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Speculative Fiction from Around the World

Albedo One, #39, 2010

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Albedo One bills itself as Ireland’s longest-running and foremost magazine of the fantastic, and I’m happy to take their word for it.  This issue, # 39, contains an interview with Mike Resnick, several reviews of new novels, and six short stories.  Though remarkable in their breadth and diversity, all six stories probe in some way themes of time, death, and the transience of human life, and the more I consider it, the more I enjoy the subtle ways in which such seemingly disparate works overlap.

Annette Reader’s “Frogs on my Doorstep,” this year’s winner of the Aeon Award, tells the story of Jack, a boy whose younger sister Ellie vanishes when he is five.  A year later she reappears just as mysteriously.  Jack has turned six, but Ellie is now eighteen.

Though it deals with parallel worlds and alternate dimensions, this is a character-driven story.  What works best is the emotion, especially the heartache of Ellie, the dimension-traveler.  The pain felt by someone who has journeyed far to return home, only to find that there is no longer a place for them, is a universal one.  The fact that the journey was across time, and the journeyer returned older than she should be, was a twist that I haven’t come across before.  But the unique emotional concept is let down by the writing, which isn’t fluid or lyrical enough to convey all the pathos that could be present.

There’s an abundance of dramatic, often violent similes; in other places these might succeed in making mundane events into epic ones, but in this case they clash oddly with the domestic scope of the story.  And Reader has a habit of making sweeping pronouncements about the nature of reality, which I wish had been more subtly integrated into the action.  Spelling out the big themes usually means you are either a philosophical authority, or you don’t trust your readers to draw such conclusions on their own.  The heart of this story is in the familial relationships, the affection between Ellie and Jack, the protectiveness and grief of the parents, the little gestures of love across dimensions—but when Reader tries to go bigger than this, the story is left a little hollow.

Mari Saario’s “The Horse Shoe Nail” is a Finnish saga of multiple generations and multiple worlds, somehow tucked neatly into 14 pages.  The plot is a version of a by-now-familiar structure—downtrodden but precocious child encounters beings from a fantastical other world, fantastical beings recognize child as “special,” child gains courage to overcome hardship in regular world, child comes into her own.

What I think makes this work is that Alice, Saario’s incarnation of the precocious child, succeeds as a compelling protagonist.  Too often the reaction against the damsel-in-distress trope produces girl heroes who are freakishly, obnoxiously capable, but Alice feels real, neither too lucky nor too assured.  The warrior who fills the otherworldly being role is similarly likeable.  And Saario’s inventive brand of fire magic—Alice’s command of which marks her as “special”—made me remember the kind of thrill I used to get when I was fourteen and ravenous for the wonder of high fantasy.  Archaic language and sword-and-sorcery lingo is used sparingly enough that the story doesn’t get bogged down, and somehow—I’m not sure how—goofy names like “Agenor” and “Porchys” didn’t annoy me.

“The Horse Shoe Nail” is also interesting because it never actually leaves the regular world.  The otherworldly being comes to Alice, and not in a dream or vision.  He interacts with her deadbeat father as easily as he does with her.  The juxtaposition of fantastic and mundane is grounding, without ever being played for laughs.  Overall the story won me over when I hadn’t expected it to; I would have liked to stay in Saario’s world a little longer.

I remember reading “For I Have Touched the Sky” when I was thirteen and feeling my heart collapse and my mind explode, so I hold Mike Resnick’s stories to a pretty high standard.

“Hothouse Flowers” is basically an extended riff on the phrase “vegetative state.”  It’s one of those stories where a mundane activity is used as a metaphor for a more complicated kind of action.  In this case, Felicia is a gardener who takes care of delicate, genetically engineered plants.  Her husband, the narrator, is a technician in a hospital who cares for elderly comatose patients.  Medical technology has allowed doctors to extend average life spans up to nearly two hundred years, but like Aurora in Greek mythology, scientists forgot to ask for eternal youth along with eternal life.  People spend their last years unresponsive and unable to care for themselves.  The narrator is the one who must bathe them, hook up feeding tubes, and change their diapers.  He develops the kind of affectionate, one-sided relationships with them that a gardener often develops with plants.

But in a move that makes the analogy a little too twee and on the nose, it’s not just Resnick, but the characters themselves, who labor at constructing the comparison.  Felicia has a plant that corresponds to each of her husband’s patients, which allows them to sit at the dinner table and say things like, “You think your Rex is getting too much sun.  I decided my Rex wasn’t getting enough.”  Apparently they’ve been doing this for years.  Husband and wife see it as a cute bonding ritual, but it felt to me like an instance of not trusting readers to make the connection on their own.

Yet the metaphor isn’t exact.  Felicia is charged with tending flowers because they, in their current state, represent aesthetic pleasure and scientific innovation, while her husband works because what his patients once were—thinking and creating members of society—gives us the ethical responsibility to care for them in their present state.  There is almost an illuminating idea here—the idea that rampant scientific advancement has resulted in humans who only exist as symbols of our progress, ornamental as greenhouse plants—but I had to labor to extract that.  The concept is further blurred when the ending takes a dark turn.  In the end I wasn’t sure if Resnick was trying to say something about the ethics of life extension and euthanasia, or about the lengths a person will go to preserve order their life.  Both points could be made simultaneously, certainly, but in this case they ended up clashing with, rather than illuminating each other.

