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

Full Unit Hookup, #4, Fall 2003

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"The Beauty of Our Weapons" by Jay Lake
"Open House" by Krista Dietrich
"Emergence of the Psycholetter on a Rather Ordinary Day" by Toiya Kristen Finley
"Mavis T. Brigham's Week: September 8th to September 14th" by Leah Bobet
"The Spam of God" by Sandra McDonald
"Telling Tales" by Jennifer Rachel Baumer
"Blind Lion" by Nye Marnach

Image"The Beauty of Our Weapons" by Jay Lake

 

I wanted to kill my wife, but I couldn't. In the country of the sane, the wild man is king, I wrote in my journal--obsolete, safe paper. The newscrawler at the bottom of my videowall bleeped, telling me the latest Chinese incursion into Pakistan had been shamed back across the border. No one is killed, not anymore. No matter how badly they deserve it.
The world is radically changed when a terrorist bioweapon is released, the bilateral amygdalar repression--BAR--virus. Designed to "restrain the oppressors," BAR has put "the entire human race on a thorazine drip." Cops must take "the hard ass hormone"--norepinephrine, or "pine"--in order to have the emotional and hormonal resolve to carry out their duties. But the virus hasn't affected everyone. There are rumors of "wildmen," "feral kings in our country of the genetically sane."

Love used to be easy between our protagonist and his wife. Now he suspects she's having an affair with a wildman. After conducting an investigation, the protagonist has enough gumption to confront his nemesis. Upon returning home, he discovers that he has been set up--his wife and the wildman police officer have conspired to make it look as if he killed her. Sent to prison, he will have years to prepare his weapon of passion which he asserts will all him to rise above the hormonally neutered prison of his own flesh.

Jay Lake's stories are always a treat. "Beauty" is no exception as it explores the extent our vision, passions, and motives are limited by our flesh, a compelling question at the beginning of a century that is sure to challenge old definitions of what it means to be human.

I admire Jay Lake's extraordinary good taste in choosing a biological theme for a SF story. There's a tremendous amount of story material eased into a spare number of pages, carried along by the flow of Jay's poetic command of language. I am in awe, and "Beauty" is probably my favorite work of this issue.

I have quibbles. I wasn't persuaded by a story mechanism that required me to believe that because aggression has been nuked, sexual performance/passion is also passé, especially when I must also absorb the additional premise that passion in the form of vengeance has remained unaffected.

While it was clear from the protagonist that men had been crippled by BAR, I couldn't determine from The Wife--the sole example of the female in this post-aggression world--whether and to what extent women were affected.

Everyone is entitled to their own pet peeves: in this case, unnamed protagonists. The experience is akin to devoting an entire evening talking with someone who insists on remaining a stranger even as the party dissolves: sometimes it can be a powerful attractant but usually I wish I had spent the time with someone else. We don't even learn the name of his wife. (Although we learn the name of his nemesis.) It's awkward and exerted a subtle effect on my sympathy: is she just a token--The Wife--in his mind, not really a person? Maybe he deserves to be left?

I found the protagonist generally unsympathetic. Infidelity rots but a person is not a possession: a cuckolding is not a reason to desire someone's death. When confronted with evidence of his wife's infidelity, he possesses sufficient energy to launch an investigation (eventually to locate the "wildman" who satisfies his wife in ways that he cannot anymore) however he doesn't take direct action to confront the decline of his marriage. We see the conclusion he reaches--"Bitch," he refers to her at one point--and it's quite justified although the reasons are rather stereotyped. I wish I had walked with him through whatever struggle was required for him to arrive at that determination, to know the reasons particular to this character for labeling her a bitch.

What I missed the most about Jay Lake's story is the exploration of the feminine. The protagonist's ability to perform sexually no longer meets the needs of his wife. (His ability to perform romantically is not addressed.) In a world of Alan Aldas, she's searched out and found a Neanderthal (with PC apologies to Neanderthals) for her trysts. Why she would seek out someone who was dangerous, physical and violent, leaving behind someone who was rendered unmotivated sexually--I was never clear about his particular lack--but has been unaffected in the passion department is never addressed. I felt a bit cheated--I'd love to know more about women suddenly confronted with a world of men still capable of the touchy-feely end of things but no longer interested in or even capable of the "throw her on the bed and have your way with her" aspect of male/female sexuality.

But that's not really what this story is about. This is the war between the caveman and the Alan Alda: the wife is only the match to the fuse in this story of the triumph of the human spirit over circumstance

I am persuaded totally by Jay Lake's beautiful language. I felt bodily moved--by the seat of my pants--and in spite of my intellectual reservations. Given the wonders to be found in these few pages, I would have happily handled a longer piece.

 

"Open House" by Crista Dietrich

 

You lie in the pullout bed, tilt your head back and look up at the cedar panels on the ceiling. The lines in the grain are warm and rich.
"Open House" presents an entirely different take on infidelity with the story of a woman's awareness of the disintegration of her relationship with her husband and her growing terror at finding herself unable to do anything about it.

I have to say that I've always loved Crista's work. She's a slow, thoughtful producer so I don't get to see much but I don't know anyone who does YA better. Her ability to render the uncertainties of people and relationships during those awkward, sudden devastations and fumaroles is some of the best. Here she's turned her skill with turbulent relationships to marital infidelity.

"House" makes effective use of parallels with "The Cask of Amontillado" to highlight the claustrophobic state of a decaying marriage: the emotional devastation which is undeserved and from which you can never truly escape even if one successfully dissolved the contract itself. Every adult must fear deceit within an intimate relationship, the nightmare of sudden realization as the familiar, trusted beloved morphs before our eyes into a hollow specter. Crista's mastery of quiet details captures the mortar that cements a relationship in the act of crumbling.

Many people remain in unhappy relationships long after it makes sense to leave. Each one has their own struggle that they have succeeded or failed that results in the inability to leave, or the need to remain. Knowing her husband is unfaithful, the protagonist declares she cannot leave. I would like to understand the "Why?" particular to this character and this situation by the end. This is a horror story that succeeds as it stands. However the extent to which I feel terror is left largely up to me and my own experiences. A strengthened bond with the protagonist would increase the reliability and depth of my response.

I had somewhat of the same reaction to the lack of a name for the protagonist as I did for "The Beauty of Our Weapons." Here my alienation wasn't as strong. The protagonist may be unnamed but she isn't a stranger. The reader is granted intimate access to her thoughts and reactions.

If the goal of the writer is to create for the reader an uninterrupted illusion, the use of the second person here worked against that. The second person insists upon a certain distance between the reader and the protagonist. Every encounter with the word "you" causes me to pause and evaluate--is that really me? Of course it isn't. Then I have to insert myself back into the flowing stream of the story. The accumulated result is to establish me rather firmly in my own head, my own awareness.

A tale of quiet suffocating horror created by the sense of inescapable outcome: you know, you fear but cannot avoid. The special element is Crista's recognition of the extent to which we are often complicit in our own situations, as undesirable as they may be.

"Emergence of the Psycholetter on a Rather Ordinary Day" by Toiya Kristen Finley

 

When I first pulled the the envelope out of the journal's mail slot, I thought an ink pen has assaulted it. It was the type of envelope an editor takes one look at and knows its going into the "Dear Submitter" rejection pile. No need to waste personal letters on crazies.
Our unnamed protagonist is an editor at a journal, charged with husbandry of the slush pile. On this particular day, a wildly decorated envelope, sure sign of a nut case, appears yet the circumstances surrounding the arrival of the envelope are anything but ordinary. They are, in point of fact, impossible. The protagonist comes to project a secret society with him (or her) self the targeted recipient of a missive that could change their reality.

Although listed in the table of contents as an article, I will exercise my own license to declare this a work of short fiction as valid as any of the others that appear in this issue.

Confession: As a reader, I'm only somewhat interested in insider stories. I don't go to see movies that are about Hollywood. "Emergence" is the third story I've read--I might easily have said "been subjected to"--in the last month about stories from the slush. My first, uncharitable reaction was to close the covers until I could summon up the strength to go on. Allow me to say, with gratitude, that I need not have sighed so heavily.

This story is a delightful anti-heroic take on Enigma. Enigma is the mystery that must be braved even at the risk of life or sanity.

This story is an example of why I find slipstream frequently depressing. I mean here to comment on the movement not "Emergence" which is a fine piece. Slipstream often tries to adhere to the reality of our experience. The reader may, in the hands of the author, dare the frontiers of magic and mystery but is returned in the end to the security of their armchair, sadly reinforced in the knowledge there is no magic in the world and the subtle sadness at recognition of loss of wonder.

I suppose it is a sign of the times that when confronted with what might be a miracle, the protagonist chooses to turn the mystery over to the police, to reduce Enigma to mundane delusions via remote control. Potential frozen in amber, comfortably unexplored, no possibility implications might perturbed their own private Ohio. Contrast this with The Crying of Lot 49 in which the spirit of adventure leads the protagonist through a series of implausible adventures.

I find it seductive to think there is a secret organization with a manifesto: free the individual from the tedium of our normal lives, a vision I suspect appeals to many. The impulse to connect is a powerful one, to touch and be touched. I must say I was saddened when "Emergence" finally retreated from the brash to the common. Fine writing, bold ideas.

"Mavis T. Brigham's Week: September 8th to September 14th" by Leah Bobet

 

The Japanese Unit 731 commits atrocities on citizens in occupied China, including freezing alive to research frostbite, burning alive to research human combustion, infection with plague, anthrax, and cholera, subjection to vivisection without anesthesia, and the spreading of the bubonic plague in populated areas between 1932 and 1945. Death toll is estimated to be between 3000 and 12,000 individuals. Memorial service for the nameless victims to be held in town square tonight. Bring brownies for potluck afterwards!
It was hard for me to know what to make of this short, quirky little piece that juxtaposes horrific abuses of life and liberty against the mundane world of a liberal suburban housewife.

I found it shocking that it was so easy to find an example of the wholesale depravity of man for each day of the week.

The complacency of the politically correct leads to complicity when memorials become bake sales to be checked off the "to do" list.

A wry, agonizing slap with a catfish wrapped up in a colorful birthday balloon that has at its heart a deep concern over how our culture has lost touch, where even monstrosity can become personal image playing pieces.

"The Spam of God" by Sandra McDonald

 

My inbox is full of crap again. Lose Weight, Earn Money, Stop Smoking, Reduce Your Debt, Increase Your Penis Size, Earn a Degree and Girls & Horses Wild Sex--this is what I see when I log in. Spam from strangers who just want money. Then there's the spam from people I know--two jokes from Mom, an environmental petition from an ex-girlfriend and a virus warning from my cousin Eddie. I forward the warning to my sister Julie, the computer whiz, so she can tell me if it's true or not. The last note in my box is from This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and it says FWD: Fw: Very useful. It gets deleted along with everything else.
A shaggy dog pun about what happens when the protagonist gets spam from God.

The whiplash of moving from "Mavis. T. Brigham's Week" to "The Spam of God" would have killed a lesser man. After the heavy implications of "Week," a light piece was just what the doctor ordered. "Spam" delivers.

"Spam" is a light, frothy piece that accomplishes what it sets out to do: keep the reader entertained until you get to the punch line.

I, personally, didn't find the punch line to be that rewarding as a payoff: I'm demanding in the quality of my puns and this one was both a touch forced and a bit of a reach. However the rest of this story diverting enough for any deficiency to be easily forgiven.

