring. One wonders whether the grandchildren of readers of F&SF will have access to our social media; unless someone stores them in a virtual shoebox, they aren’t the kind of relics anyone will find in an attic and connect with our past, establishing a link across the generations.

In the end, everything works out well. Though Davidson has died in our world, he still manages to find time to send Beagle a posthumous postcard and clarify the story’s title: “It’s a funny thing about that cave of Plato’s. The way it worked out and all. Some day I’ll come show you.” (The allusion is to Plato’s description of a group of people who see their world only through the shadows cast on the walls of the cave they inhabit; the philosopher’s job is to explain the reality that is casting those shadows.) One can only hope Davidson will; characters who are such characters really deserve better than to disappear forever from our lives.

Chilson: Less Stately Mansions

Jacob Mannheim is one of a dying breed, the kind of farmer who actually farms the land and is watching his world slip into the next ice age after (ironically) having defeated our present round of global warming. But all of his children and grandchildren have left Earth for the colonies, and with his wife dead, Jacob lives alone on his farm, aided by flocks of agricultural robots and visited occasionally by his many grandnieces and grandnephews. Unfortunately, these relatives don’t understand why he stays on the land and have no interest in joining him; they’d rather he sold the land (which has expanded to cover most of northern Missouri as past generations of Mannheims bought the land of their departing neighbors) and give them the profits. With the glaciers coming, the government is offering lucrative buyouts to those who are willing to give up their land and emigrate off-world.

[Spoilers] Jacob refuses to leave his land, and some of his relatives grow desperate enough to take him to court in the faint hope they can have him declared incompetent and take away his land. Unfortunately for them, the courts of this era are utopian places we moderns can only dream of seeing someday: a hearing can be arranged with little notice, the judge is folksy enough to serve the plaintiffs and defendants snacks and drinks and treat them as humans rather than perps, and the trial is decided within a few hours based on Solomonic logic rather than the intricacies of obscure and incomprehensible legalese, with none of the endless appeals and bickering we have today. The legal profession has seemingly mutated from its current largely parasitic status to something more usefully approximating expert representation of the facts of a case.

Jacob wins his case, but the win comes with a cost: his remaining relatives will emigrate to the colonies even without the money they’d hoped to gain from selling his land, leaving him with no family at all on Earth. And that’s all there is of plot: Jacob is enough of a loner that he has no friends or farm employees (other than the non-sentient robots), and is increasingly sad that he has no family left who understand him or appreciate what he’s doing. The story’s title refers to a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Chambered Nautilus, that focuses on building stately mansions of the soul; the colonies established by the emigrants are less stately mansions that look impressive technologically, but that fail to nourish the human soul.

There are three main SFnal characteristics of note in the story. First, there’s Jacob’s “extrabrain”, essentially a computer and Internet connection rolled into one that has been tattoed beneath his scalp. (Presumably a future evolution of a newish technology that may soon allow the “printing” of integrated circuits instead of requiring complex factories.) This lets him communicate with the rest of the world, including his robots. It’s appropriately backgrounded, never really explained (since it’s not relevant to the heart of the story or of Jacob), and is mentioned only as a bit of technological “gee whiz”, which it accomplishes nicely. It’s a good example of leaving the “I have such cool technological ideas” out of the story, and retaining only what’s really relevant to the characters or setting. The robots who work with him are also a nicely envisioned mixture of autonomy and dependence, and efficiently do what Jacob tells them to do, much as we wish our computers would do. They’re independent, but yet benefit from human oversight: as Jacob notes, “the best fertilizer is the footsteps of the farmer” (a phrase attributed to Confucius), since there is sometimes no substitute for a hands-on inspection and understanding of the gestalt of a place.

Second, there is the “HILE” (Hydrosol Intransitive Land Engineering) that permeates the landscape of Jacob’s farm. Again, this is mentioned but never fully explained other than in the form of an author’s afterword that stands outside the story. This is a system of land and water management developed in the 1950s and patented. I haven’t read the actual patent, but Chilson’s description suggests this is yet another example of our deeply flawed modern patent system: so far as I can tell, this technology is no different from what most Asian cultures, many Central American cultures (Incans, Aztecs, Mayans), and probably many other peoples have used throughout history, namely terraced cultivation or (in flatlands) careful hydrological engineering. Such technology clearly fails the main criteria for awarding a patent (since it is obvious, and it existed in the public domain for millennia), yet it was granted a patent anyway. Chilson doesn’t explore this issue, and to be clear, it’s not relevant to the story in any way. But it’s one of my pet peeves and thus I’ll abuse my reviewer’s privilege and bitch about it anyway.

