Strange Horizons, January 3-31 2011

The new year and a new format for this publication converged. I was unable to find a  unifying thread binding together three pieces of new fiction and a reprint of a story from 1955, along with an introduction by fiction editor Jeff Hartman.

“Source Decay” by Charlie Jane Anders, published 3 January 2011, is a story whose premise is clear and message is delivered. The characters and conflicts are shallow, which were likely the author’s intent.  When you begin with a near future reality show how much lower can you go?

When Jeremy decides to phase the “with benefits” portion out of his “friend with benefits” relationship with Tara, a romantic date with Roberta is ruined by a cameraman and reporter from Infidelity Squad. Five-hundred years later, the episode is chosen by Zalathy Bascot for immortal fame since “it’s an age-old story” even found “in the Bible and other sacred texts [. . .] the story of the unfaithful husband.”

Infidelity Squad is chosen as the last remaining artifact of television preserved for future generations in the Museum of All Media. Why? Because the boss, Zorro, gushes, “There’s nothing between us and what Tara is feeling–it’s complete and totally immediate. And it still speaks to us, hundreds of years later.”

There are a few clever quips, none of which made me laugh. I probably wouldn’t have finished this if I didn’t have to.

Conversely, “The Space Between Stars” by Cassandra Clarke, published 10 January 2011, enchanted me from the first paragraph. There is only a glimmer of the speculative in this elegantly written, yet accessible story of a man confined to base in what might have been Roswell.

One of the few that knows there are aliens out there, and that they are about to invade, the unnamed first-person narrator goest to Las Vegas every weekend. What on the surface appears to be a tawdry relationship with an exotic dancer is, in reality, a chaste, almost mystical bond between the two characters. The first person rumination, tinged with sadness and regret, pulls great meaning out of touching metaphors.

“I picture you. Not you as you were back then, drinking in the bar, dancing in the blue lights of the stage, but as you are now. As I imagine you are now. You dye the grey out of your dark hair. You wear blue jeans with pearls and high-heeled shoes and lipstick instead of sequined mini-dresses and too much eyeliner. Although really, I have no idea what you look like. I’ve cobbled this all together from pictures of the day workers’ wives.”

Ms. Clarke provides exquisitely honed detail of the narrator’s life, and his relationship with his deceased mother, the only other woman he has ever been close to. This provides  layer upon layer of nuance without slowing the pace or ruining the magic.

“I remember the first time you talked to me, down in the lobby bar, and there was a streak of glitter on your right cheekbone, pale gold, like a spark of electricity.

I said, ‘Does it wash off easily?’

‘No,’ you said. ‘I’m always finding glitter somewhere.’ And then you laughed at yourself.”

“Pinion” by Stellan Thorne, with a touch of noir, published 17 January 2011, profiles a detective who has lost his partner in some unseen, undescribed event. Rage simmers inside Greyling, threatening to erupt at any moment, but “there was no joy in the fantasy; it was like a worn film reel, looping methodically inside his head.”

“‘We just need your statement,’ he said. The tape recorder was spinning slowly.

‘I’ve told the officer at the front desk everything already.’ Just a little schoolboy wheedling in his tone, a little note of oh-do-I-have-to?

Greyling smiled. It was not charming. ‘This is for the official record. Please.’ He gestured at the tape recorder.

The witness cleared his throat, with an actor’s skill, and began. ‘I was robbed by an angel last night.'”

When he apprehends the angel, Greyling finds solace from an unexpected source. Mr. Thorne’s combination of noir with fantasy is particularly effective, and the lack of sentimentality in the writing creates a sense of both hope and gritty realism embodied in this excerpt:

“. . .he missed Mayer with a sudden fierceness. [. . .] a feather brushed his neck, ever so slightly. The tip of a wing slid in between the crosshatched metal partitioning backseat from front. He flinched away, at first, then pounded the cage—it left diamond-shaped impressions on his hand. [. . .] “Your heart is known in heaven,” the angel said. “And all that you are.”

Jeff  Hartman introduces the “The Third Wish,” first published in 1955, reprinted 31  January 2011, as a wish granting tale with feminist leanings.

Written by Joan Aiken, a British writer known for her young adult stories, it is, on the surface, a fable about a man who discovers happiness is often not achieved by obtaining what you want, rather by giving it to someone else. There is the traditional set up, then a trick; a swan saved from brambles materializes into a man in green wearing a gold crown, offering three wishes as a reward for saving the King of the Forest.

As with many fairy tales, allegory and metaphor swim amongst the swans. What makes this story feminist, I suppose, is that it features a “stolen” woman forced into marriage, couched in language acceptable for a time of censorship and repression.

“Mr. Peters stood for some minutes reflecting on how he should use his reward. He knew very well that the gift of three magic wishes was one which brought trouble more often than not, and he had no intention of being like the forester who first wished by mistake for a sausage, and then in a rage wished it on the end of his wife’s nose, and then had to use his last wish in getting it off again.”

“The Third Wish” is far too gentle and obtuse to be classified as seminal feminist work in my mind. There is no real villain, but rather seems to place blame for Mr. Peters’ unwitting transgressions on society as a whole. Other than it being his “favorite three-wishes story ever,” and “a lovely fable,” Mr. Hartman doesn’t fully explain why he liked this enough to feature it over the long list of other stories Ms. Aiken has to her credit.

As for nonfiction, Judith Little’s treatise, Feminist Philosophy and Science Fiction: Utopias and Dystopias, deconstructs selected works by early feminist writers that take dead aim at sexism. Some include “Of Woman Born” by C.L. Moore (1944), an exquisite examination of what makes a female a woman.  Judith Merril’s “Survival Ship,” (1951) pokes fun at male supremacy as does James Tiptree Jr.‘s much later story “The Women Men Don’t See.” (1972)

The Mythpunk Roundtable  featured during January, and an interview with Catherynne M. Valente (who won a Tiptree award), were far more interesting than “The Third Wish” to me, but this review is about the fiction.

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