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

Postscripts 24/25: The New and Perfect Man

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Postscripts 24/25: The New and Perfect Man, March 2011

(Jo-Anne Odell reviews the first 14 stories; Richard E.D. Jones reviews the last 14 stories.)

“The New and Perfect Man” by Carol Emshwiller
 “Frightened Angels” by Jeremy Adam Smith
 “To See Infinity Bare” by Rudy Rucker & Paul Di Filippo
 “Electric Breakfast” by Paul Meloy
 “A Crack in the Ceiling of the World” by Michael Kelly
 “The Dog Parade” by Lawrence Person
 “The Room Beyond” by Ramsey Campbell
 “The Last Heretic” by Darrell Schweitzer
 “The Story of Princess Rosebud” by Alan Peter Ryan
 “The Inn of Distant Sorrows” by Thomas Tessier
“A Moment at the House” by T. M. Wright
“Whisper” by Richard Calder
“The Primate Sanctuary” by Quentin S. Crisp
“Call Me” by Bob Strother

Reviewed by Jo-Anne Odell

In “The New and Perfect Man” by Carol Emshwiller, parents prepare for the birth of their child, planning to give him every environmental advantage. He’ll be the perfect man. They buy a Graham/Gallagher box, one that will provide everything he’ll need. They’ll just need to supplement it with the occasional bit of parental contact. Unfortunately, the child is a girl, funny-looking and ungainly. They don’t give up, though, or change their plans. What they don’t count on is her independence. When she’s twelve, she runs away from her perfect box, to experience life firsthand. 

This tale is an interesting and well-written exploration of human selection and development. It’s a bit heavy-handed in its approach, but not excessively so.

“Frightened Angels” by Jeremy Adam Smith tells the tale of Morris and Lotte, who leave Earth for Saltlick after the death of their daughter. Lotte sets out pictures, to remember, but all Morris wants to do is forget. He takes long walks by himself. When he explores the old ruins the locals call the Lonesome Cowboys, he finds a mystery that takes his mind from his misery. His exploration ends in misadventure, and he finds himself in the hospital with his body rewired. Now, he sees color around people, and he can feel what they do. The planet’s only doctor tells him he’s experiencing empathy overload, something that may kill him. It enables him to see how his lack of support has made his wife’s burden heavier. Again, he runs, straight into disaster. Somehow, he has to try to make it right.

I wanted to like this tale more than I did. It contains great imagery and some amusing names. But it also introduces several questions it leaves unexplained, from the origins of the ruins to the initial reactions of Morris’s neighbors. The story is slow to develop, and feels unfocused.

In “To See Infinity Bare” by Rudy Rucker & Paul Di Filippo, Basil Chown is accused of killing his colleague, brilliant metamusician Anders Zilbers. Basil knows that Anders was snatched by creatures of transfinite Wassoon space, the starspiders. Most believe them to be post-jump hallucination. 

Metamusic is more than music; it’s something that creeps into the souls of those who hear it. Metamusic requires both specialized equipment, and extensive depth and range from the artist. Most add custom-fabricated creatures called zeeps to their bodies, attaching them like strange barnacles, and using the toxins as aid and inspiration for their work. Anders is the finest of metamusicians. Basil can’t help but be jealous, especially when Mimi, fellow metamusician and his would-be girlfriend, falls for Anders instead. Mimi has more than just performance in mind. She plans a reboot of the universe, and Anders is to be the vehicle. Basil learns the truth, but it may be too late. He’s forced to do his part for the performance.

I really enjoyed this piece. Its irreverent tone and base emotion form the perfect foil for high concept. The story melds the notion of m-brane infinity with the unbounded, inner yearnings of the self. Though it sometimes flirts with obfuscation-by-jargon, the tale is presented well, with vision and clarity, never losing the personal thread that anchors the ideas to the storyline.

“Electric Breakfast” by Paul Meloy is about Daniel, a lonely man enduring his personal hell, and dealing with it by receiving ECT treatments. He works his way through both his treatment-induced hallucinations and the dark memories of his past, of a childhood that includes his father’s suicide as well as a life endured inside institutions. 

