Special Double Review
by Martha Burns & C. D. Lewis
Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2014
Reviewed by Martha Burns
The novella “Bartelby the Scavenger” by Katie Boyer is set in a post-apocalyptic planned community in which economic productivity determines a citizen’s fate. The narrator is one of a crew of scavengers who patrol the area outside the planned community for usable items. A new addition, Bartleby, upsets their productivity quota when he begins to do nothing but stare and repeat “I’m good, man” when the crew leader asks him to work. As a result, Bartelby is put to death, although Bartleby is either an innocent whose inactivity is the result of post-traumatic stress or a Buddha-type figure who infects those around him with calmness and good cheer. While the story is engrossing throughout and the narrator is engaging, the story eventually devolves into an Aesop fable when the message of the dangers of privileging economic productivity is spelled out in excruciating detail. In addition, there is a “deep spiritual wisdom of people of color” alert in effect.
In “The Memory Cage” by Tim Sullivan, Jimmy confronts his father’s ghost and his emotional wounds are healed. This is not delivered subtly, but is made richer by the fantastical elements of the story. The narrator is over one hundred and fifty years old and the ghost is visible because of a complex physical phenomenon the man travels to Venus to experience.
“Containment Zone: A Seastead Story,” a novelette by Naomi Kritzer, is one of a series that features a plucky, thoroughly enjoyable young heroine and her adventures on a colony of ships moored outside San Diego. In this episode, Becca averts imminent social chaos caused by a mysterious plague. The plague induces obsessive behavior and the episodes of intense cleaning and paper cutting give a light, playful tone. Readers will, it is hoped, get more of this series in the future.
According to author Marc Laidlaw, the novelette “Rooksnight” is one of eight in a series of tales about a bard named Gorlen, some of which include his sidekick, Spar the animate stone gargoyle. In this episode, Gorlen and Spar suffer the indignities of The Knights of Reclamation, who use a spurious religion to support their campaign of thievery. The knights capture Spar and make him lead the way through various Indiana-Jones-inspired booby traps while they search for treasure in an abandoned castle. The knights are by turns silly and cruel and this is handled well. A surprise is that this is not a cautionary tale about greed or religion. Instead, it is the rooks who run the show and eventually give the knights what’s coming to them. As Tennyson notes, the natural world is “red in tooth and claw.” In this well-told and thankfully unpredictable tale, nature is also a little smarter and far weirder than we imagine.
“White Curtain” by Russian writer Pavel Amnuel is now available in English thanks to translator Anatoly Belilovsky. Dima goes to see his former colleague, brilliant scientist Oleg, to beg for him to change the future in which Dima’s wife dies of a brain tumor. Oleg sees millions upon millions of futures and warns there is no future in which Dima is happy. And yet Oleg delivers exactly what Dima wants. Still, this is no future in which Dima is happy. The way Amnuel handles this twist is masterfully done and the complex moral that results is one to puzzle over.
Oh, the typical boredom of an American history course. Not in “Presidential Cryptotrivia” by Oliver Buckram. This list of recently discovered facts includes the revelation that Grover Cleveland was the first muppet president and Obama traveled back in time to create the US Kingdom of Hawaii, thus getting around that pesky prohibition against foreign-born presidents. This is laugh out loud funny.
Popular prejudice is against fan fiction with its slashing and shipping. “The Shadow in the Corner” by Jonathan Andrew Sheen is set in the H. P. Lovecraft universe and it is an homage. A professor’s assistant, Agrawal, meets a grisly fate after an experiment goes awry and he begins to see a shadowy figure out of the corner of his eye. The story is gripping on its own merits and brilliant in the way it incorporates Miskatonic, madness, and Cthulhu.
The world David D. Levine creates in his novelette “The End of the Silk Road” is fun and atmospheric from the zeppelin that takes hardened gumshoe Mike Drayton to Venus to the native frog creature/gangsters. Mike gets a job offer from a wealthy human tycoon on Venus who is also the husband of Mike’s true love. The tycoon sets Mike up when he asks him to find out what goods a certain froggie has on the tycoon. These enjoyable tropes, however, ultimately get in the way. A lengthy bad guy’s explanation of his nefarious plot, a tough dame, a snappy suit, and the recovery of a long-lost daughter start to feel like elements checked off a list.
“The Fisher Queen” by Alyssa Wong is stunning and smart. The first line, “My mother was a fish,” echoes a line in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. In Faulkner’s novel, a young boy’s lament that his dead mother is a fish functions as a metaphor for the boy’s grief together with a less obvious comment on the way women are caricatured and discarded. In Wong’s story, fifteen-year-old Lily’s mother truly is a fish or, rather, a mermaid. Her father jokes about this with his three daughters. In the early parts of the tale, this seems like a sweet way a beloved father helps his girls cope with their mother abandoning them, but when Dad’s fishing crew catches a different kind of mermaid on a deep sea expedition, Lily finds out the gut-wrenching truth. Like Faulkner’s novel, this is a meditation on the effects of motherlessness and brutality against women. It is also a deeply satisfying revenge story. Angela Carter is the acknowledged mother of retold fairy tales where the heroines are no Disney princesses. Now she has a daughter in Alyssa Wong.
Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2014
Reviewed by C.D. Lewis
The May/June issue of F&SF is dominated by first-person narratives, including two in the style of older authors. Each story offers a view on violence; of the two that involve suicide, one is a sacrifice to save others, and one is a depression victim. Although one treats violence only in farce, the remainder offer views on violence’s effects and whether it offers a proper solution. Several address the senselessness of and damage caused by violence, though from different perspectives.
David Levine's “The End of the Silk Road” is a rough-edged private eye's account of a job undertaken for an employer-enemy who betrays him – as expected. To follow the story without distraction by setting elements, the reader is best aware that it is set in Levine's fantastic alternate universe in which the space between the planets contains breathable air. Without this knowledge, readers risk initial distraction wondering why an interplanetary vessel would ride low in the water, and suspecting a 1936-dated ticket to such a ship involves time travel. But one can't help smiling once one understands Levine's tale opens a 1930s private eye story with a run for the gangway to an airship bound for Venus. In keeping with the tale's noir feel, it's liberally seasoned with dames, drugs, and danger. Two out of two women who enter the camera frame prior to the love interest's appearance seem to throw themselves at the narrator, which seems calculated to force the reader to notice that his love interest doesn't. The women-as-eye-candy stereotype is broken by the story's end, though. When the story's twist sets the narrator on a crusade to protect those he loves, his plans are frustrated: Levine's two pivotal female characters have aspirations, loyalties, and convictions that prevent the narrator from steering them to behave according to his design. The resolution satisfies, fitting the characters and their noir-feel world.
Alyssa Wong's modern-day fantasy “The Fisher Queen” presents Lily's matter-of-fact tale from the Mekong, complete with advice how to chase river mermaids off the docks. Readers with sensitivity to human rights subjects should be aware that the story depends for its effect on the reader's response to sexual exploitation and the dehumanization of female characters.
The story uses Lily and her maybe-born-from-mermaids sisters to explore the inhumanity in cultural normalization of exploitation. The story describes how humans dismiss mermaids as stupid fish and so mistreat them without conscience, which echoes Lily's sister's experience having her spirit broken by an assault by a supposed friend in a schoolhouse broom closet. Relationships with innocent bystanders illustrate the betrayal inherent in such assaults. The effect on victims is depicted as an obliteration of potential; but it depicts perpetrators as monsters who've created a culture that accepts and promotes dehumanization and inhumanity. In “The Fisher Queen,” fishermen capture mermaids with the power to speak and perform magic, but imprison them in a fish locker while raping them until it's time to sell them to be killed for meat. Although the resolution reveals the fantasy element at work, its message reflects the real world: everyone – perpetrators, victims, and bystanders – suffer when any are dehumanized.
“White Curtain” by Pavel Amnuel is a melancholy story of sacrifice. Its backdrop is a fantastic branch of physics that governs parallel realities that diverge as choices are made – and which limits the results available to practitioners of the art of grafting desirable realities onto a subject's branch. The narrator Dima does theoretical work, but his professional rival Oleg grafts reality branches, working a professional prophet: he helps people get good futures. Dima seeks out Oleg after the death of Irina – whom they both loved – to discover whether Oleg can graft onto their branch a reality in which Irina lives. Dima's theoretical work proves the number of available alternate realities is finite, and Oleg admits Dima's theorem is right: Irina-survival branches aren't available for engraftment onto their branch. Dima's achievement with the theorem is no comfort, but it surely also explains why Oleg didn't end up with Irina: branches in which Oleg beat Dima for her heart weren't available. Yet Dima won't ask for a happy future without Irina; he leaves, parks on a dead-end street, and is surprised to receive a call from Irina's physician: her tests look good and she should be fine. When Dima tries to call Oleg, he learns Oleg's suicide has changed which of the finite available realities can be reached from Dima's branch. While Amnuel doesn't explicitly state that Oleg could have obtained Irina's heart years before by grafting into his future a branch in which some disaster befell Dima, Oleg's ethics in aiding clients and his eventual self-sacrifice suggest he has made choices to allow Dima and Irina their fair chance at happiness. Realizing Oleg has sacrificed himself to permit him more time with Irina crushes Dima. The ending is ironic: Dima appears to realize that Oleg was better than he, which poisons his victory and leaves him contemplating suicide himself. The story remains open-ended in the delicious question whether Oleg's purpose in his final graft was to push Dima to the desperation Oleg had known without Irina, and to suicide.
Oliver Buckram's farcical “Presidential Cryptotrivia” purports to relay the truth about certain United States presidents discovered from "arcane texts" and from documents destroyed by the National Archives. Delightfully, the alternate reality depicted as "recently uncovered startling facts" includes some presidencies we've never heard of – and in some instances, the explanation why all evidence of the presidency is gone. As a whole, the work reads like a joke collection rather than a single story. But the collection has some really delightful jokes. The true story of the Lincoln Memorial isn't to be missed, and is easily understood: everyone knows Lincoln was unusually tall, and that trolls turn to stone in sunlight. Some presidents' supposed feats – like John Adams' – are less exciting. But Jefferson's work to dispatch Lewis and Clark to Roswell, New Mexico and the election slogan of James Madison are a pleasure to learn. Readers outside the United States, with less experience with the reverence and mythology surrounding some of these figures, may not enjoy the laughs as much as those educated in the United States and thus fully exposed. But any fan of history is sure to find some good laughs.
Inspired by a student's error in the title of Melville's “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street,” Katie Boyer's “Bartleby the Scavenger” is a re-imagination of Melville's story in a post-apocalyptic community suffering under an oppressive bureaucracy led by a beauty-queen dictator. A word of warning: readers unwilling to accept the pace of Melville's original will want to avoid its retelling. In neither version can the unambitious Bartleby be moved from his inclinations. Each is a first-person narrative from the perspective of Bartleby's work supervisor, who comes to tolerate Bartleby's eccentricities – including his unwillingness to perform assigned work. Each provides an account of Bartlebey’s demise.
Important differences separate the two. Boyer's Bartleby is not an unsympathetic, friendless melancholy but an idyllic personality able to find "good" everywhere, even under the police state that looms ready to kill him and his co-workers for underproductivity for which Bartleby is himself responsible. Melville's Bartleby would copy but not compare documents, and eventually quit even copying; eventually, discharged after long refusing to work, he continued living in the office until his employer felt compelled to move his premises. Melville's readers understand the narrator had no choice but to disclaim responsibility for Bartleby and allow him to be jailed as a vagrant. But Boyer's Bartleby is much more sympathetic: although he lowers the productivity of every work crew he joins (at peril of their lives), he not only makes them all happy, but inspires such a feeling of kinship that everyone (except the narrator) joins an unrequested agreement to cover for Bartleby at their own peril. When the narrator's testimony condemns Bartleby in Boyer's version, it's not to mere confinement where friends can make sure he receives adequate food; instead, the narrator knowingly commits a fear-driven betrayal that ensures Bartleby’s execution. Jailed for vagrancy, Melville's unhappy Bartleby refuses to speak with the narrator, and chooses to die by refusing to eat despite being free to roam the grass in a jail where others lack his privilege to roam free. Presented with a grassy lawn to enjoy at leisure, Melville’s Bartleby stands facing a tall wall. By contrast, Boyer's cheerful Bartleby reassures the narrator that everything's "good" and unambiguously absolves the narrator before being executed by the State over productivity requirements.
Both stories paint a bleak picture of the relationship between the tax-collecting state and its subjects. The relationship between Bartleby and the community differs in the two versions: Melville shows a community bewildered by Bartleby's apparent belief he should be allowed to live and sleep in offices where he has stopped working and from which his employer has moved, whereas Boyer's community feels broad kinship with Bartleby and accepts risks to protect him from the state. Where Melville's narrator is a helpless bystander unable to derail what appears to be Bartleby's self-destruction, Boyer's narrator succumbs to the state's terror apparatus and effectively joins the state's persecution and destruction of Bartleby. Boyer portrays a saint-like Bartleby whose perception of the good in the world renders him a martyr, as it inspires resistance to the state in the form of the narrator's suicide note urging revolution. The retelling argues that good can be seen everywhere, but escapes measure. Unlike Melville's woeful cry for humanity, Boyer's retelling closes upbeat: individuals can resist tyranny, even dying – and the truth may ignite reform.
Marc Laidlaw's fantasy “Rooksnight” depicts the result when a well-provisioned band of knights presses a gargoyle and his bard companion into service in pursuit of their quest. Laidlaw employs intentionally circuitous language and stiffened phrasing to support an atmosphere of medieval fantasy. Readers who penetrate the tale's baroque armor are soon rewarded with a tale of hilariously misguided knights clueless of an impending doom obvious to the protagonist. Unfortunately, the protagonist recognizes that no warning could possibly aid his entertainingly deluded and greedy captors. The villains in “Rooksnight” are well-equipped, well-dressed materialist fanatics who soil everyplace they reach while cheerfully abusing and murdering those they encounter in self-righteous conviction they're on the road to advancement. Laidlaw's humor sugar-coats bitter observations about the spiritual bankruptcy of those committed to the vacuous pursuit of material gain. The just-desserts resolution of “Rooksnight” fits the villains so perfectly that exposition of the moral seems to cushion rather than to intensify its effect.
Tim Sullivan sets “The Memory Cage” on a station orbiting Saturn's moon Titan, where a dead man's shade is interrogated by his angry son through the miracle of "uber-symmetry," a technology said to exploit quantum mechanical principles such as superpositioning to virtually reconstruct the image and personality of a person who died suddenly. The narrator, having for centuries fled commitments, changed careers, and enjoyed no success in any aspect of his life, learns that his dead father's signal is intermittently detected by a receiving station in Titan’s orbit. Prior to the story's open, the son obtains handyman work on the station to obtain direct access to the signal receiver.
“The Memory Cage” opens with the narrator confronting his father's shade, but quickly transitions to a slow exposition of the second world war on his father as a young man; the narrator delivers a values-laden condemnation of war not in dialogue, but to the reader. Switching back to the story action, the narrator blames his father not only for killing himself but for having tried to give his children hope through the Church, arguing that religion like government guarantees war.
The anti-war theme recurs, but remains unconnected from the main action – the arc of reconciliation between the narrator and his father's shade. The anti-war theme that leads nowhere creates a never-resolved issue that renders the resolution less satisfying than if all the characters' concerns were somehow addressed. The author presents a veritable soup of rich concepts never meaningfully addressed: psychiatry failing to prevent suicide, government and church causing war, halfhearted involvement in personal relationships, drugs as an imperfect solution to the misery and tedium of workaday life, the tragedy of lost opportunity, the inescapability of human conflict, and the uselessness of travel (and career change, and gender change, and meaningless relationships) to escape problems we cause ourselves. If the story’s point were that no hope existed, these unresolved problems’ weight might mean something. But the story has a resolution. The resolution squarely addresses the blame and guilt between father and son, and shows the narrator has changed enough to have at happiness in the fifty years he's got left to live. Enormous power lies in the scene reuniting a suicide with the son who learns to forgive him for abandoning his family, but this redemption feels overclouded by the myriad issues left unaddressed and unresolved.
Fans of H.P. Lovecraft will squee! when they learn in the first paragraph of Jonathan Andrew Sheen's “The Shadow in the Corner” that the narrator works at Miskatonic University but has not (yet!) succumbed to the madness that overtakes its faculty. The curious reader is referred to the accounts archived in the Arkham morgue – records go back to the '20s and Sheen assures us it's now all online. (So it must be true, eh?) Mention of the Internet and lasers proves the tale comes from the chilling nearness of our own era rather than the safely distant past.
Early disclosure that the tale ends in disaster serves to build suspense – what kind of disaster? The innovation involves String Theory and quantum entanglement – but for the good of humanity the narrator destroyed his notes and daren't say more. “The Shadow in the Corner” leverages Lovecraft fandom to quickly craft a creepy vibe suited perfectly to works of supernatural horror. And what a horror: modern tools and power sources have only brought within closer reach the Elder Things from worlds that lay parallel to our own; you can mail for the tools yourself, even. Not a comforting thought, is it?
Lovecraft’s own revelations of horror, being set in another century, feel distant from a world that knows about high energy physics; continuing their line in a setting that's aware of modern science and even tropes from horror lit delights precisely because it reinforces that indescribable Elder Things remain indescribable even when summoned in the presence of carefully recorded modern instrumentation. Technology doesn’t defeat horror. Sheen's tale mixes modern vocabulary and informalities with Lovecraft’s narrative style, making a mashup entertaining not only for its Lovecraftian content but for its incongruous juxtapositions. Perhaps the greatest delight is the last pair of sentences, and their surprising power to bring suddenly the horror Lovecraft lovers long to feel. If you love Lovecraft, you can't miss “The Shadow in the Corner."
Naomi Kritzer sets “Containment Zone: A Seastead Story” on a floating collection of ships in the Pacific Ocean, where its young narrator describes the events following the release of an engineered illness that sweeps her home. Although the story problem proves to derive from workplace tensions with real-world emotional grip, this shouldn't put off readers at risk of taking offense at labor issues: all comment on the issue relates directly to the principal plot arc and the effect of the action on the characters, and feels entirely natural rather than coming off as editorial or taking a different voice than the rest of the story. Seastead proves a compelling setting, rich with detail and complexity. The stakes quickly grip readers, for Kritzer shows that actions in her universe have consequences that follow characters for years, shaping and restricting their futures. Seastead has a realistic feel, complete with class tensions, information disparity, suspicions, politics, and some genuinely good people who add depth and color to the world. The story does not depend on continuous, engineered opposition to keep the pace up; the over-arching problem in this story and the delightful world in which it is set are more than sufficient to keep reader interest.
In “Containment Zone” the narrator transitions plausibly from a passive observer to an investigator and eventually a leader; by the time she negotiates security for a docking aid ship, she’s made herself the de facto commander of a key Seastead vessel. Violence is presented not only as a bogeyman (will the U.S. halt the plague by bombing Seastead?), but also as a value-neutral tool capable of solving problems and subject to responsible use. Readers who enjoy a strong female lead will love Kritzer's narrator Beck, whose resolution doesn't depend on a boyfriend or other male protector. The strongest male characters in the story act mostly by placing justified confidence in Beck, and backing her while she solves their problems. It looks good on her. “Containment Zone” provides a well-suited resolution, neatly addressing every problem Beck tackles. Look for great things from Naomi Kritzer.
When not writing persuasive nonfiction, C.D. Lewis lives and writes in Faerie.
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