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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Helix # 3, Winter 2007

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"Rod Rapid and His Electric Chair" by John Barnes 
"Addy In My Mind" by Eugie Foster
"Starry Night" by Samantha Henderson 
"The Narcomancer" by N.K. Jemisin 
"Why They Call Me Mr. Goddamn Happy" by Michael Payne
"The Contractors" by William Sanders 
"The Mass Extinction of My Beloved" by Ian Watson and Roberto Quaglia

The assignment, if you choose to accept it: Helix.   After three stories, I decided to take a look at the submission guidelines since I noticed a distinct trend towards controversial topics, creative story structure, colorful language, and very interesting characters.

There are no submission guidelines, only work solicited by the editors from professionals is considered for this fledgling ezine. So, I read the editorials and realized my first impression was entirely correct.

“Rod Rapid and His Electric Chair” by John Barnes takes so many twists, jumps, and turns I had to get out pen and paper and take notes to decipher the structure. The reader has the advantage of sitting back to read, but the fictional pointillism and frequent shifts in time and point of view require her to pay attention.

We begin with Jimmy Jellande as a prisoner and end with him as youngster who meets up with his “imaginary friend.” In between, there are schoolboy troubles, a scientific experiment gone awry, business deals, a trial, and a scientific “investigation.” 

Everyone gets skewered in this close-to-the-apocalypse tale: men, women, scientists, politicians, cops, mothers, fathers, and “normal” as well as “special” children. But Rod Rapid returns from his alternative world to dispute the review of the twenty-nine book series of which has been said:

“more advanced science appears to have been bashed together without much understanding from a 1930’s vintage encyclopedia and a collection of 1950’s science articles clipped from Astounding Stories, and characterization is largely a matter of racial stereotype.”  

Those offended by violence, racist and sexist innuendo, and scenes of torture might find this story disturbing. But if one looks past that, the messages illuminated are worth any sense of disquietude the reader might feel. I was much more disturbed to see the all-too-believable ending as a consequence of the current behaviors of the politically correct members of society. One particularly nuanced detail I noted (on my third read) was that the large number of uncle characters in one section were immediately linked to the next section with a mention of Uncle Sam and a politician who admonishes Jellande, the pivotal character:

“You never have to show a profit but you’re not allowed to do anything that looks dumb to a congressman. Never mind how dumb a congressman might look to you. So explain it to me in little, bitty words.”

So, to make a short story long, this is so packed it requires more than one read to mine its gems—unless I’m just like the congressman or the scientist Jellande suggests needs to be talked to real slow, since she's a girl.

“Addy In My Mind” by Eugie Foster is set in the not-too-distant future. This story jumps along in short scenes told from the point of view of Kristof, who is madly in love with Addy. They’ve redefined the meaning of soul mate and hardwired themselves to allow their brains to share memories and moments with each other. That comes in very handy when Addy disappears and Kristof enters the underground world of clubs, gangs, and cyberspace to find her. Even though having those new ports installed in the futuristic version of a tattoo and piercing parlor involves some discomfort, Kristof discovers that it’s worth it.

It felt like I was inside a game, watching Kristof encounter thugs coming from every direction. But Foster succeeds in making the world real and understandable. Techophobes like me might gloss over the cyberspeak, but just like being able to negotiate the web without understanding it, the fast moving plot unfolds to a fitting conclusion.

“Starry Night” by Samantha Henderson is the shortest story in this issue and the most traditional in structure. The tone is soft and poetic, the pace leisurely, and the descriptions rich and evocative. The twist is the dark fantasy that unfolds.

The Magister enters Montverdu, “a hamlet of 300 souls, at least last census-time.”  He has come to investigate why, “two nights before, the bells of Montverdu clamored, not in the ringing speech, which villages use to call for help or give warning over these hills, but in a wild jangle.”

The old Magister discovers the truth about the “night of the stars” and the dark secrets of the town of Montverdu that called the angels out of the heavens. There are no villains and no saints, just common people facing judgment for their choices and actions.

“Starry Night” is simple story with a contemporary theme told so eloquently that it left me with both a sense of satisfaction and a tremor of unease.