The third technology is that a great many colonies have been created, not by terraforming our planets or visiting worlds in other solar systems, but rather by disassembling the planets and turning them into materials for space platforms. The result has been the creation of what is effectively a Dyson sphere: the sky is so filled with habitats that the stars can barely be seen from Jacob’s farm. Initially, these habitats captured so much of the sun’s emissions that their waste heat was causing Earth to warm dangerously. The problem was solved by interposing the colonies between Earth and the sun, but now they block so much sunlight that this has caused a dramatic cooling that is precipitating a new ice age. The reason for this new problem isn’t clear, since with the technologies available to people in this story world, it should be relatively easy to disperse the colonies enough to achieve a reasonable balance between warming and cooling.

Calling Jacob part of a dying breed was deliberately disingenuous, since farmers have been predicted to die out for more than a century as rural residents continued their ongoing migration to the cities. Yet they stubbornly refuse to disappear; there will always be some of us, it seems, who love the countryside and love growing things with our own hands rather than just watching what Nature can produce unassisted or letting others grow things for us. I certainly recall the pleasures of helping my grandparents with their own kitchen garden, getting my hands and clothing “soiled” (in the original sense of the word), and reaping the benefits at the end of the summer. It’s not clear why Jacob has let himself become so isolated, but that context allows Chilson to frame this story as musings on the pleasures and importance of the rural life and how few moderns understand why farming is important or what it adds to our collective soul. (That’s doubly so in this story, where most food is produced in factories.)

Because there is little character development and no dramatic events, the story arc seems a bit flat, with little dramatic tension, and perhaps it’s best read as a meditation. In that context, it satisfies very well indeed.

Reed: The Ants of Flanders

Subtitled A Tale of Five Adventures, Ants tells us the story of Simon Bloch, a heroically proportioned 16-year-old kid who’s not nearly as dumb as he looks. Indeed, inspired by a really good highschool science teacher, Mr. Rightly, Simon is working his way successfully through advanced senior biology, while also volunteering at the local zoo. As the story begins, he’s on his way home from the zoo, where he’s been helping prepare a cage for the upcoming penguin exhibition. His world changes in an instant when he receives a text message from his brother Matt, who's serving in Yemen with the U.S. Army, reporting that an alien spaceship has been spotted approaching Earth, has deployed a solar sail to slow down, and will arrive imminently. And indeed, moments later, an object the size of a house crashes to Earth near Simon, leaving a trail of destroyed cars and dead people in its wake. But that’s just one small incident in a much wider crisis; the solar sail and the ship it’s bearing crash on the night side of Earth, and all contact with half of humanity is rapidly lost. Thus begins a neatly handled hommage to The War of the Worlds, updated for modern times yet with much of the emotional resonance of Wells’ classic.

[Spoilers] The story is divided into five adventures. Adventure 1, entitled Intruder, recounts the arrival of the ship, described as a nanoengineered structure so advanced it would make Rudy Rucker drool. Reed handles the details perfectly, providing just enough jargon to convey the quintessential coolness of the technology and how afar ahead of Earth technology it is without crossing over into technoporn. After the crash, the predictable confusion reigns, and Simon, gifted with a total freedom from fear (he feels only curiosity and a sense of wonder where others would feel paralyzing fear), immediately and calmly sets about rescuing people from crushed vehicles; indeed, when one vehicle begins leaking gas that pools and starts running towards the still-hot alien ship, Simon immediately strips off his shirt and jacket to block the flow and prevent a fire. Inspired by his example, the supposedly older and wiser adults stop “fibrillating” (a lovely term for flailing about ineffectively) and begin actually doing something useful; one man, for example, fetches a box of kitty litter to soak up the gas. (The verisimilitude is excellent; I’ve only been at two significant accident sites, and both showed the same mixture of cooperation and fibrillation among the first people to respond, before the pros arrived.)

When the ship cracks open and Simon peers in, he sees an extremely cute alien that resembles a green-eyed seal, and it asks for help in perfect English; it needs to get to a body of water quickly or it will die. Responding the same way people do to a beached whale, the onlookers immediately pull it from the wreckage, pop it in the back of a truck, and haul it off to the penguin cage, the nearest large source of clean water. Along the way, Prof. Rightly points out a few anomalies: the small ship bearing this alien entered Earth’s atmosphere from the direction opposite the main ship’s trajectory, it seems odd that an alien that requires water to survive didn’t arrive in a space suit filled with water, and it’s hard to imagine how the alien survived the deceleration shock, given that it hit the ground at supersonic speed. As events unroll, we learn the solar sail has taken out satellites on the far side of the world, and that large areas of Europe and China have mysteriously “gone dark”, having lost power. And indeed, as soon as the townsfolk drop the alien into the penguin pool, it sheds its disguise of cuteness and begins emitting so much energy that the pool is heated nearly to boiling. It’s refueling and repairing, and worse things are about to happen.