Resnick’s writing is straightforward, and he dives into a number of thorny issues with a fabulous lack of reticence, but I was left craving a story that was slightly more decisive in its point, and slightly more effortless in its delivery.

I went into “Eskragh” expecting a death mystery that would be resolved with some kind of supernatural occurrence, but that was quickly (because the story is over quickly) revealed not to be the case.  Perhaps my expectation was formed by the very overt strangeness of the previous stories, as well as the beginning of the story itself.  But Martin McGrath does a good job of taking the discomfort that builds as one awaits the supernatural, and using it to illuminate the unease that comes from the tragedies of completely un-supernatural life.  The plot is sparse without being trivial—a boy disappears in a lake; his body is never found.  Months later his grief-stricken father dies as well.  Through the eyes of a friend of the dead boy, we see the community coping with their loss.  Perhaps there is something supernatural here.  The unnamed narrator dreams of “something pale and cold” that swims in the depths of the lake.  But while McGrath doesn’t decisively settle the issue, the story doesn’t require it.

“Eskragh” draws its strangeness not from the future or the impossible, but the inexplicable that exists in everyday life.  It is a reminder that just because things are not otherworldly and magical doesn’t mean they are ordinary, and doesn’t prevent them from being monstrous.  The gentle, unnerving exploration of grief pays as much attention to the actions of people at the wake, the small gestures of the grieving parents, as it does to the ominous depths of the lake.  The language never takes center stage, but is graceful enough to nicely complement the trajectory of the story.  “Eskragh”’s understated melancholy was a pleasant surprise.

In “Partly ES,” a new story from Uncle River, we spend several days in the lives of the emergency services responders of the tiny town of Partly, New Mexico.  It seems to be a (very) near future world, marked by anxiety over rationed fuel and increasingly strict immigration services.

“Partly ES” is a little disconcerting in its structure.  There’s not really a defined plot.  Events seem to occur not because they are relevant to some central idea, but because they happen consecutively.  And then there’s the fact that over ten pages of writing, there are forty-two (I hope I counted correctly) characters introduced, and that’s only the characters with names.  This onslaught of people makes it difficult to grasp onto anyone, or even to follow the action.  Readers are trained to expect certain landmarks within a story that help them get their bearings, and River seems uninterested in providing these landmarks.  At times this made “Partly ES” feel unreadable, but at times the cavalier disregard for narrative convention was entertaining enough in itself to bear me along.

By my second reading, I was more convinced that the forty-two souls who flash past are not “characters” in the sense we expect—the main character is the whole town of Partly.  Its inhabitants are all named not because we’re expected to remember them (it’s impossible) but because familiarity is one of the defining traits of a small town.  It is not important that readers keep track of everyone, but it is important to know that the characters can all keep track of each other.  The story envelops us in a community so close-knit that introductions are unnecessary.

The goal of the story seems to be to immerse us in the world of the Partly emergency services, whether we like it or not.  Even without River’s bio, which reveals that he works as a first responder in his town, this feels like a story that springs from close personal experience.  There’s the loving, at times tedious, attention paid to the tiny details of emergency services work.  There’s the painstaking relation of everyone’s family connections within the town.  It’s a lonely, fierce, caring world, held together by people past their prime in a country past its prime.  This close-knit feeling is cemented by an encounter with Homeland Security forces.  They are everything the first responders are not: smooth, disciplined, backed by money and power.  Outsiders.  The Establishment.  Their officers are unnamed and their actions are never explained.  When they leave it is a relief to return to the jovial community of Partly, where everyone is familiar, even though I still have no idea who anyone is.

“Grappler” is straight up creepy.  I believe that was its goal, and I do believe it succeeded.  It follows many years of a Maidu Indian village, as they encounter white settlers and are plagued by a seriously monstrous creature called Grappler.

I’m always a little wary of stories that take on indigenous cultures without an author who is of that culture.  In this case, I wasn’t sure if the setting was necessary; JL Abbott seems more interested in the ethereal atmosphere that a traditional fable invokes, rather than in illuminating the particulars of the Maidu’s situation.  The culturally -specific metaphors (everything seemed compared to weathered deerskin or smoked salmon) and euphemisms (“whispering world” for death, “poison water” for alcohol) started to feel like they were trying too hard.  Ultimately, the conflict with whites only serves as a backdrop to the much more compelling and universal conflict with the Grappler.  And there was an odd preoccupation with young women as victims.

But as horror, the story is fantastically disturbing.  Apprehension and disgust build nicely without overwhelming the plot.  The voice, if a little contrived, is consistent and graceful.  The characters are all ciphers, but that is how they should be, because it leaves room for the twisted imagination at the heart of the story to blossom fully.  I left the story feeling thoroughly weirded -out, which was wonderful.  It would have been even more wonderful if Abbott had been able to accomplish such weirdness without the cultural appropriation.

February 22, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , ,

1 Comment

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