Following that poetic thread, “The Narcomancer” by N.K. Jemisin weaves together myth, legend, and fantasy as we explore the land of Gujaareh. The Sharers, with the help of the Goddesses, work healing magic using four humours of the soul: Dreamichor from nonsense dreams, dreamseed from wet dreams, dreambile from nightmares, and dreamblood from the last dream before death.
         
Readers enter the mind of Cet, the Gatherer, as he ministers to the troubled and dying, easing their pain by delivering their souls, severing their ties to the waking realm, and collecting the delicate dreamblood thus spilled. But his Superior calls him into the Temple office and dispatchs him to handle a matter that requires his unique skill of bestowing peace.

So begins a journey to the lapis mining village in the Empty Thousands. Jealousy between firstwife Mehapi and secondwife Namsut simmers in a pot with magic and the illegal use of narcomancy. The death of all of Mehapi’s children and their husband (the village headman) while in the company of Namsut sees her shunned for black magic. Is Namsut’s inability to conceive, despite multiple abusive and ceremonial sexual encounters beginning from the age of nine, a curse?

A Sister of the Goddesses, a male named Ginnem, joins Cet on the road. An understanding of their roles in serving the Goddess provides a parallel journey. Ginnem comes to terms with his role as the Sharer, healing flesh physically and magically by spreading dreamseed. Cet learns that dealing with the soul, judging those too corrupt or damaged to be salvaged, and granting them the Goddess’ blessing, may not preclude physical ministrations, though the cost is high.

There is an underlying sense of yin and yang—the blending of the female and male aspects of every human being—with an allusion to bisexuality. The unpleasant topics of rape, sexual abuse, euthanasia, and capital punishment are swathed inside the poetry and philosophy of this world. I saw allusions to Wicca, Buddhism, and other religious teachings in this beautifully written, gentle story, effecting a fantastic journey to a discovery of higher truths and the role of spirituality along the path.  “The Narcomancer” is reminiscent of Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent stylistically, presenting difficult material within a religious and cultural context. This story is so nuanced it begs for dissection and further discussion.     

“Why They Call Me Mr. Goddamn Happy” by Michael Payne heralds the beginning of the sarcastic, humorous pieces in this issue of Helix. It opens with a first person account of Mr. Goddamn Happy, a prospector telling us about “freezing my balls off out on the Hahld plains, wading through chunks of air fifteen months out of the year and mining the sorastrite the government needed to power the defense shields so that the goddamn aliens wouldn’t blast us all to hell.”   

He relies on his yurt turtle, Chloe, for shelter and comfort in all its forms. Mr. G.H. is forced outside the shell of “the best goddamn yurt turtle anybody ever had” to  investigate a strange noise and comes back having to explain to his Chloe why he’s invited an axe-faced alien named Seed to tumble into their love nest.

I got a few laughs from the grammatically incorrect, foul-mouthed pontificating, filled with innuendo. The viewpoint character, who observes the world through the tiny lens of his own marginal existence, could just as easily be sitting down to watch the Super Bowl, chugging beers, and scarfing down chili dogs as existing on the fringes of space.

The structure is chronological, in a storytelling style, but towards the end, the minute-to-minute action fast forwards to the denouement:  Seed takes great personal risk to attempt his lofty goal. And at the end, Mr. Goddamn Happy, is still peeved that he has to come out of his shell.

The downtrodden resignation and the stereotypical working man’s attitude toward his woman and his home (one and the same here) neutralize each other.  Sometimes, laughing is the best way to see what’s right, and wrong with the world.

“The Contractors” by William Sanders sucks you right in with a subject far too much on everyone’s mind: Islamic terrorism. This is no government-sponsored hit man, though. Gordon Hackett, a former “Major” who really doesn’t like to think about those things anymore, now works for none other than Himself who arranged the hit on the man with Semtex explosive strung around his waist on a 747 because:

“on the first class deck are a couple of aging gentlemen who in their dissolute younger days once recorded a song expressing sympathy for me.”