In the second adventure, entitled The Leopard, we continue to follow Simon’s progress. The alien invasion is now fully underway, and the entire dark side of the planet, where the big ship landed, is being transformed by the invading alien machines into more of themselves—it’s the “grey goo” nanotech problem, only worse. Electronics are no longer functioning reliably because of interference from the aliens, so all contact with the rest of the world is lost. Meanwhile, the alien that Simon and Rightly rescued has vanished from its pool, having dug a hole deep into the planet, and the ground is shaking as it consumes resources at a ferocious rate, grows, and strives to ready itself for what is coming. The mystery of whether this alien is part of the same group that is converting the far side of the planet into more aliens is not yet resolved. The leopard of the title was inadvertently freed from its cage by the alien, and is now roaming the zoo; when Simon returns with others to the zoo to see what the alien is doing, they stumble upon the leopard. Simon is willing to outwait it, certain it’s more scared of the humans than it is interested in attacking. But when one of the civilians flees, this triggers the feline chase instinct, and Simon throws himself in front of the leopard to save the man. He’s big enough to fight off the leopard, but suffers a significant clawing in so doing, and is hospitalized. (The leopard is shot by soldiers shortly thereafter.)

Adventure 3, The Pender Monster, refers to the name of the street (and city?) where the rescued alien landed. But it also refers to Simon, who’s been infected by some bits of the alien that infected the leopard and were transferred into Simon. In his hospital bed, he begins turning into one of the alien’s “aspects”, an independent mobile unit, and we learn that the alien he saved is a Defender, nominally there to save Earth if possible from any other aliens who might want to wipe out terrestrial life and replace it with their own form of life. This is a war that has been going on for billions of years, with no sign of abating, but at least some of the aliens believe they have an ethical responsibility to save all life forms, at any cost; for this reason, it stops transforming Simon to preserve what humanity he has left as soon as it realizes what it’s doing. The alien ethical code is that rather than allowing any species to wipe out another planet’s life and taking the planet for their own use, they will risk total war to prevent this; in the absence of such willingness, such invasions would create a precedent that would lead to galactic civil war, as each race follows the example and grabs whatever space they can. But there is always collateral damage from disputes such as the present one, and we learn the source of the title: like the ant colonies of Flanders that were destroyed by the digging of trenches during World War I, humanity seems likely to be squashed by powers far too great for us to comprehend and that hardly notice our presence.

If the parallels hadn’t been clear, adventure 4 is named War of the Worlds, and in it, the conflict escalates. Simon’s brother Matt materializes out of nowhere, and reveals some of the higher truths of the situation: he and many others were quickly taken over by the invaders, and transformed into their soldiers. As a posthuman and far more advanced than Simon, he’s fighting what he considers the good fight to eliminate all traces of the enemy... only it’s not clear who that enemy really is anymore. Earlier, when Simon learned that the escaped leopard had been shot, he mused that the real purpose of a zoo is to protect animals from humans; from Matt, he learns that Earth and many other planets like it have been similarly turned into zoos, where the inhabitants can be protected by the more advanced races of the galaxy. It’s an intriguing sort of cold war, with each of those senior races wanting more space for themselves, yet afraid to take it for fear of reprisal, and instead clinging to the moral high ground by depending on ages-old treaties to prevent other races from claiming the space they want. This balance of terror isn’t a good thing; the inevitable cheaters produce conflicts that lead to eradication of a planet’s life forms virtually overnight, despite heroic efforts by ethical and courageous defenders. And how long the balance of power can last is also unclear.

We end the story with adventure 5, in which the battle between the two groups of aliens accelerates until it seems likely that the defenders will have to trigger a solar flare to sterilize the Earth so they can start over again and restore its native life, free from the alien contamination. Matt transforms his younger brother back into his original human form, though he retains a few useful posthuman modifications, and before he leaves to continue his personal battles, hands Simon a candy necklace: the beads are irresistably sweet, and Simon swallows them, thereby absorbing a collection of alien “aspects” that he knows he must bring to the alien he rescued at the start of the tale. When Matt is gone, Simon throws himself into the hole created by that alien, and when he arrives near its hub, he talks to the alien about the fear it must be feeling, knowing that it arrived too late and too far from its colleagues and from the resources it needs to win this battle. It will be rapidly crushed when the enemy arrives, so he talks it into saving some small portion of humanity. What’s left of Earth's organic life flees in search of another world in a starship created specifically to save them. Around them, the universe burns as millions of years of truces crumble and each race seeks to grab what it can while eliminating its competitors.

