World SF Blog, January-February 2011

The World SF Blog, run by Lavie Tidhar and Charles Tan, was set up in 2009 to carry news and features on science fiction from the world over. For the last few months, the blog has also been publishing fiction (mostly reprints); this is a look at the stories posted in the first two months of 2011, and it is quite a mixed bag. Nick Wood tells a fine tale of a man whose relationship is becoming as dried out as the land. Pyotr Kowalczyk contributes an amusing portrait of a ramshackle trip into space. Michael Haulica’s story of a gastronomic experiment gone wrong is let down by its translation. Ekaterina Sedia’s piece evokes a keen sense of loss as the supernatural meets the real world. Eliza Victoria brings magic into the real world in a different way, magic that’s enigmatic to her readers and characters alike. Stephen Kotowych poses some intriguing questions about time, in a story that doesn’t quite succeed as a whole. And Charlie Human chills with his brief depiction of a new way to fight a battle.

“Thirstlands” by Nick Wood (from Ian Whates’s 2009 anthology Subterfuge) is a subtle tale which begins with Graham Mason, who makes a living filming clips of the natural world, at an almost completely dried-up Victoria Falls—not a sight that pleases his boss, who’s observing through Graham’s neural implant, because it’s not a very saleable one. Later, Graham returns home to his partner Lizette, and the possibility that an altruistic act might lead to unwelcome attention for the well in their garden. Wood paints a vivid picture of a land and society in which not only water is scarce, but also security, and the human trust that helps glue a community together. But he also elegantly mirrors the central metaphors of thirst and dryness in the emotional aspects of the story: Nick’s boss is thirsty for new content; Graham himself is thirsty for some peace from the constant interruptions from his boss via the neural implant; and mutual understanding is as scarce a commodity in his relationship with Lizette as water is in his society. “Thirstlands,” then, is a piece that’s successful on several levels.

Reproduced from its author’s 2008 collection Password Incorrect“An Orbital Flight With a Small Surprise” by Pyotr Kowalczyk is an 800-word squib in which one George Pearinsky (professional emissions trader and “the first European of Polish decent in space”) takes the trip into orbit for which he has paid a princely sum, and finds that it doesn’t quite live up to his expectations. A story of this nature really stands or falls on the quality of its humour; Kowalczyk’s piece is nicely entertaining in that regard. Whilst “An Orbital Flight” may not raise huge laughs, a combination of the absurdly two-bit nature of the flight (such as the bulky “vomit-green” flight suit that makes George resemble “a huge pear”) and the crew’s dismissive attitude to their passenger’s complaints, means there are plenty of smiles to be had along the way.

In “LAPINS” (2003; English translation by Adriana Mosoiu first published 2004 in SF Crowsnest,) Michael Haulica takes us to a time and place where synthetic food has become the norm, and an exclusive restaurant where the artificial foods are accompanied by their natural counterparts, the latter serving as the “Stimulants” which provide the smell. The Stimulant is not meant to be eaten—but that’s what the customer El-Eftis does today, and the consequences are far-reaching. “LAPINS” is a story hampered by its awkward translation, which makes it difficult to comprehend. The first half of the piece is largely descriptive, but the ungainliness of the language (“Moldings in Brazilian rosewood in bud, covered with gold, were caressing with their light the mahogany panels…”) prevents the atmosphere from building up effectively. And, when action comes to the fore in the second half, it is just difficult to work out what the story is saying. Even without the issues of translation, though, I think the structure Haulica’s piece does not serve it well, because it places too much emphasis on an ending that doesn’t, in and of itself, have a great deal of impact.

Ekaterina Sedia’s “Seas of the World” (2007; originally published in issue 4 of Sybil’s Garage) is a quiet piece which unfurls itself slowly, each of its short sections gradually revealing more about what has happened. The story begins with Jillian calling her ex-husband Rick in the small hours, tearfully asking him to come over. We learn that the two of them have a young son, Derryl; and that Rick is preternaturally wholesome. The reason for the latter becomes clear about halfway through, when we discover that Rick is a supernatural being—he used to be a seal. The chief strength of Sedia’s tale lies in its telling. The author sets up a poignant contrast between the colour and spectacle of Rick’s phocine existence (“the coral reefs where water ran clear as tears . . . the fishes as bright as they were poisonous . . .”) and the painful emptiness of the present, where Rick’s only contact with the sea is reciting the names of seas in times of stress. There’s also a precision to the detail which really brings the situations to life, whether it’s Jillian imagining Rick making his way to the phone (“She imagines Rick’s bare feet padding across the cold ceramic tiles of the kitchen floor, his hand tugging up the pajama bottoms riding low on his waist”), or images of dark, troubled seascapes. “Seas of the World” is a beautifully realized story.

Eliza Victoria’s story “Sand, Crushed Shells, Chicken Feathers” (2010; first published in the Philippine Free Press) concerns two college roommates: John, a firm believer in the supernatural; and Zachary, who is much more sceptical, despite all his grandmother’s tales of magic. Zachary may have cause to questions his assumptions, though, when he comes home one day to find John in tears, with the strange voice of an apparently lost girl on the other end of his phone. John was trying to find the spirit of his dead sister, Emma, and instead found two strangers. What really makes this tale work is that Victoria incorporates the supernatural in such a way that it becomes both down-to-earth and mysterious; the magic feels as though it belongs to the contemporary world (with, for example, its use of modern technology), yet one’s sense of exactly how it works and what it does remains murky. The combined effect is nicely unsettling.

Stephen Kotowych’s “Borrowed Time” (first published in Julie E. Czerneda’s and Jana Paniccia’s 2007 anthology Under Cover of Darkness) is a tale of the chronographers, a secret guild who harvest moments of wasted time, and store them up for future use (there being only so much time to go around). As we join the story, Kayla has been sent to apprehend Vincent, her former trainer and lover, now a renegade from the Chronographers’ Guild. But it doesn’t quite go according to plan, as Vincent challenges Kayla’s most fundamental beliefs about what she’s doing: is it storing up lost time for the greater good of humanity, or stealing time from individuals who should be able to spend it as they wish? Kotowych’s story raises some interesting questions; in particular, one may have cause to reflect on what exactly constitutes “wasting” time: if people are “in the moment”—children playing, say, or new lovers spending time together –is that time really wasted? However, “Borrowed Time” communicates its ideas and issues primarily through dialogue between Vincent and Kayla, and leaves little room for anything else; this does not make the piece especially engaging as a story—it doesn’t go much further than stating its ideas, and so lacks that extra substance needed for it to be truly satisfying.

Charlie Human’s “Dance Dance Revolution” (2010; first published in Chew magazine) is a well-realized short-short in which motion-capture technology has been applied to warfare, and weapons are controlled through dance moves. Human portrays a squad of troops attacking a unnamed town in search of an unnamed “Dictator,” and juxtaposes, to chilling effect, the comical-seeming concept of dance-activated weaponry, and the far-from-comical reality of it within the story. Those two aspects intertwine, resulting in some bitterly amusing lines (“I break formation to reach for the sky and shimmy. The insurgent dies in a hail of bullets. Disco has saved my life more than once.”) “Dance Dance Revolution” is a fine little piece that stays in the mind after it finishes.


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