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

Apex Magazine #55, December 2013

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Apex #55, December 2013

 
What You’ve Been Missing” by Maria Dahvana Headley
Haruspicy and Other Amatory Divinations” by Kat Howard
Before and After” by Ken Liu
Our Daughters” by Sandra McDonald
All That Fairy Tale Crap” by Rachel Swirsky

Reviewed by Dave Truesdale

Maria Dahvana Headley’s “What You’ve Been Missing” tells in metaphorical descriptions interspersed with those in the real world of an old man’s imaginative, piecemeal mental wanderings and sad, spiraling descent into total forgetfullness due to advanced Alzheimer’s. “Fantastic” content is negligible unless one now includes metaphor—by itself—as a defining predicate of genre fiction. I always find stories dealing with the ravaging effects of Alzheimer’s able to push my sentimental buttons, and this one is no different.

Another foray into more overt metaphor is Kat Howard’s “Haruspicy and Other Amatory Divinations.” Running through a litany of short segments describing various sorts of divination in order to see which, if any, might give her an answer regarding the nature of true love, a young woman (presumably, though it’s never stated) comes to the conclusion that knowing one’s own heart is the only answer. “You have to be yourself to find love. Your true, authentic self. You can’t hide.” Again, since all of the means of divination (haruspicy, osteomancy, driromancy, chiromancy, et al) are taken from the world as we know it, there is no “fantastical” element involved here. What each of them entails is explained (For example, the title’s haruspicy refers to “the method of divination where the future is read in the entrails of a sacrificed animal.”), and how they all fail to reveal to the narrator whether true love is in her future and how she might recognize it. Aside from these interesting facts I came away from this one unimpressed. The telling seems more suited to those of a more tender, naive age group whose young hearts give rise to such a question, and who have not yet come to realize the truth the narrator eventually imparts. For many others of us, however, the answer is an old one and gives us nothing new in this specific telling.

Ken Liu’s “Before and After” is a short-short consisting of three paragraphs detailing the thoughts of a man—his private worries and familial concerns—who tries to pinpoint the precise moment he comes to realize that the arrival of aliens have altered his life and the world forever. The author likens the mental process involved to a written sentence (the third story involving metaphor, by the way), thusly: “...the moment when he finally understood that the world had changed, forever and ever, like a sentence that twists and turns, accumulating the detritus of thoughts and feelings and fears and memories and yearnings until one notices that somewhere along the way, a shift irrevocably altered its path and mood and tone so that upon reaching the final, abrupt period, one hesitates, waits, suspends a breath, to remember.”

Sandra McDonald’s “Our Daughters” opens with the following lines: "Because we do not approve of you having sex with our high school daughters, we have equipped their vaginas with automatic intrusion alarms. Once triggered, these alarms will screech out at unbearable volumes, transmit emergency GPS information to the nearest security forces, and instantly alert the Purity Apps on our phones and phablets." The story continues as a series of open letters, written ostensibly by a representative of all mothers, to all males, warning them to stay away from their daughters. The letters are written over time and follow the daughters as they come of age in high school, then college, and then the larger world. Each progressive letter of warning becomes more serious, warning males that should they attempt to have sex with their daughters that dire consequences will result. Not to be so easily intimidated, the clever males always overcome the “protections” by ingenious means, forcing the mothers to come up with even more harmful, painful, or embarrassing safeguards to their daughters’ virginity, including, but not limited to: exploding vaginal dye packs, state–of–the–art capsaicin dispensers in the vaginas of the daughters, the very latest in vaginal safeguard technology (VST), and “Personal Defense Nanobots designed to release from the lining of the vagina, penetrate an interloper’s urethra, travel to one or both testicles, and create testicular torsion along with blackened skin and excruciating pain.” There’s also high-tech “smart” panties which act in the manner of the old fashioned chastity belts of yore. You get the idea.

The story is funny, but the humor hides the more serious message, a definite Trojan horse of 1970s post-feminist angst. At first glance, we see what seems to be a tongue-in-cheek take on the overprotective mother, something we can identify with when it comes to the high school aged daughter. But as time goes on and the girls turn into young women, first in college and then out on their own in the real world, this overprotective instinct turns to one of actually hating men (one of the barricades to sex, if breached, ends in death unless an antidote to a poison is given by one of the “top-secret, highly fortified fertility and reproduction clinics.”)—or more precisely hating their biological sexual drives, which the author admits is not their fault but is just the way they are wired. Though the adult daughters rebel, the mothers still retain total control over their daughters' reproductive choices, as they are allowed to engage in intercourse only after the mothers have vetted the partner and he has met with their approval (any attempt at unapproved sex transmits a signal from an unremovable electronic alarm on the daughter to the mother).

By the end of the story (it is quite short) the mothers have taken desperate measures, instituting a Final Solution to what they perceive as the problem. The equivalent of sexbots are now installed in lounges and nightclubs to alleviate the sexual drives of the male (and the “facsimiles” are programmed not to “argue”), while their daughters’ physical contact with males (those vetted and approved) is monitored and restricted to hand holding in the park, walks on the beach, and dining in fine restaurants. The original humor of the setup is now drained when we learn via a most telling line at the very end that these mothers have replaced their own men with docile “facsimiles” who also don’t argue, and are at the beck and call of their women, these mothers. Therefore, it is not the case that the mothers desire only celibacy for their daughters but desire to control the men with whom they themselves are married as well. They just don’t like men as a general proposition.*

*(The single line of revelation mentioned above, that the mothers have replaced their husbands with more pleasant and obedient “facsimiles” recalls Ray Bradbury’s “Marionettes, Inc.” from the March 1949 issue of Startling Stories, later incorporated as one of the stories in The Illustrated Man. While the Bradbury does touch loosely and in a much more harmless way with a minor aspect of the general theme of the present story, it is nowhere near as dark or mean-spirited.)

What I see here, with what this story says and the carefully-chosen language it sprinkles innocuously throughtout the story (“fortified” and “arsenal” to name two), along with the deadly harm threatened to males who defy the mothers’ barricades to sex with their daughters (willing, adult daughters too), is a wistful nod in the rearview mirror hearkening back to those halycon early 1970s anti-male feminist rhetoric days full of anger and in-your-face generalized animus toward the male of the species. Ah, the good old days, when the war on men wasn’t considered sexist at all but a revolt against their own across-the-board sexism, a true act of freedom and liberation from male domination and vile oppression, where even an act of heterosexual consensual sex between man and wife was considered de facto rape by at least one outspoken advocate, and is now—through this story—once again a hoped-for cause celebre to be revived (or at the least revisited) in the 21st century. We’ve come a long way baby, and this nostalgic reiteration of the strident feminist attitudes prevalent in the latter part of the past century is a welcome blanket of comfort to those young breast-bobbing firebrands who once burned their bras, who are now old broads gone to flab and seed (and who need their bras now more than ever) and who desperately attempt to remember fondly the “good old days.”

Whew, well...wow, that was good for me—was it good for you? Pass me one of your Virginia Slim’s, please—there, on the night table. Thanks, sweetie. I think I’ll watch some Little Rascals on the tube before I nod off. I hear they’ve got a good one tonight; it’s where Darla tries to get into Spanky’s “He Man Woman Hater’s Club.” It’s a laugh a minute riot.

Originally published earlier this year in the anthology Glitter & Mayhem (Apex Publishing, 2013), Rachel Swirsky’s “All That Fairy Tale Crap” gives us another female author who is, let’s say...severely disgruntled at stuff she cannot change in the real world. Her focus here is the “ideal” female as portrayed in fairy tales who make it impossible for the contemporary woman to live up to such high standards—the fairy tale of Cinderella being the chosen target here and which seems to be the one getting the author’s panties in a twist.

Rather than acknowledging that such models of purity and innocence as Cinderella might be something toward which to aspire, or look up to as an ideal, the author has decided to destroy that which she cannot attain in real life. Envy? Jealousy? A desperate, angry attempt to knock from her pedestal a fairy tale princess realizing such is not to be in her own life? Just another writing assignment for an anthology to make a buck or two and let’s take a contrary viewpoint and run with it? Anyone’s guess. But the lashing out at the seeming unattainable, to make mockery of the ideal, to bring down to one’s own level rather than striving to raise one’s own station is something the immature adolescent is prone to do, not the mature adult.

Examples of this immature response are to be found in abundance in society. Rather than working hard and saving one’s money for that expensive pair of sneakers, we see instances of those (through envy) robbing from someone who wears the shoes, and sometimes destroying (through murder) the source of their booty. The robbery victim is “destroyed” by those seeking the easy way to even things out. The manufactured division between the Haves and Have Nots and the economic destruction of the Haves whether they deserve it or not is the mindset. We hold heroes of all stripe to an ideal whether they like it or not, the press (who awarded them their status in most cases) salivating to destroy them at first opportunity, to show the feet of clay, that these people we have idolized are really just like us and therefore we should not feel so poorly about our own hardscrabble existence. Our society seeks to destroy the rich, the sports icon, the pastor or preacher or politician who stumble, after we set them up as models of excellence or moral perfection. We want everyone to be as bad off as we are by dragging them down, rather than building ourselves up.

“All That Fairy Tale Crap” is a prime example of this worldview. The story takes direct shots at the ideal of purity, the pristine nature of a virginal Cinderella who lives with her stepmother and stepsisters, who labors hard from dawn to dusk doing scut work, but is rewarded by falling in love with a handsome, rich prince. It’s an idealized rags to riches story. Pain, suffering, abuse, and hard work pay off for Cinderella. Sure, it’s a fairy tale story and we know this happens rarely in real life (though actress Grace Kelly did fall in love with, and marry a true prince—it does happen), but the values it expresses are worthy ones.

But this story tries its darndest to destroy the Cinderella model and the values it has come to represent by portraying Cinderella as a self-centered amoral wretch as far from those ideals as the author could imagine, and in what she hopes are the most shocking, sensational scenarios in order to emphasize this moral, idealized divide. Mind you, the following quotes are reprinted only to show how shocking the author desired to represent her own version of a deconstructed Cinderella, to get as far from the purity of the original character as possible. I have no quarrel with the sexual act(s) themselves and the depiction of sex (of any persuasion) is not the issue here. Here are the first, second, fourth and fifth opening lines of “All That Fairy Tale Crap”:

I was supposed to go to the ball, but I spent the night licking out my stepsister instead.
Bethesda moaned and rustled mulberry silk high up her thighs. “There, there, no, faster, come on, faster, please…”
...
Never marry a prince when you can eat a pussy.
Never ride a pumpkin when you can steal cab fare.

And we are gifted with this gem later on:

The heroes of fairy tales are straight. And skinny, too, so they’re straight and narrow.

People think this is because of heterosexism and beauty standards. It isn’t. Snow White takes a cock in her scrawny cunt because she can’t imagine how to be twisty.

So right off the bat we see a hardcore reversal of the values the tale of Cinderella represents. She is engaging in sex with her stepsister (the ugly one, the author writes at one point) and contemplates theft. The remainder of the story progresses in like fashion, with Cinderella and one of the stepsisters robbing the prince, foul language (the F-word) easily tossed off, and other such well-chosen devices used to further emphasize how randy and crass are the morals and ethics and behavior of Cinderella and her whole family. Cinderella is now brought down to street level, the myth of her purity now thoroughly trashed for what she really is.

We need our heroes (or heroines); mythic or archetypal they fulfill a psychological need and have proven themselves to do so over millennia. Without our dreams: of love, of any higher goals, aspirations, or desires (man made or otherwise), of something worthwhile to strive for—or dream about or emulate—our lives would not be the same. Many of our myths and fairy tales reflect these aspirations.

Sadly, there are those who lash out and can think only low thoughts of mockery or destruction, the cutting down to size those who profess or portray what we might be, or become, because they have, in one way or another, given up on themselves and wish to destroy that which gives others inspiration or hope. Tis a pity their glass of Life is always half empty and at every opportunity they feel an unrepentant urge to share their from-the-heart (“There! Take that!”), disappointment-with-life vision with those who strive to set their sights higher.

All That Fairy Tale Crap” is a fine example of this view and is more likely to find its target audience among an uncritical, morally ambivalent adolescent crowd (if not adolescent by age, then by psychological maturity). In this respect I give it a Well done. Stories like this, in the final analysis, reveal to the careful reader more about the author than anything worthwhile to be revealed or added to the canon of the fairy tale itself.

{Postscript: While an objection to the above reviews of “Our Daughters” and “All That Fairy Tale Crap” might be raised on the grounds that what an author puts into any given story isn’t necessarily to be taken as illustrative, as representative of their own beliefs or viewpoints, it is also equally true that in many cases and quite purposely and with passion an author does so and without apology. It is unreasonable to suppose that James Tiptree, Jr. didn’t believe one word of her feminist-themed and highly regarded fiction, or that Samuel R. Delany meant not one word of Dhalgren, or that Ursula K. LeGuin was just passing time when she wrote The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed, or Ted Sturgeon’s heartfelt beliefs weren’t embedded in his groundbreaking short stories of the many expressions of love, or Joanna Russ was insincere and meant not one word of The Female Man. In fact, it was Russ, when writing book reviews in the late 1970s for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and replied in print to those readers chastizing her for injecting politics into her reviews and asked her to desist the practice, who gave back with “I will—when the authors keep politics out of their stories. But they never do; in fact, it seems absolutely impossible to write anything without immediately making all sorts of assumptions about what human nature is, what good and bad behavior consists of, what men ought to be, what women ought to be, which states of mind and character are valuable, which are the opposite, and so on.” (Excerpt from Russ’ November 1979 F&SF Books column titled “In Defense of Criticism.”)}