A lesser author might have dropped a great many balls unraveling a plot this complex, but Reed generally keeps them all up in the air. He skillfully captures the mixture of competence and incompetence groups of people exhibit in an emergency, and how the innate desire to help (both in humans and the aliens) often makes matters far worse than they might have been. And he recognizes how hard truth is to find in a crisis: “every truth had three rumors ready to beat it into submission”. As always, he has a grasp of the telling detail, such as the horrific image of a young girl’s beloved Barbie doll, abandoned and splashed with the blood and brains of her brother. And the notion of ethics carried to an extreme (i.e., destroying Earth to save it) makes it very unclear which aliens are the most ethical (or perhaps the least unethical); at least those who want to remake Earth in their own image seem to be honest about the cost.

Reed plays with some slippery philosophical concepts, such as the nature of a monster: “The monster was never just the creature itself. It was also the way the creature lurked about, refusing to be seen. It was the unknown wrapped heavy and thick around it, and there was the vivid electric fear that made the air glow.” His take on adventures is also noteworthy: “Adventure... [is] not the crazy, stupid, heroic shit you do in your life. Adventure is the story you tell afterwards. It’s those moments you pick out of everything that was boring and ordinary, and then put them on a string and give to another person as a gift. Your story.” That description is literalized in how Matt gives the “candy” necklace to his brother before he leaves forever. The five adventures of the subtitle are precisely such stories, preserved by Simon and shared with the other survivors on the departing starship and the hope of a new life. Neither description is the final word on monsters or adventures, but both are interesting perspectives on the two notions.

There are a few seeming inconsistencies. For example, if the ship was sent 40 million years ago, as we learn early on, how did the aliens know that Earth would be there and habitable? How does the alien learn enough English to speak to the humans and enough about humans to choose an appropriately chibi initial form? Both inconsistencies have their reasons, since not all is as we believe it to be: it turns out that this is not the first time Earth was destroyed by an invasion of such aliens, and when the previous batch of defenders were unable to stop the invasion, they induced a solar flare that “cleansed” the planet. Then, to ensure that the next intelligent life that evolved would find no evidence of this disaster, the cleansing aliens forged enough evidence that humans came to believe that the Cretaceous-Tertiary asteroid impact wiped out the dinosaurs and not dig any further into our past, thereby uncovering some unpleasant truths about what really happened. In a lovely bit of irony, the Creationists turn out to be right—the fossil evidence was indeed placed there by a higher power—only not quite in the way they expected.

On the down side, it never quite became clear to me which aliens were which and which side of the invasion they were on, nor did I grok some seemingly important plot points, like why the old human sees Matt coming but Simon doesn’t, what was contained in the aspects that Simon gave to the alien he rescued, or just who it was that built the starship that saves everyone or how it eludes the warfare going on around it—and last, and perhaps most importantly, why we should believe that if life is so ubiquitous, the island between galaxies that Earth’s refugees are fleeing to will be sufficiently unpopulated to welcome them. It’s also not clear how a solar flare, even if precisely focused, would wipe out beings that can exist deep below Earth’s surface, where the flare would never touch them.

Quibbles notwithstanding, Reed accomplishes the impressive feat of capturing the high points of The War of the Worlds in the space of a long short story or short novella, something that Wells took a book to do. And although the technology is far advanced from Wells and the scope of the human disaster far broader, there are yet some survivors who will live to carry on our species... possibly in a future novel by Reed?

Aiken: Hair

Tom Orford falls into weirdness when he marries young Sarah, watches her explode with exuberance and life as she releases 21 years of pent up energy (repressed for the entire time she lived at home with her mother), and then deals with her sudden and entirely unforeshadowed death. As the story begins, he’s on his way home to her mother to return a bundle of Sarah’s hair that she asked him to cut and preserve against future need early in their courtship.

[Spoilers] When Tom returns to her mother’s house in the sheepcountry outside London, he finds a very odd household indeed. Sarah claims to have never met her father, even though her mother always tended to behave as if he’d just gone outside for a breath of air, yet his study appears to be still in use (a half-written letter and half-full ink container are prominently mentioned) and Mother speaks of him in the present tense. Mom mentions that her companion, Miss Whiteoak, is languishing upstairs, still not well enough to come downstairs—though Whiteoak calls out that she can’t sleep and clearly wants to come out, seemingly a prisoner in her own room. And then there’s Louisa, a “cretin” (an unpleasantly antique word) with vacant eyes and puffy hands who lurks in the shadows, drooling and mumbling. When Tom tells Mother he cut Sarah’s hair while she was still alive, her only comment is “that accounts for everything”. Tom refuses to stay overnight or even for dinner, observing that mother “brooded over them, sucking them dry like a gentle spider” and that he had no intention of suffering a like fate. Yet he leaves, feeling oddly diminished, half-regretting that he left his wife’s hair behind. The story’s title seems to derive from an old childhood rhyme Tom remembers: “Where is my heart, dear wife? Here it is, dear husband: I am keeping it wrapped up in my hair.”