The hunt for an Islamic militant in London recruiting young men to jihad widens to include a young Arab woman, Himself, and a guy dressed in white named Michael  who finds dabbling with the Opposition occasionally necessary, even though only logistical support will be supplied. Indeed, a few instructions to proceed quickly even come from the Higher Authority.

There is interesting characterization particularly of Himself, who, “..contrary to general belief […]wasn’t in the market for souls..[…] but He had plenty of openings for contract work.”

The story is narrated by Gordon in typical crime story fashion. Clandestine meetings, magical apparitions, email messages, and conveniently arranged thunderstorms evolve. The key to its poignancy is the humanization of the devil pointing out that there is a continuum along which we negotiate when the deeds of some require entering the world of evil to defeat it. When the child pornography gets thrown in, even an archangel shudders but turns his back because you’ve got to do what it takes.

None of the characters take delight in their actions, and the dark humor—with an exquisite sense of detail, comic timing, and sarcasm—mellow the subject matter until Gordon concludes, when the deed is done, that he knows “…at last what the trapped wolf tastes when he chews off his own leg.”

This brings to mind Ursula K. Le Guin, whose collection, Changing Planes, contains a forward reminiscing about a time before “bearded bigots in turbans” made travel even more difficult.  She took on similar topics in a more poetic, indirect manner. The Contractors is my favorite story in Helix #3; I will never forget the images of the wreckage, the stink of the endless fires, and the baby faces of those who hate enough to use religion to justify their actions. What would I give up for the chance to drag Bin Laden out of a cave by his balls?

“The Mass Extinction of My Beloved” by Ian Watson and Roberto Quaglia asks the question: what happens when you mate the descendant of an enigmatic historical figure with a sex symbol leftover from the 1950’s and gestate a story involving them, the Catholic church, anything goes sexuality, clones, and the World Wildlife Fund?

Count Giuseppe Machiavelli, a direct descendant of Niccolό Machiavelli, is obsessed with Brigitte Bardot, so much so that when she is cloned to provide a Brigitte in every country to serve as the spokesperson for the WWF’s initiative to save endangered species, he will do anything to seduce her. And, being a brainless clone, she and her sisters fall right into his trap since they are licensed to kill or love, and all 500+ exhibit morphic resonance and telepathic communication. Then he and his “Beloveds” train their sights on the human race in order to try out their mass extinction theory—in the tradition of other mass extinctions like Nazi Germany, the Great Leap Backwards, the Anti-Cultural Revolution, Pizza Hut, Exxon/Mobil, MacDonald’s, and Marlboro.

The story starts out with a classic scene: a Bishop in full regalia barging in while Giuseppe and his Beloved are screwing. The subsequent conversation centers on birth control and why clones don’t need it. The Bishop exits quickly after damning the whore of Paris, fearing the paparazzi will photograph him in full regalia next to a naked Brigitte, and the Vatican has enough trouble. Watson and Quaglia even get a plug in for safe sex and les préservatifs (French for condoms).

It goes south from there. I’ve read porn that’s more graphic, pedophilia that’s scarier, and snuff that’s more realistic and troubling, but this dissolves into over-the-top vindictiveness. I would have tossed it aside about halfway through if I wasn't reading to review it.

I’m sure that Watson and Quaglia had a lot of laughs while writing this, indulging all their fantasies and lampooning our sex-obsessed, money hungry culture, politics, and movie star beatification. Bardot, in her later life, remains a controversial figure in France, accused of extremism in her views on animal rights, homosexuality, race, and religion, reminiscent of the sentiments Jane Fonda raises in the United States. Is getting screwed to death that bad? Only if you don’t mind the portrayal of human beings as disposable sex toys. Glorifying victimization as punishment isn’t sanitized enough for me by satire, cloning, and genetic engineering. Or maybe I just don’t get it.

In summary, these are my kind of stories: bold, in your face, a mix of conventional and experimental structure, and no one spared. The undertone of dark humor softens the punch. That’s a great formula; it’s hard to piss off readers if you pick on everyone. But there is a lot of substance and content to process and a lot to think about. Casual, escapist readers might not be enthralled. The politically correct and religious right—steer clear.