The Portal Archive: Fantasy and Science Fiction, November/December 2010
“Dead Man’s Run,” the longest and by far the strongest of the stories in this issue, immerses the reader in the world of amateur competitive running, making a neat metaphor for the pursuit that frames the story. In Robert Reed’s novella, runner Lucas and the rest of his “pack” chase the man that they believe murdered their popular, well-liked runner friend Wade. More than a quick catch-me-if-you-can, Reed’s work is complicated by the specter of the dead man’s “backup,” made of all Wayne’s running data and associated hopes, fears and thoughts. Though based on Wade, this backup now has a mind and independence of its own, talking frequently to Lucas and others. What is this backup’s relation to Lucas? To the rest of the pack? To the dead man himself?
“Dead Man’s Run” by Robert Reed
“Plinth Without Figure” by Alexander Jablokov
“Swamp City Lament” by Alexandra Duncan
“Death Must Die” by Albert E. Cowdrey
“The Exterminator’s Want Ad” by Bruce Sterling
“Crumbs” by Michaela Roessner
“Venues” by Richard Bowes
“Planning Ahead” by Jerry Oltion
“Free Elections” by Alan Dean Foster
“Ware of the Worlds” by Michael Dean Alexander
“The Closet” by John Kessel
“Teen Love Science Club” by Terry Bisson
Reed balances “Dead Man’s Run” on a pitch-perfect point between bittersweet retrospective, snappy murder mystery, and paean to the sheer love of physical motion. In the same way, the story easily shifts between Lucas’ past reflections on Wade and his pack and his experience of the present-day chase. Precise in their detail, fleet in their pacing, the chase scenes are especially strong, moving with a lean, poetic economy that evokes both the abstraction and focus of runner’s high. The flashbacks, during which character is built and displayed, appear at well-regulated intervals, mimicking the thought process of Lucas going back in time in his head, trying to work things out. Low-key and clipped in style in the beginning, “Dead Man’s Run” slowly builds in intensity and power, fully engaging the reader in a complex portrait of grief, deduction, and the elegant power of the human body.
Dead people show up again (maybe) in the first of the novelets, Alexander Jablokov’s “Plinth Without Figure.” The story follows Frederick, a designer of urban spaces, and his relationship with Andrea, a sculptor of public memorials. We start with the ghost of a little girl that people think that they have seen, but which Frederick believes is just a figment of the constructed environment’s imagination, and soon move into the tangled reasons for Frederick’s and Andrea’s breakup. Dreamy and suggestive in its long stretches of descriptive action without dialog, “Plinth” eventually meanders into an examination of loss, existence through memory, and the idea of reality as collective construction (or omission). Hard to get into, but affecting in the end.
“Swamp City Lament” by Alexandra Duncan is told from the viewpoint of a teenaged girl who lives in a future when oil has run out, plants have grown scarce, and radiation sickness (?) saps people after a few fertile years. Civilization has settled into a roughly feudal state, lorded over by a ruling patriarch who picks good breeders from a harem of mistresses. Struggling to endure the bleak misogyny of her life, the heroine finds a little bit of green hope and nurtures it. Full of interesting images (the royal iguanas, the women’s hair loss), Duncan’s work nevertheless lacks the grounding of a fully realized past. Prior upheaval seems important to the story’s present, but I never got a grasp on exactly what apocalypse occurred. Promising but diffuse.
Framed as an extract from the Journal of Psychical Research, Albert E. Cowdrey’s “Death Must Die” pits a slightly noir psychic investigator against the spirit of a priggish hangman who is pestering the local mortals. With his dead mom’s help, our narrator gets revenge. Too long to be a humorous short, “Death Must Die” runs a bit extra in the dialog department, but still moves along quickly.
Bruce Sterling contributes “The Exterminator’s Want Ad” next. The casual first-person narrative is that of a professional troll, who, in a social-media culture where the capital of goodwill is everything, finds himself “mad, bad, and dangerous to link to.” He explains what’s wrong with society from his point of view. With climate change, the corrupt American plutocracy and all its cities have collapsed, leaving small, dank communal settlements ruled by benevolently coercive hippies that our hero doesn’t find too much different from the Big Brothers of the past. The snarky voice and casual, sarcastic characterizations make this one a winner.
Michaela Roessner’s “Crumbs,” a simple, barbed fairy tale, follows. It’s about a magical old woman, Winifred, and a gingerbread house. You know the story…and so do the three hungry kids who visit the protagonist. At least they think they know. I would have preferred a little more evil incisiveness in the tale – less lavish detail of the sugar, a little more cruelty in the foreshadowing – but, overall, this one works.
More ghosts again in “Venues,” Richard Bowes’ short story set amongst a rather cutthroat world of fiction writers. A retired third-rate spec fic writer makes the circuit of New York City’s sci fi and fantasy fiction scene, engaging in a desultory affair with a younger man, all the while seeing the spirit of a famous author. The titular venues and rivalries of authors are described well and realistically in this short story, but, after two readings, I still wasn’t sure how all the elements tied together. I found the clips from the protagonist’s short stories more engaging than “Venues” itself.
“Planning Ahead” by Jerry Oltion comes next. It’s about a guy who starts stockpiling necessities – condoms, toilet paper – after an awkward date gone wrong. Oltion’s story runs like an episode of “Hoarders” for the first two-thirds, until many years later, when the old flame returns, bringing a sci-fi twist. I would call it a sweet thought experiment, though, truthfully, I was hoping for a punchier ending, what with all the build-up.
There’s an ornery coot sitting on the well valve of a small frontier town in Colorado, and he won’t move, leaving the townspeople nothing to drink. Then, writes Alan Dean Foster in “Free Elections,” seven-foot-tall mountain man Amos Malone enters the scene, and the coot has met his match. This original tall tale relishes an ambling, slowly building style, much as the way a yarn might be spun around a campfire. Witty and just plain strange.
“Ware of the Worlds” by Michael Dean Alexander features a peaceable recluse who discovers a wish-granting “space junk” cylinder. From his literally and figuratively removed perspective, he watches the havoc that many such pieces of space junk wreak on the world, up till the inevitable climax, which I am not spoiling. With its smooth, laconic voice making the folkloric premise utterly believable, “Ware of the Worlds” goes down easily, although it should end a few paragraphs sooner, methinks.
“The Closet” by John Kessel follows the angry boor Carson through a typical, dull workday. The power here comes from the second-to-last paragraph, when you find out what’s in the closet and how it doesn’t really seem to change the essential person. Effective.
Terry Bisson’s “Teen Love Science Club” closes the issue. It’s about a schoolgirl in an alternate time where the Bible is the basis for science class and girls have to wear anti-cootie (?) masks when they talk to boys and men. The schoolgirl’s science teacher is building a black hole out of car batteries. Meanwhile, the schoolgirl yearns after a fellow student, Trucker. One plotline gets sucked into another as the attractiveness of the black hole doubles double duty on literal and metaphorical levels. Light and slight.