Although Aiken effectively establishes a stifling atmosphere of antique British weirdness, Hair doesn’t succeed as a story. There is no character arc, no mysteries are explained, there are no “reveals”, and there’s very little in the way of plot. In fact, it reads like a writing exercise, the kind of thing you do when you have some notions for story ideas and characters but don’t quite know what to do with them. So you throw them all together in a narrative pot, let them simmer for a while, and see what emerges. Here, what emerges is half-cooked; it’s the kind of thing you write to ensure that you understand the scenario, then throw away so you can begin the real writing. As such, the Hair is probably of most interest to Aiken’s fans who are interested in bits and scraps of her writing process.

Saylor: The Witch of Corinth

Witch is an installment in the longer story, chronicled by Saylor in a series of novels, of Gordianus, an 18-year-old Roman citizen, and Antipater, his elderly (70ish?) Greek tutor, who roam the world of the first century B.C., encountering adventures along the way. Here, they find themselves in the Peleponnese, the narrow isthmus that connects the southern half of Greece with the northern mainland. Specifically, they’re on their way home from the Olympic games and end up in Lechaeum, a port town near the ruins of Corinth. Corinth was destroyed half a century earlier by the Romans as an example to others after it led a failed rebellion against Roman rule. The duo arrives in Lechaeum, seeking a place to stay while they explore the Corinthian ruins, but find that the town’s only inn is fully occupied by a group of Roman tourists who are returning home from the Olympic games. Fortunately, they’re willing to give up one of their rooms to their fellow travellers.

[Spoilers] Gordianus and Antipater climb the hills above Lechaeum to visit the Corinthian ruins, and Antipater muses bitterly about the evils done to the Corinthians: once a wealthy seat of learning and art, the town was razed to the ground, its men killed and its women raped and sold into slavery, save only for one legendary mother who killed her daughter and then herself to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Romans. Indeed, Antipater wrote a famous poem to commemorate their sacrifice, and pronounces it amidst the ruins, to the derision of the Roman tourists who have joined the pair amidst the ruins. Their leader makes it clear he has no grasp of the human dimensions of the tragedy; indeed, he “blames the victim” by asserting that had Corinth only fallen into line, it would have been improved by Roman rule. As is so often the case, the conqueror has no understanding of or empathy for the conquered, and the tourists are only here to seek any treasures that may have escaped the original looters.

Gordianus and Antipater find the ruins of a temple to Persephone, legendary winnower of the souls of the dead and a patron of the witches that Corinth has historically been famous for, and Antipater finds evidence the temple is still in use. Later that night, the dozen Roman tourists are murdered in the inn’s common room while Gordianus and Antipater sleep suspiciously deeply; the victims’ throats have been slit, but there is no sign of a struggle. When Gordianus finds them in the morning, he is horrified; though he’s seen (and presumably appreciated) the horrors of gladiatorial combat in the circus, he’s young enough that he’s probably never seen this much blood up close. Further investigation reveals that the dead have not been robbed, and that Ismene, a serving woman at the inn, has vanished. Is she the witch that some have accused her of being (there have been a few unexplained deaths among the garrison), or has she been framed?

Later, Gordianus returns to the ruins of Corinth while Antipater sleeps, and pokes around, looking for evidence of what the Roman tourists were doing there the previous day. He discovers a trove of coins and other small treasures, presumably compiled by the tourists, and as he ponders what to do about them, one of the legionnares in the Lechaeum garrison arrives on the scene. Like a certain stereotypical type of murderer, Marcus tells all: he’s been collecting these and other treasures ever since he arrived at the garrison, and after the Romans discovered his treasures, he killed them by slipping them a sleeping draught so he could murder them without raising the alarm. The earlier deaths in the garrison were unfortunates who discovered the accumulated treasure, forcing Marcus to eliminate them. Needless to say, Marcus is not telling Gordianus everything because he intends to let the youth live. He draws his sword, and just as he is about to cut down the inexplicably unarmed Gordianus, Fate intervenes: Ismene reappears (come to steal some of the coins before she flees somewhere safer) and fells the legionnare with a stone from her sling. She spares Gordianus because he has shown respect and reverence for Corinth and its dead, or perhaps only because he is traveling with a Greek whom he clearly respects. Gordianus then returns Marcus to the garrison for trial and execution.