This tale’s beginning, with its compelling treatise on the nature of Hell, drew me in, and then abruptly chucked me out. Though it’s a well-written story, full of evocative imagery, I think I’d have enjoyed it more without the slightly superior tone of the narrator. I also question whether this tale belongs in a speculative collection. Though it mentions dark creatures, they’re presented as allegory for real people and events, with most of the action inside Daniel’s addled mind. 

In “A Crack in the Ceiling of the World” by Michael Kelly, Ezekiel walks among the dead, seeking the crack in the ceiling of the world. Jane races home when she hears the orders for evacuation, hoping to get to her daughter before disaster makes travel impossible.

With the redundant exposition removed, this would be a good beginning for a story. On its own, it seems incomplete.

“The Dog Parade” by Lawrence Person tells us about Blue, a black lab adopted from the local pound.  Our hero, a bachelor, and Blue were very happy together, until the day the Dog Parade comes to town.

It’s short and well-written.

In “The Room Beyond” by Ramsey Campbell, Jacob Todd returns for a funeral to a small town he once knew well, where he’d enjoyed extended visits with his aunt and uncle. It seems a small, sorry place now. He checks in at the hotel, where he feels less than welcome. The place is dark and foreboding, empty and in disrepair. He’s the only guest for dinner, in a dining room both eerie and oppressive. On his way back to his room, he discovers he’s in the wrong hotel. It’s too late to change, so he goes upstairs. Though he tries to sleep, he finds he’s not alone in the hotel after all. Jacob has a neighbor, a loud one. After trying to ignore the fellow, he finally opens the adjoining door to confront the culprit. What he sees makes him go pale.

Campbell does a beautiful job of creating tension through atmosphere. I was drawn in, anticipating that he’d pick up all the tantalizing tidbits he’d strewn about, tying them together in some marvelous way. It was disappointing that none of them were gathered. The ending was standard horror-story fare, with a side dish of confusion. I wasn’t sure exactly what happened to him, or whether I was supposed to see a connection between the story’s end and the funeral he’d arrived to attend. 

In “The Last Heretic” by Darrell Schweitzer, Probus knows he’s about to be arrested as a heretic, but he’s prepared. He’s researched Servio, the young fellow who comes for him. After a night spent in conversation, Probus gives Servio some texts, and three code words, to be remembered but never spoken--begotten, not made. Then Probus jumps to his death. Servio is on his way back to Rome when he gets word that his family is the subject of a purge. If he returns, he’ll die. Servio takes up Probus’s cause, preaching the Athanasian version of Christianity, and not the accepted Arian creed. It’s not just another view, it’s one from another version of reality. Servio preaches the doctrine, that All both is and is not, until he’s sentenced to death. Even then, Servio has a few surprises to offer. 

I enjoyed the beginning of this tale, and the end. The first part, with Probus, is a solid, entertaining read. The end presents an interesting concept. The middle, where it has the chance to gain some depth and traction, is a dull litany of historic detail. Perhaps I merely lack the knowledge to understand the inferences, aside from the obvious parallels to Christianity, but I’d have preferred a less arcane platform for a fascinating idea.

“The Story of Princess Rosebud” by Alan Peter Ryan is a retelling of a traditional French fairytale. Rosebud is the third daughter of the king and queen. The older two are twins, ugly and not very nice. Rosebud is both beautiful and sweet. As her parents have no use for her, they send her to live on a farm, where her fairy godmother sees to her education, ensuring she has all the necessary skills to be a princess. As a teen, she’s finally invited to the palace, where she attracts the attention of King Charming, and the jealousy of her family. Despite the warning of the fairy, her family remains determined to do away with her. 

In his preamble, Ryan says he chose a free retelling because the original author wasn’t a good writer. If that effort was less compelling than this one, its obscurity is understandable. Although I find it mildly interesting that the first version was far weaker than its successors, surely this freewheeling translation dilutes its claim to authenticity. Everyone is acquainted with far better renditions of this famous French fairytale.

