The Portal Archive: Strange Horizons, September 20-October 18, 2010

This review of Strange Horizons is my first gig for The Portal, and here’s hoping for a long run. As you all likely know, Strange Horizons is a weekly pro e-zine featuring fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and reviews.  Though I’m just reviewing fiction, I always glance at the poetry and articles to get a sense of the publication as a whole.

“Over the Shoulder” by David Sklar

Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots” by Sandra McDonald

“Last of the Monsters” by Emily Skaftun

“Styx Water in a Sippy Cup” by Hal Duncan

The September 20 article Zombies are Just Undead Gentlemen: An Interview with The Widow’s Bane, by Molly Tanzer, was quite entertaining and sure sounded like fiction to me. Matthew Cheney’s column in the October 11 issue, The Failure of Masculinity, was an especially insightful take on the tragedy of Tyler Clementi’s suicide.

Moving onto the fiction, I begin with the story featured in two parts, released September 20 and 27, 2010. In “Over the Shoulder” by David Sklar, Spider is an ex-addict guitarist obsessed with a new song. The mysterious Vespers comes back into his life and promises to make it a hit, but only if Spider agrees to give the masterpiece to him as payment for past favors.

We also get a glimpse of characters like Ocean, Firefly, and Dr. Good, but none of Helen, his wife and Ocean’s mother, who seems to have spawned a lot of the trouble Spider is now in, a modern allusion to the woman whose face launched a thousand ships.

About half way through, Dr.Good begins to refer to Spider as Orpheus, the mythological musician and poet who “looked back” on his journey out of Hell, dooming his lover Eurydice to remain in the underworld. All of the above is rendered in sparse, metaphorical prose that conveys a deep sense of foreboding and sadness.

The first person suits this story well, keeping the reader inside Spider’s head as he returns to his hellish past. Mr. Sklar’s metaphor and word choice are very clever, in particular the burning thread which Spider must carry on his path, “without looking back.”

“Here was a future customer like I could never be, one who had piled up treasures on this earth, collected secret hoards of other people’s wealth, well beyond his needs—and, when those were exhausted, who could continue to pay with gifts of the spirit, and the wealth that dwells within.”

On October 4, along came a climate shift to post-apocalyptic science fiction: “Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots” by Sandra McDonald. What happens to a famous psychologist Dr. Catherine Campbell living in Connecticut after the big freeze, and after her husband Herbert gives her a gift to celebrate their divorce? She frolics with her seven sexy cowboy robots, including a few bisexuals and a transsexual, all with steel ice skating blades permanently attached to their feet, which are “hell on shins and satin sheets.”

And frolic she does, trying out positions like “The Mosey, The Saddlehorn, and Road Stake,” needs “to repair the headboard after the Appaloosa,” and “take anti-inflammatories after the Missouri Toothpick.” After their marathon twosomes and threesomes, the boys take to the ice rink Catherine built while “summer was still a risk,” to do some triple axels and invent new routines like the “Dana Stick.”

This story features an interesting twist: a world without global warming, frozen instead into a block of ice so that “bandits had taken to seizing shipments of food or fuel that tried to make it overland.”

Most of the erotic inferences are just that; there is no onstage sex in this story. Just like the cold which has frozen the earth, or at least this part of the northeastern United States, there is no warmth or human sentiment left in any of the humans.

The very lifelike robots (with special compartments allowing them to eat and drink so they can be social) leave Catherine one by one, like Buck who plans to “build a secret laboratory in Dodge Hill” and Doc, who goes to work for the “UN Commission on Warming the Planet Back Up at their headquarters in Sicily.”

The imagery of the artificial, ice skating automatons (the author was inspired by an actual act and there is a link to it in Ms. McDonald’s bio), flipping around on a frozen pond after “hot” sex, is interesting.

As chock full of clever, tightly written snippets as is this review, the story contains even more: a surprise in each paragraph that keeps you reading to see what happens to each of her boys, and to Herbert, her ex and owner of New Human More Human. Catherine, who never again takes a human lover, only pauses to document it all when she is “one hundred years old and dying, hoping to find a companion for the one sexy cowboy robot who I loved the most.”

I enjoyed the memoir/confession style, the wicked, satirical humor, and social commentary.

In yet another first-person tale, “Last of the Monsters” by Emily Skaftun, released October 11, 2010, continues the post-apocalyptic theme, only this time it’s the immortals who have been taken down.

“I laughed when the gods died out. One by one, they crawled off like dogs to die alone, and I danced on their unmarked graves.”

But though they might not be as omnipresent as before, gravesite artifacts and gorgons in a desolate field still wield some power over mere mortals. Any more and I’ll give away too much of this short short.

On October 18, Hal Duncan gets right to the point:

“Three hours later and my shout of ‘bored now’ is still echoing round the caverns of Erebus when the darkness finally splits and, out of the streaming light of the temporal plane, the Angel of Death hands me the stillborn babe.[…] No name, says the angel. They hadn’t decided yet.”

“Styx Water in a Sippy Cup,” another mythology inspired short, recounts the journey of one of the nurserymen who escort unbaptized babies to their eternal home. As irreverent as it is compelling, the clipped but elegant prose glares with cynicism and subjugated rage at the fate of those whose only sin is “[…] being born and dying…or dying and being born.”

Mr. Duncan’s choice of first person brings the narrator’s true personality to the surface when he interacts with the other characters, which makes this like reading the memoir of a jaded, albeit erudite, graduate of the foster care system.

“The formula feed is basically cold water, but the babe still locks his cherub lips around the rubber teat like it’s the mother’s breast he’ll never now taste. They always do, right enough. Who doesn’t love the sweet salt tang of the Cocytus, river of lamentations? Who in Hell doesn’t love the liquor we all live on, the quenching, quieting tears of the bereaved?”

This group of stories in Strange Horizons highlights myth based and post-apocalyptic tales, all in flawlessly executed first person, which truly enhances not only the characterization, but also their emotional punch. I’m curious to see the editors have put together for next month.


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