Witch is a particular type of tale: it’s a simple, straightforward, largely unadorned, and not overly dramatic murder mystery, with two relatively simple (i.e., not superhuman) protagonists encountering and solving the mystery. On that level, it succeeds quietly and with little flash. There are quiet bits of the kind of humor that transcends the millennia, such as the notion that Gordianus and Antipater choose to visit Homer’s burial place rather than seeking his birthplace because every town in Greece claims the famed poet as their scion. Then there’s the observation by Titus Tullius, leader of the tourists, that everything must have a mundane explanation rather than the ghosts the garrison believes haunt the ruins; after all, if such vengeful ghosts were real, Romans could scarcely leave Italy for fear of an untimely supernatural death.

An air of exoticism is provided by the Greco-Roman setting, arguably one of the most interesting cultural combinations of the ancient Western world because of the different trajectories of the two great civilizations: Greece is in decline (even the Spartans have submitted meekly to Roman rule), while Rome is nearing the peak of its vigor. Corinth is also a place with a deep history, being the home of Jason (of Argonauts fame) and his witchly wife Medea, not to mention the site of the hill up which Sisyphus eternally rolled his rock. But there’s also some moral depth here; the sense of history and how the conquered are treated by their conquerors is never far from the surface, and although it’s not prominent, there is clear criticism of the kind of tourist who visits ruins and sees only piled rocks or an opportunity for archeaological loot, ignoring their human origins and import.

Bowes: Sir Morgravaine Speaks

Full title: Sir Morgravaine Speaks of Night Dragons and Other Things

The mise-en-scène is Avalon, a couple millennia after the death of Arthur and other heroes of the Camelot saga. The heroes now sleep, waking only occasionally to wander blearily through their dreamworld before returning to bed. Only our narrator is reliably awake, and he’s not certain why he’s here—he’s confident he doesn’t qualify as a hero (“we’re born with a certain amount of courage and it’s as well not to use it up all at once”). He’s equally uncertain why he seems to be surrounded by the ghostly faces of myriad eager onlookers, to whom he recounts his experience of walking through this dream and provides acerbic commentary on his actions.

[Spoilers] Morgravaine is our churlish narrator, a kind of snake in the grass or Loki figure who exists, seemingly, for no purpose other than to sow discord and doubt among Arthur’s companions. Indeed, he fought on Mordred’s side in the final battle against Arthur. To Percival, purest of nights, he recounts with wicked relish how Guinevere and Launcelot still dance together in these halls, lovingly cuckolding Arthur as he sleeps, yet he feels a certain remorse over doing this to Percival, even though he considers the man little more than a prig. To Bors, he describes the sluttish behavior of a woman Bors held in high esteem. He refers to himself as a Lord of Misrule, referring to an ancient British custom in which a lowly character was appointed to preside over the Feast of Fools, subverting the normal order of things (i.e., peasants conveniently in their place at the bottom of the hierarchy).

Bowes creates atmospheric prose, not antique yet respectful of an older way of thinking and speaking. But nothing much happens here: we see Morgravaine at his finest, subtly causing pain to all those around him, but that’s all that happens. There’s no resolution, other than Morgravaine’s speech to his audience (us?), suggesting that he’s our perfect knight should we wish mischief. When Arthur wakes, Morgravaine kneels before him and introduces himself as a loyal servant; but Arthur will only wake, legend says, in England’s time of need, and with Morgravaine at his side, there are hints things will not end any better than they did the first time around. The story’s a pleasant read, but apart from a certain sense of foreboding at the end, it’s not one that seems to lead much of anywhere.

Alexander: Someone Like You

Set in Cleveland (Ohio), Someone is a convoluted time travel tale in which the unnamed female narrator sets out to right a historical wrong: her father was murdered by an unknown assailant, precipitating her family’s slide downhill into an unpleasant future. Then, one day, praying beside her mother’s grave while the earth is still freshly turned from the funeral, she wishes that God “Make It Didn’t Happen”... and suddenly she finds herself elsewhere in time. She quickly learns how to jump at will.