"Telling Tales" by Jennifer Rachel Baumer

 

The Victorian she and Bob had bought was theirs. Their baby. Their dream. Old and reliable. And Bob went off to work in the mornings and Rose stayed home with the house. And the stories.
Rose's childhood was destroyed as her father worked harder and harder to provide comfort for his family, symbolized in Rose's mind as moving to progressively larger houses. She and her husband--Bob--purchase a rundown but enjoyable Victorian house. Rose is in charge of the renovations. When she listens to the personal problems of her contractors, the people experience a renewed determination and the problems often go away. However it makes for uncertain results in terms of completing the renovations. Eventually that which is feared comes to pass. Bob devotes more time to the office and less on their home and relationship. Rose serendipitously encounters a book on memoirs, "Speaking My Own Language", and takes to recording and rewriting the past in an attempt to control it to a more desirable outcome.

"Tales" is the longest story of this issue. I found it too long for the pay off and have to wonder if it would have benefited from some tightening. Almost half the story was spent on the developing shot: Rose listens, her contractors find themselves and are renewed. While interesting, how it directly related to Rose's childhood or the advent of conflict with Bob was hidden from me. I think the front end and the back end belong to two different stories. As I see it, the story begins when Bob starts to spend more time at the office and Rose must face the growing crisis in her life.

The engine for my interest in "Tale" is sentimental, the warm glow I get as Rose helps another another needy person. I'm not against it but I don't think it's enough to base a story on.

I think the reader is supposed to understand that Bob is losing his place in their relationship because Rose fails in renovating the house. The action between Bob and Rose as recorded on the page didn't convince me.

Rose's effort to confront a developing situation seems to involve writing an alternate history of her life, a fiction intended to erase the unpleasant, in a blank journal. First, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, I drifted into the conclusion that Rose was losing her sanity: the act of editing an unpleasant reality to conform to one's expectations being a form of dementia. But I was also a bit disappointed. Rose's power as a listener is to elicit personal truth from the troubled. Now, as far as I can tell, her future will become one of fiction and self-deceit.

The belief that writing a pleasant tale will somehow affect the real world in a positive way is a form of sympathetic magic. I had no reason to suspect the descent to superstition from the first part of the text and was quite surprised.

The skill with which the first part of "Tales" is rendered suggests that most likely I've gotten lost on my way to the crisis.

I would have liked to see the turning point and resolution more clearly involve Rose's skills as a listener and for the front end of the story to cohere more to the back end of the story.

"Blind Lion" by Nye Marnach

 

First of all, let's get one thing straight. This is my fucking planet. If you want a planet of your own, you better go find another one. You got that through your thick skull, dumb fuck? Good.
The unnamed protagonist has the gift of a photographic memory, a talent that gains for him the leadership of a planet devoted to religion. He abuses his position to get his rocks off and for person gain. In the end, his followers revolt and he is killed.

I found this story immature. Although it wanders into the conflict between faith and reality, and later, religion vs. science, "Lion" ultimately depends most on shocking the sensibilities.

The purpose of a repellent protagonist is for the audience to cheer at his inevitable fall. While the reversal does come--and never a villain so thoroughly deserved his comeuppance--my dominant feeling was relief that the story was over.

There is little attempt at verisimilitude. This isn't a developed character in a semi-realistic situation required of speculative fiction.

While I didn't appreciate this particular piece, there is an undeniable audacity that suggests a potentially strong talent. I have to admire the audacity of bulling his or her way through with such energy. I predict a verdant career in shock horror.

In Summary Overall, the stories tend to be short. Given the general high quality of the work, I could wish they were longer. (I never thought I'd say that.)

The format of this issue is a little hard for me to read. The margins and gutters are narrow. With reason--there are two 3" columns to the page which helps keep production costs manageable--but not easy on the eye. The typeface also makes it slightly harder for the eye to follow.

The collection is eclectic yet possessed of consistency, unified by sensibility more than content. Strongly for those who like slipstream and thoughtful fiction influenced but not bound by genre convention.

The stories feature the writer as artist, trying new, different and daring themes, approaches and styles. A welcome anodyne to those magazines in the field that have become mired in high style for the sake of high style, remote from making bold statements or vigorous investigation.