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Speculative Fiction from Around the World

The Portal Archive: Ideomancer, Vol. 9, Issue 3: September 2010

Leah Bobet’s editorial for the September issue of Ideomancer is interesting because it helps to give shape to this quarter’s selection of stories, identifying a common thread linking the three pieces – namely, the subject of relationships. But what’s also interesting to me is that, having now read the stories, I wouldn’t necessarily characterise them in the same way as Bobet; I might place the emphasis differently. My pick of the issue is Catherine Krahe’s quietly threatening fairy-tale piece; Bobet describes this story as dealing with the period after a relationship has ended, which is certainly an interesting lens through which to view the piece – but I place a wider interpretation on Krahe’s story. Elsewhere in this issue, Lenora Rose tells of the (possible) outcome(s) of the union between a selkie and a human woman; here, I’d actually take the emphasis off the relationship aspect, as the element of prophecy seems much more prominent to me. Finally, there’s Sandra Odell’s tale of a couple in love, where I’d agree that the relationship is at centre stage; the nature of that relationship, however, may not be quite what it appears at first.

“Fairest in the Land” by Catherine Krahe

“It Shall Come to Pass on a Summer’s Day” by Lenora Rose

“Afterglow” by Sandra Odell

“Fairest in the Land” by Catherine Krahe is a very short tale (not even 500 words) which uses its brevity to the best advantage, hinting at limitless numbers of stories beyond the main narrative, whilst still being a satisfying and evocative piece in its own right. Krahe’s premise is that the heroines from fairy-tales are holed up in Rapunzel’s tower, working together on a project whose nature is only hinted at. Exactly where the characters are along the track of their stories is ambiguous: it could be that the tales we know have come to an end (which is what Ideomancer’s editorial suggests), but I think it would also be a valid reading to suggest that some of these characters have yet to begin their most famous stories, or even that they’re in the middle of a repeating cycle of acting out those tales. There’s a sense of frustration building up in “Fairest of the Land,” the characters’ frustration at the inertia of their situation – potential energy that might be unleashed at any moment in who knows what form. Krahe is particularly good at weaving a sense of menace into her tale, through little details such as Rapunzel’s ever-growing hair being spun into bowstrings. These details accrete over the course of the story, ultimately subverting the sense of the last line into something with darker connotations than is traditional.

“It Shall Come to Pass on a Summer’s Day” by Lenora Rose explores (as the author notes in her afterword) the idea of prophecy, and just how reliable or immutable it may be. The tale is told by a selkie awaiting the arrival of Fiona, the human woman about to give birth to his son; all the selkie’s narration is in the future tense, as he describes what will happen when Fiona arrives, and the prophecies he will make about the future – yet those prophecies may (depending on the circumstances) change or remain unspoken, so do they really indicate what will come to pass? The voice Rose creates for her narrator is pitched very well: slightly out-of-time, with a similar flow to his words as the telling of a folk-tale. I also appreciate what Rose seems to be doing with prophecy at a structural level: in the world of this story, prophecy is a web – try to avert the fulfilment of one future, and another prophecy will take its place. “We all fight prophecy,” says the narrator, even if it’s good; so perhaps it’s for the best if Fiona doesn’t know what the selkie foresees. Yet ultimately there’s no escape from prophecy here, because the use of the future tense makes the tale itself a prophecy, one which may or may not come true. However, I think that very usage of future tense is something of a double-edged sword, because for me it stops Rose’s story from truly hitting home. The emotional core of the tale is Fiona’s quandary over what to do to protect her loved ones from prophesied harm; but this quandary is mediated through two “layers,” as it were: firstly, it’s not Fiona who is telling us about her situation, but another character. and, secondly, these events haven’t actually happened yet (and may not happen) in the world of the story. To my mind, both these factors distance the reader from the heart of the story; Rose’s tale is readily appreciated on an intellectual level, but it loses some of its vital emotional impact.

“Afterglow” by Sandra Odell is the portrait of a couple’s intimate moment that takes a bizarre turn. The story starts by establishing Marda’s and Carl’s relationship in a nicely evocative fashion:

They met at Sarah Culler’s party and spent the entire evening talking about Charlie Chaplin movies and what inspired Michelangelo. By the third date they were making movies of their own, and smiles the envy of Mona Lisa. Three months later they agreed to stop seeing other people.

I love how equivocal Odell makes this seem: a relationship founded (it is implied) on shared interest, though we don’t really know; even the declaration of commitment in that final sentence feels as though the couple have made it reluctantly. I should add, however, that although this is how I read the opening, that tone of equivocation does not seem to be carried through to the rest of the story – Carl and Marda appear unambiguously to be in love after the first paragraph. “It’s…like I’ve known you all my life…How is that possible?” asks Marda near the beginning; most of the rest of the story describes an act of lovemaking that might suggest one possible answer to that question. I think “Afterglow” is a story that stands or falls primarily on the strength of its descriptions; on that score, I find some (though not all) of the later passages to be as evocative as the start, and there’s a welcome thread of darkness woven in throughout. As a whole, “Afterglow” is not as strong as it might be; but certainly there are moments where it is very good indeed.

Besides the fiction, this issue of Ideomancer includes poems by Rachel Swirsky, David Kopaska-Merkel, Mikal Trimm, and Ann K. Schwader. There are also reviews of Nnedi Okorafor’s novel Who Fears Death (reviewed by Elizabeth Bear); Douglas Smith’s collection Chimerascope (reviewed by Alyssa Smith); and George Mann’s novel Ghosts of Manhattan (reviewed by John Bowker).

October 25, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized | ,

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