[Spoilers] The story is told in a series of flashbacks and flashforwards over a period of some 50 years as the narrator pops back and forth in time, following the threads of time until she clearly establishes what happened. It goes a little bit like this, assuming you’re willing to rewire your notions of causality because this is a time travel story: In the original time line, the mother’s first husband is murdered as he leaves work by a killer, even though he has not an enemy in the world, and the killer vanishes before anyone can see who it was. This fractures what was originally a happy family (mother, father, and young son), enough so that the mother, desperately lonely and living in a time when it wasn’t easy for a widow to make it on her own, remarries and has a daughter with her new husband. But the new husband is abusive, causing her to send her son away to live with his aunt. Torn from his family life, the son falls into bad ways, becoming a drug abuser and dealer. For reasons even he can’t understand, but that probably involve resentment at what his life has become, he travels back in time to kill his father, thereby ending his sister’s nascent time line before it began (effectively murdering her) and setting her on the path to vengeance.

In the resolution, the narrator returns to find her future drug-addict brother and kill him, then returns to the past to stop his past self from murdering her mother’s first husband, the true father she always wanted in place of the abusive real father. And life returns to its “happy ending” course, in which she becomes the second child her mother wanted to have with her true father. It’s a heartfelt story, and an equally heartfelt ending that is affecting rather than affected because of how well the happy family is set up beforehand: everyone except the brother, who exists mostly offstage, is a fully realized character who is decent and likeable and easy to empathize with. Except when the narrator wishes things could be undone and sets about doing so, the family does what families everywhere do: they play the messy hand the world has dealt them. There are many nice touches along the way, such as describing some of their older neighbors at the mother’s funeral as “tonsured by age” and describing the first father’s skills with his hands: “He could fix the crack of dawn with a can of Bondo and when he was done, it would look better than new.”

The structure is deliberately confusing, since the goal of the story is to make you reconstruct what happened as the narrator untangles the clues, but it makes a lot more sense if you go back and quickly re-read the story as soon as you finish. Then you’ll see how the parts fits neatly together. There are two points of confusion that make it more difficult than necessary to figure things out in a single pass. First, the initial lines suggest that the narrator is the murdered father, and that the POV is alternating with that of the female protagonist; once you know (well into the story) that the father’s murder led to the death (more correctly, nonexistence) of the sister’s first timeline’s version of herself, that becomes a neat “reveal”, but it's still too confusing for the first-time reader. A second significant glitch is referring to her mother’s first husband as her “true father” everywhere except one place (where her mother’s grave aligns with “her first father’s grave”), which confuses the otherwise clear issue of who fathered whom. Those glitches notwithstanding, Someone is a nicely rendered tale of setting right what once was wrong.

Kamza: The Ramshead Algorithm

On the surface, the title character (Ramshead Jones, and who names a child “Ramshead”?) appears to be nothing more than the spoiled scion of a billionaire father, living the life of an idle playboy who disappears for months at a time, presumably off on some bender. But in reality, he’s become an interplanar troubleshooter, part of the “Trail Crews” who repair defects in the fabric of reality that lies between the planes of existence, which, together, form “The Maze”. We meet him in mid-repair, when he must suddenly return home because his “spirit water” has begun to boil, seemingly a warning that something bad is about to happen to his connection (portal) back home.

[Spoilers] Ram heads home in time to overhear his father planning to raze the family hedge maze, an act that will destroy Ram’s portal leading to The Maze, thereby cutting him off from the important work he does and cutting his colleagues off from Earth. But Dad is a coldhearted, ruthless businessman who always gets his own way. He’s controlling, manipulative, and emotionally distant; for example, he somehow believes he can show affection for his other son, Alan, by felling the dead oak that was once Alan’s favorite climbing tree and using the wood to panel the interior of his new car. Clearly this isn’t a man who will be talked out of his decisions, particularly not by a son seen as more of a family parasite than as a credit to the clan. (Alan, in contrast, is the good son, who toils alongside his father, doing his duty to the family business.) Ram must therefore use one of the Trail Crew magic spells to relocate the portal before Dad destroys it. Unfortunately, the ingredients for the spell are not going to be easy to find.

To accomplish this spell, he’ll need help. He calls in Alan, who seemingly hates and despises Ram for his ability to escape family responsibilities and live the prodigal life, and he sounds desperate enough that he’s able to drag his older brother out of a meeting. To convince Alan that his need is desperate, Ram shows him enough of The Maze to terrify him; Alan has a childhood memory of the hedge maze swallowing his family. But Ram convinces his brother to help find the first two ingredients of the spell: a manuscript written in a language nobody has been able to translate, and a speaker of a very rare language who can provide the key words for the spell in that language. Alan reluctantly agrees. Next, Ram must find “a life unknown”—something he can provide himself, as he has many “homunculi” of himself to spare. Lastly, he must find “a life rare”, which he chooses to interpret as an animal from an endangered species; magic being as much symbolic as literal, it seems a reasonable assumption. For this, he turns to his sister Hanna, who’s been cut off from the family; since their mother abandoned the family many years ago and her father’s a cold and predatory fish, she’s been ever more desperately seeking affection in the arms of a series of inappropriate and often dangerous boyfriends. But this behavior has given her connections in surprising places, and she agrees to help Ram.

