-- July 2015

Tuesday, 04 August 2015 18:34 Martha Burns
Print, July 2015


"The End of Babel" by Michael Livingston

"Islands off the Coast of Capitola, 1978" by David Herter

"In the Cave of the Delicate Singers" by Lucy Taylor

"Fabulous Beasts" by Priya Sharma

Reviewed by Martha Burns

A group of once-proud people battle technologically advanced oppressors. That is the plot of many science fiction stories, but also the plot of many stories about the interactions between Native Americans and Europeans. "The End of Babel" by Michael Livingston blends the two in this tale of men in lethal, tech-infused vehicles who attempt to wipe out the culture of a tribe whose gods, honestly, should not be trifled with. As in real life, if you truly want to obliterate a culture, you must obliterate their language. Tabitha Hoarse Raven is the last speaker of her language and she uses it to call on those gods that, again, really, really ought not to be trifled with. The showdown at the end is a fine scene with engaging action, but there is little to no tension leading up to the fight scene. The story centers on a woman walking up a mountain and reflecting on her past. This ought not to be a calm progress, but so much of it feels like a walk.

The novelette "Islands off the Coast of Capitola, 1978" by David Herter is informed by a science fiction classic—Gene Wolfe's "Island of Doctor Death." Readers do not need to be familiar with Wolfe's story, but a brief recap will help me highlight the many respects in which Herter's tale succeeds, not merely in its own right, but as a fine piece of meta-fiction. In Wolfe's story, a young boy reads a story much like H.G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau and the story becomes the way he understands his druggie mother, who is in no way a sympathetic character. In Wolfe's story, the boy uses fiction to escape his unfortunate reality and the story provides hope. Wolfe uses the boy as naive camera lens in the same way that Henry James used Maisie in the novel What Maisie Knew. In Herter's story, the ten-year-old protagonist, Ballou, is no mere camera. He is a strong presence whose view of the world and haunted consciousness provides just as much atmosphere as his mother's creepy Gothic house. His mother, in addition, is both genuinely loving and troubled, which is a much more psychologically potent and heart-rending package. The result is that Ballou's relationship with his book (here it is a comic) is more nuanced. Literature is not an escape here, it no mere coping mechanism, and not even children are that naive. Highly recommended.

The protagonist of "In the Cave of the Delicate Singers" by Lucy Taylor is a synesthete. Synesthetes experience sensations such as taste, touch, smell, hearing, and sight in unusual ways. For example, a synesthete might experience a word, say "red," along with a visual perception of the color. Karyn's perceptions link sound and feeling and this helps when she goes on a mission to rescue her colleagues from a cave haunted by lethal songs. She can put on headphones and still follow the feel of the toxic sound as she squeezes through tight spaces. The story is an engrossing read as we get dazzled by its trove of auditory imagery and just the right amount of gore. The ending has an H. P. Lovecraft feel to it that you'll either like because you like that sort of thing or you may wonder whether it absolutely needs to be there if, like me, you've had your fill of Great Old Ones. Either way, the ending does not detract from the story. Recommended.

"Fabulous Beasts" by Priya Sharma is told with an assured voice that creates a hypnotic reading experience. Be warned: do not start reading this story on your phone because you will not be able to stop and so will have to put up with teeny, tiny print. Lola grows up in a rough neighborhood with a mother who loves her, but is also terrified for and maybe even of her. Something is off about the bright, caring, and ugly child who longs for a pet snake. We are captivated by Lola, but do not pity her even when her mother hits her out of frustration. Sharma manages scenes of abuse and rape extremely well, which is unusual and bears a mention since those elements are so often horribly done in fiction. Sharma does not treat those scenes like fight scenes. In fight scenes, close third person makes the reader into a voyeur, but anyone who goes to a boxing match or, for that matter, anyone who wants a good fight with monsters, has signed up to be a voyeur. We want close third. When victimization is involved, that won't work. Sharma's Lola narrates her own experience from the perspective of a successful adult looking back on her childhood. That gives the right amount of reportorial distance and so the emphasis hits just where we want it—with the suspense, snakes, triumph, and monsters that are, indeed, quite fabulous. Recommended.