 “The Inn of Distant Sorrows” by Thomas Tessier tells us of Richard Poole, visiting the tiny town of Nueva Alemania, in South America, to investigate a possible rare lithium deposit on behalf of his employer. Richard waits a day for his friend Ken Peterson, the geologist who is to evaluate the site. Although Ken checks in, he doesn’t make contact. Impatient, Richard decides to check out the place, an extinct volcano, by himself. He finds it fenced off and populated with military personnel. Richard can’t get close. When he returns to his hotel, he sees a man who looks just like him, and is met by a fellow who claims he’s from a government security force. Richard also learns that his friend Ken is dead. A mysterious woman tells him he’s likely to meet the same fate.

This tale gets off to a good start, with a believable character and an interesting situation. It builds tension nicely, spinning out threads. Unfortunately, it’s chopped off, not wound up, leaving its loose ends flapping. 

In “A Moment at the House” by T. M. Wright, William and Howard are stuck in the house, as they have been for a very long time. Howard is a simpleton, but he keeps William company. Perhaps there are people outdoors, perhaps not.  William ponders whether he’s eaten the cat, and whether it would be more humane to smother Howard in his sleep. Finally, William works up the nerve to open the door to the house. 

This is, I think, the literary equivalent of an abstract painting. I’m sure there are people who enjoy these things; I’m just not one of them. 

“Whisper” by Richard Calder tells of Holly and her grandmother, who’ve made their home in the groundskeeper’s cottage, next to the ruin of a research facility. Holly climbs the fence and races off, into the tunnels. She goes to talk to a boy who’s just a disembodied voice, a boy who’s forgotten his name. Holly’s mother is dead, and her father has gone to war. But she recalls something he did, something that affected her, before he left. When she’s attacked by boys from the nearby refugee camp, it triggers her abilities, and she becomes far more than she was. Her father finds her. He takes her back into the facility, and tells her the truth. It’s the boy, Baptiste, who was her father’s child. She’s his adopted daughter, a succubus created from Baptiste’s nightmares, as a weapon. The voice she hears belongs to Baptiste. Her father believes him dead, but Holly knows better.

I thought this story was well-done, with an original, imaginative premise, good writing, and believable characters. 

In “The Primate Sanctuary” by Quentin S. Crisp, it ‘s on a whim that our hero visits the sanctuary with his family. He watches another group interacting, perhaps baiting the chimps, and feels he’s a barbarian in a cruel land. When he took his turn in front of the enclosure, watching the chimp’s sign language and sad eyes, he senses he’s on the edge of understanding. He moves on to the lemurs, the gibbons, and the mangebays. It’s there he believes he understands the message, and he sees something in the cage with them. 

Once again, this story is well-written, but I found the ending vague and dissatisfying. 

“Call Me” by Bob Strother tells us of Erin, who’s on the road, returning from a faculty meeting, and desperate to find a restroom. When she stops at an isolated stop, she notifies graffiti on the inside of the stall door:  He comes at midnight.  It’s eleven fifty-five, and the lights go out. There’s someone in the washroom. Knowing her phone alarm is programmed for midnight, Erin pushes it under the far stall. When it goes off, the stalker runs toward it, and Erin bolts for her car. She makes it, starts the engine, and floors it.

This is a traditional horror piece. Strother does a good job of creating a sympathetic character, and building suspense.

In terms of quality, this first half of Postscripts 24/25 is a decent collection, with a few real gems. It reminds me that strong beginnings are far easier to write than strong endings.

One thing does have me scratching my head. Several of the tales, like “Electric Breakfast,” “The Room Beyond," “The Inn of Distant Sorrows,” and "The Primate Sanctuary" seem to me weak or lacking in the essential elements required for SF or fantasy, but very subtle and understated for horror. They have dark subject matter, certainly, and I’m no expert, but I’d classify them as general fiction. I’m not convinced that they belong in an SF/F/H collection.

Postscripts 24 & 25: The New and Perfect Man

"So Loved" by Matthew Hughes
"Confessions of a Tyrant's Double" by Gregory Norminton
"The Girl on Mount Olympus" by Christopher Fowler
"Euphoria" by Robert Reed
"Christ the Painter" by Allen Ashley
"Your Golden Hands" by Andrew Hook
"Imago" by Keith Brooke
"The Ghost of Lillian Bliss" by Rio Youers
"Ashes in the Water" by Joel Lane and Mat Joiner
"Child of Evil Stars" by Anne-Sylvie Salzman
"Her Fingers Like Whips, Her Eyes Like Razors" by Jay Lake
"Dr. Black, Thoughts & Patents" by Brendan Connell
"Thrownness" by Adam Roberts
"The Vorkuta Event" by Ken MacLeod

Reviewed by Richard E.D. Jones

Maybe it was the title, "So Loved." Maybe it was the fact that one of my young dudes is taking a class in world religion. Whatever, I managed to stumble over one of the key facts of the story within the first line or so. The question then became: Knowing a key twist, is the story still good? The answer to that question, my friends, is an unequivocal yes.

Retelling the story of the Fall is nothing new to science fiction or, more accurately, fantasy. Doing it well, even on a short-form basis, is something else entirely. Matthew Hughes, however, does a great job with this short story that envisions an unnamed (of course) creator and first assistant.

Hughes offers the reader a number of nice turns of phrase that really peppered up the story. I especially enjoyed his description of the real definition of appealing and charming.

Told, basically, from the assistant's point of view, there are no good guys and no bad guys. There are only. . . entities, and the discovery that some processes can act on both the creator and the created at the same time.

"So Loved" is a story that you will love. It is both appealing and charming.

Gregory Norminton is a good writer. Let's be clear about that. The prose in "Confessions of a Tyrant's Double" is clear, precise and evocative of warm winter nights on the plains of a painful reality. Unfortunately, I believe this good writing to be in service of a story searching desperately for a plot about which it can drape itself.

This brings to mind the story of Saddam Hussein's many doubles, not to mention the rumors of many other powerful people substituting poor folks with the misfortune to look like a certain tyrannical leader for their own bad selves. It's a story done before.

In "Confessions. . .," Norminton has one of the doubles narrate his predicament as his country collapses around him. Despite the deterioration of his country, the double lives a life of luxury, forcing him to take what others need so much more. The bird stuck in the gilded cage yearns to be free.
 
Despite the wonderful prose, I also shared that yearning so I moved on to the next story.

In "The Girl on Mount Olympus," Christopher Fowler takes us to the island of Cyprus and then dumps the reader into a refuse pit of despair and misplaced revenge. Switching with little warning between the vacations of Anna, and Lilly and Paul, Fowler lulls the reader into a false sense of, if not security, then calm. It's only in the last few hundred words that Fowler pulls the switch we all figured was coming. And that's part of my problem with this story. The story of Lilly and Paul is one of newly discovered love as a newly engaged couple vacations on an island on the cooler side of summer.

It is Anna's story, however, that engages the darkness and drags it horribly into the love story of Lilly and Paul. I'm of two minds about this story. On the one hand, the quick introduction of horror and the ambiguous resolution of same was effective, but I have some serious issues with the cause of this horror and misplaced revenge.

It's not spoiling too much to say that rape is involved in this story. My concern was that it seemed to be used purely as a plot device, something so the author could say the addition of the last-minute horror was justified. While I'm not completely against the use of rape in a story, I think it needs to be handled with sensitivity, no matter how brutal the act itself, to underscore the fact that these things happen to actual people, not just to words on a page.

It's, well, it's a longer discussion than what we have room for here. Let us just say it's a well-written story, but I have serious reservations about its appropriateness.

And with that we move on to yet another twisted story. In this case, we're treated to "Euphoria," by the redoubtable Robert Reed. Bernard is a biologist specializing in the lives of parasites. On a field mission deep into the South American jungle, Bernard discovers a parasite with some amazing properties.

Following a more than slightly debilitating fever and weakness, the new parasite gifts its new host with amazing insight, bliss, and focus. This change in mindset is, to Bernard, a wonderful gift. Although it only lasts for a period of several weeks before requiring reinfection, the parasite confers a wonderful sense of purpose and the ability to actually achieve that purpose.

Bernard, a small man living a small life, returns home and decides to share the parasitic gift with his small family. And therein lies the problem. Because what one person views as perfection, another can view as infection.

Although I'm not big on stories leaning heavily on description and exposition to the detriment of dialogue, I thought this story worked very well in spite of that. We as readers need to understand that inner workings of those who have become infected with the euphoria parasite and Reed does a good job of letting us in on how that feels.

Once again, however, there's a sudden twist to the story near the end. This twist, though, while well-executed, does bring with it several questions that weren't answered. I can recommend you spend your reading time on this story, but I think it would have been even better with at least the answer to the question of who took the pictures.

With "Christ the Painter," Allen Ashley gives us an amazingly interesting little piece. The basic conceit of the story is that Christ, rather than being known as the son of God, had been a painter and we get to cover his life through prose as defined by an art critic or art historian. It works. It really works.

For instance, instead of debating with the Pharisees in the temple over the meaning of God's word, Christ takes issue with the craftsmanship of the statues adorning the temple. On first blush, this would seem silly, but Ashley really makes this substitution of artist for redeemer work.

In addition to the fantastic prose, we're also treated to a lovely drawing of Christ as painter, taking the measure of his naked model. In addition to his wonderful story conceit, Ashley also gives us such gems as follows when he describes the village of Eloi: "Everyone in the tiny village proved to be a relation, it was that sort of place." The key to understanding this fine line lies in the knowledge of what Eloi means.

So, yeah. Good stuff. I highly recommend it.

Metaphor is a tricky beast, not so easily tamed or even described. In "Your Golden Hands," author Andrew Hook takes metaphor by the hand, leads it along a sun-dappled path and then whips out a heavy lead bar and beats it to death. Or words to that effect.

Relying heavily on a fluid, descriptive prose, Hook tells the story of explorers from a more "advanced" civilization taking charge of a less-"advanced" civilization, running rough over it in their quest for that most legendary of yellow metals: gold.

Hook does a very nice job of disguising the time frame during which his story takes place, sprinkling the prose with possible anachronisms, or – perhaps – merely letting the readers know that it is the rest of the words that are anachronistic.

Is the story ambiguous? Oh, yeah. But I mean that in a good way. The casual brutality of  a more-powerful culture is disguised within the languid prose, lulling the reader into believing something other than the expected will happen.

The climax of the story, almost drowning in the metaphor, is a chilling realization of the understated themes that have been running throughout. This is a story that will have you thinking about it long after the last word is read.

Lately, the downloading of personality into a secondary platform, be it silicon or be it meat, has become a staple of science fiction. The process brings with it a host of questions, chief among them being: Is the original responsible for actions caused by a downloaded copy? Is there a legal consequence for the original? Or a moral? And is there a difference?

In "Imago," Keith Brooke attempts to answer a host of those questions in a thought-provoking short story. Professor Sunday Bradford is a xenologist who has never been off Earth until a pandemic takes his family, leaving him free to take the risk of downloading his consciousness into a meat platform on a distant, alien world. On that alien world, the beta Professor Bradford becomes a mass murderer.

Once it becomes clear that the only person who can understand why beta Bradford has become a mass murderer is alpha Bradford, the original once again downloads himself to a meat platform under that same alien sun to try and unravel the mystery of his own creation.
 
The beta version of Professor Bradford insists he is not a murderer and, in fact, one of the survivors backs him up on that. It's an intriguing puzzle, well written by Brooke. I found the philosophical musings to be almost as engaging as the smooth flow of his words. All in all, a good read well worth your time.

It's not an easy thing to write a pastiche of a completely different writing style, trying to ape the way people of a certain time communicated with each other using the written word. You'd never know it, though, from reading "The Ghost of Lillian Bliss" by Rio Youers. Youers does a fantastic job bringing back to life the precise and gentle rhythms of Victorian-era fiction in this wonderful ghost story.

Set amongst the nobles of a certain era in Britain, "Ghost. . ." tells the story of an older woman named Abigail remembering her past and the insubstantial friend found therein. Told wonderfully through the distorted mirror of an unreliable narrator, the story unfolds both in Abigail's memory and in her present day, during which we learn that she might be someone much different than who she believes.

While the story itself was rather short, I found myself lingering several times over a particular turn of phrase, a description both apt and evocative. Once again, metaphor reared its misshapen head, only to be petted and fondled and set loose in the world.

Truly a story to be enjoyed.