Then Dad intervenes: When Ram goes to Alan’s office to get the information Alan promised to provide, Dad orders Alan to offer no help, warning Ram that he should never interrupt a meeting again—or else. When Hanna finds a suitable animal (an endangered California snail) and sends it to Dad’s house, where she believes Ram has been spending most of his time, Dad tells the messenger to carry it back whence it came. Ram has been thwarted, but not blocked; he’s smart and resourceful enough to succeed on his own, though he rallies late enough in the game that his hunt for the spell’s ingredients becomes a desperate scramble. He uses Google to find his own untranslatable document, the “Voynich Manuscript”, a real puzzle document. He then uses the Trail Crew emergency kit his superiors provided to search the collective subconscious until he finds the speaker of a suitably rare language, Chinook Wawa (also real), and pulls the necessary words for the spell from the speaker’s head. He then finds another of the rare snails after a night-long drive and scramble through the park where the last of the snails live. Finally, he obtains the homunculi by (adult content warning!) spilling his seed upon a printout of the manuscript. That, too, is a legitimate interpretation of the spell’s conditions.

Armed with the four mystical tokens, he returns to the hedge maze just as the workers begin to tear it down, and performs the necessary ritual while dodging the workers and defying his father, who has come to supervise the work. But as the ritual succeeds and transfers the portal through Ram and into the humble snail, Dad intervenes again: he snatches and crushes the snail, releasing the portal back into the hedge maze. Enraged, Ram attacks his father and discovers that his father too can wield "the zap” (magical energy); they fight until both are exhausted and hurt, as the construction workers stand by, awaiting Dad’s command to begin the work. And as father and son lie there, unable to continue the fight, Dad sees something in his son he’s never seen before, and he reveals the mystery at the heart of the story: Mom came to him for the first time through The Maze, fell in love with him and bore him three children, but never settled down, coming and going as necessary (presumably to work repairs, as Ram has begun doing). One day, she never returned, and fearing that she’d grown bored with him or didn’t love him sufficiently to return, Dad became embittered and began taking it out on his children, forcing them into what he considered suitable molds: Alan as the business partner, Ram as the son who can enjoy the family’s wealth where Dad and Alan are too busy preserving it to enjoy it, and Hanna as the good daughter (who rebels against this role and flees). Dad’s reason for wanting to destroy the hedge maze? So that he can stop mourning his lost wife and “move on”.

The father’s logic doesn’t really make much sense, and if you’re an experienced reader, you probably saw the resolution coming, but this familiar story is no less skillfully told for all that. In the end, the secret now revealed and the catharsis performed, the family begins rebuilding its ties, or at least reaching a less painful détente, and the three siblings have grown close enough to set out together in search of their mother. It’s a qualified happy ending, because there’s an enormous amount of history and long-entrenched habits to overcome, but at least now a happy resolution has become possible.

There are loud echoes of Zelazny’s Amber series, complete with worldwalkers, a disfunctional family, sibling rivalry fueled by an old misunderstanding and a toxic parent, and the prodigal son who turns out to be a good guy after all and must protect the family maze. But Algorithm is something distinct—Kamza is playing with the possibilities introduced by Amber rather than imitating the older work, and as Tolstoy noted, “each family is unhappy in its own way”. With the exception of the father, who’s perhaps a bit too monotonically obsessed in a way that didn’t persuade me, the family relationships are quickly and skillfully drawn: Alan resents his brother, yet still feels enough affection to be willing to help him, whereas Hanna is clearly dying from lack of affection, is deeply hurt that Ram won’t spend time with her, and is clearly hinting at how desperate she is to have him accept her for herself. For his part, Ram too is so obsessed with his immediate problem that he fails to recognize either sibling’s needs until the very end. In addition to the cleverness of the spell’s ingredients, there are several nice bits of description, such as when Ram describes Alan and in so doing describes himself through the contrast: “He is too short, too broad-shouldered, to look much like our father, but he moves like him: hard, fast, relentless. He is not attractive. He wishes he were.” Ram resembles his father too much, perhaps accounting for their difficult relationship.

The technology of the Trail Crews doesn’t really bear close examination, the father’s motivations didn’t persuade me, and the “algorithm” of the title doesn’t seem to bear much resemblance to the spell used to relocate the portal, but if you’re willing to look past these surface details, Kamza provides a well-written adventure story with some surprisingly insightful character details lurking beneath the surface.



©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved