Century, Spring 2000

Friday, 31 March 2000 18:00 Rich Horton

"How Beautiful With Banners" by Michael Bishop
"Endless Summer" by Stewart O'Nan
"Grandma's Jumpman" by Robert Reed
"Two Sleepers" by Ian R. MacLeod
"Aliens" by Michael Kandel
"The Doctrine of Color" by Kathe Koja and Carter Scholz
"Red Rock" by Terri Windling

I'll unburden myself of the obligatory curmudgeonliness first. For the most part, these aren't SF stories, dammit! Only the Robert Reed story is unambiguously SF. The Windling has a brief fantastical incident, certainly nothing that would disqualify it from publication in any little magazine. The Kandel has an almost playful (though apparently true) SFnal feature in an otherwise (quite delightful) mainstream story. The MacLeod is built on a strange premise, but is otherwise not fantastical. The O'Nan qualifies how? Because it's horror, I suppose, though not at all supernatural. The Bishop is straight mainstream by an SF writer who is re-using (with internal acknowledgement) the title of a fairly well-known SF story. And the Koja/Scholz qualifies only by being by SF writers.

Grump. Oh, heck, let's not be silly. Let's redefine Century. (Or, rather, let's accept its apparent definition of itself.) It's a literary magazine that happens to be somewhat hospitable to SF elements. For which SF elements are not a requirement, but are not a disqualification either. And to which many writers known for their SF contribute. But, bottom line, it's a literary magazine first. Which is fine.

My favorite story here is Michael Kandel's "Aliens", a sweet story about a fortyish woman, unmarried, who considers herself, in vaguely Tiptreeish fashion (see "The Women Men Don't See") an alien in our world. Urged to date men, she is set up with a few creeps before she meets a man who really seems wonderful. Of course, he's an ... well, you probably guessed. It's sweet and fun, if a bit forced in places, and I'm not sure I'm convinced by the female point of view character. The same applies to the POV character of another male writer here: Ian MacLeod, who in "Two Sleepers" gives us a middle-aged woman who wakes up one morning, sees her husband off to work, then goes upstairs to find two sleepers in their bed. Who turn out to be the woman and her husband. MacLeod has no interest in explaining this phenomenon, rather he uses it to portray the woman and her marriage, against a perhaps idealized view of the "marriage" of the two sleepers. MacLeod is always good, and this story is good, but it didn't overwhelm me.

What about the unambiguously mainstream stories? Michael Bishop's "How Beautiful With Banners" depicts two brothers home from college, visiting their father in a Georgia town. The three had moved to this town just a few years previously, from Kansas, after their mother's death. The two boys, who have spent most of their time in college, have not really adapted, but their father seems to be fitting in well, even trying to join in the unusual local custom of displaying drying laundry as "banners", as a sort of artwork. The younger brother, the narrator, tries to get to know his father and his friends and the town a bit better, while his older brother, who was driving when the accident happened which killed their mother, makes no attempt to adjust. It's a reasonable story, with believable and well depicted characters, but the ending is just a bit too expected, too familiar for this subgenre.

Stewart O'Nan's "Endless Summer" is narrated by a man at a lake, wearing a cast on his arm, accepting help from the youngsters down for the sun and water, who he seems to resent somehow. Soon we see where thing's are going. It's creepy enough, but creepiness seems to be all the story's after.

"The Doctrine of Color", by Kathe Koja and Carter Scholz, concerns a construction worker desperately trying to make ends meet while keeping himself in house, truck, and drugs. He's mostly self-educated, and he's obsessed with an artist named Jacob Sanso. He attends a lecture on Sanso given by the late painter's last mistress. Somehow he becomes involved with the mistress, and over time learns a secret about Sanso's legacy to his lover. I was interested in the story throughout, and a key idea, about the value of inspiration versus artistic ability, seemed sound, but the characters never rang true. They seemed almost parodies, or types: what we expect from drug-addled art world denizens, and honest but desperate construction worker/art lovers.

Terri Windling's "Red Rock" is a short piece about a homeless girl and her Indian lover. The Indian guy has taken her back to his home, with a scheme to steal some peyote and take it back to L. A. to sell. But the girl meets an older, wiser, woman and has a fairly predictable learning experience/conversation. This isn't at all badly done, but it's so darn stale! I was never surprised. Nothing was revealed to me. And the obligatory fantasy element is trivial and superfluous.

Finally, the prolific Robert Reed, in "Grandma's Jumpman", portrays Earth in the aftermath of an ambiguously resolved war against alien invaders. Timmie, the boy who tells the story, is spending some time at his Grandma's farm. Grandma has an alien, a "jumpman", a former POW who stayed on after the war working as a farmhand. Timmie is at first suspicious and shocked as he realizes what Sam, the alien, means to his Grandma, but, again in somewhat predictable fashion, he learns to feel differently after the violent events of the story. The overall shape of this piece is familiar, but some of the details seem new and true to me. It's not Reed at his best, but it's very solid work. A fine story, if not a great one.

There's no denying that I like reading SF more than any other fiction. That doesn't mean I don't like reading other fiction, though, and for the most part I enjoyed this issue of Century. But when mainstream fiction doesn't reach the level of Kipling or Hemingway or Carver or Trevor, it doesn't have the frisson of cool SF ideas to fall back on. That's not really a complaint: it's just an explanation of why well-crafted but not special mainstream stories like say the Bishop or Koja/Scholz stories in this issue don't satisfy me as well as a less well crafted SF story might.

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the sf and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13.) Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in the St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. His home page is at www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.