Two old friends meet on a narrow boat in a slow-moving river and reminisce about the life behind them and the life still left to find in "Ashes in the Water," by Joel Lane and Mat Joiner.

It's not easy to write a story with someone, to find a way to blend two often very distinct voices into a single harmony. Often, the result feels like a bad duet with one person singing off key. Lane and Joiner, however, did a masterful job of blending their own styles into a distinctly third, and moving sense of narration.

More a slice-of-life vignette than an actual story, "Ashes. . ." traces a lovely trajectory through a moment of grief toward an emotional resolution. Lane and Joiner offer a quiet moment of respite as the canal winds on, the boat fills and life is lived.

There's something about a circus freakshow that seems to draw the mind and the eyes of passers-by. Since the writings of Ray Bradbury, that same unmentionable draw also has been a staple of stories focused on the fantastic. Run away to the circus! See the freaks! Be a freak?

In "Child of Evil Stars," author Anne-Sylvie Salzman investigates a small-time circus, complete with freaks of nature displayed for the curious. Two physicians become fascinated with the inhabitants of a traveling circus' freak show, forcing one of them to relive a particularly difficult time in his own past.

This fascination with his own past and with the representation of the grotesque here in the present, leads to some questionable decisions and also some good reading. The story was translated from the French by William Charlton.

What starts out as a bog-standard fantasy story of the Queen of the Fairies, makes a sudden, left-hand turn into the extraordinary in the short story called "Her Fingers Like Whips, Her Eyes Like Razors," by Jay Lake.

Addison is an unlucky young lady undergoing chemotherapy to combat a vicious form of cancer when she is confronted not just by the unknown, but by the unknowable. In a well-written story, Lake takes the reader through Addison's thoughts as she brings cancer, the disease of time, to a place where time has no meaning.

This was a good one. The word choice and the word play both seemed ripe with meaning and fun. Good stuff by Lake.

Brendan Connell seemed to be having a very good time while writing "Dr. Black, Thoughts & Patents." Taking a tip from the master Sir Terry Pratchett, Connell makes good use of footnotes as the place to put in comedic asides. In one footnote, Connell actually gives a recipe for a cup of finocchio soup that I might try in a couple of days.

Aside from playing footsie-notes, "Dr. Black. . ." tells the story of the eponymous Dr. Black who collects books. Like all good collectors, he also gets friends sending him stuff, such as a palimpsest of a work of Archimedes. Which is how we learned of Archimedes making the world's first sex robot. Well, an automaton in the shape of a woman, but you get the idea. While I'm pretty sure Connell had fun writing this, I know I had fun reading it. I think you will as well.

There are certain aspects, new and unthought, to even the most trite of situations that still merit discussion. Take, for instance, the plight of a person crossing from one world into another, similar world. In the case of "Thrownness," by Adam Roberts, our traveler suddenly finds that no one knows him. Someone else lives in his flat, even though his keys unlock the door.

The world, he finds, is different, but could the problem really reside in him? It's an interesting question that, while not answered directly at first, does make for a fascinating puzzle. After passing through many alternate realities, our narrator finds there is only one difference between them and his own timeline. His timeline is the only one in which he exists.

It's a nice little adventure story of a man's search for his place in the world and the difficulty presented when the world won't stay still. And when the time comes to pay the price for his adventures wanderings, the narrator has a difficult time even understanding what constitutes payment. Another good story here near the end of the collection.

The final story is called "The Vorkuta Event," written by award-winning author Ken MacLeod. An author of numerous books and short stories, MacLeod brings his A-game to this collection of short stories. Springing from a setting at the University of G_________, MacLeod takes the reader through a well-paced academic treasure hunt and survival-of-the-fittest event.

Using Lysenko's theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics as a delicious red herring, MacLeod takes the reader on a rare tour of academia for a world that never before existed. Dr. David Rigley Walker, our narrator, is drafted by Stalin, yes, that Stalin, to work with Lysenko to study some. . . thing found in the frozen wastes of northern Russia. It's the perfect setup for a send-up of H.P. Lovecraft's eldritch horrors and MacLeod straight up nails it.

"The Vorkuta Event" is a great way to end the collection, which I found to be full of (for the most part) excellent stories from energetic writers. Go get this.