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Leslie What

Nebula Awards Showcase 2001
Leslie What
Leslie What attended the Clarion Writers' Workshop in 1976 but stopped writing to do other things, like maskmaking and puppetry, tap-dancing and stage performance, babies and community work. She published her first story in Asimov's in 1992 and has since added over one hundred publication credits in a variety of media: theater, non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and documentary scripts. She won the Nebula Award for her short story "The Cost of Doing Business" and has taught writing at conferences including Write on the Sound, Pacific Northwest Writers Conference, and South Coast Writers Conference.

Leslie What Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Interview: Leslie What


Luis Royo
Prom Night
Historical Hauntings
Bedtime Stories to Darken Your Dreams
Bending The Landscape: Horror
Past Feature Reviews
A review by Trent Walters

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You're feeling lazy. You want to investigate this "new" writer and Nebula-winner that Gardner Dozois calls "the Queen of Gonzo" (which is exactly why this reviewer investigated her, having a penchant for the weird and wonderful), but your buttocks are permanently glued to the seat in front of your computer. Or maybe you're a completist, a collector of What-nots, assembling all those hard-to-find fictions not collected in The Sweet and Sour Tongue, so you can own a majority share of What's fiction oeuvre. What can you do? You rub the Leslie What compu-genie lamp and she kindly grants you eleven wishes (ten stories and an article on revision), the lattermost four of which are free of charge: on Fictionwise.com, Infinity Plus, SciFi.com Presents, Vestal Review and her website.

Apart from What's The Sweet and Sour Tongue which is also available in assorted electronic formats at rock bottom prices, Fictionwise.com lists seven What stories: "The Goddess is Alive, And, Well, Living in New York City," Nebula-winning "The Cost of Doing Business," "I Remember Marta," "Mothers' Day," "Things Don't Always Turn Out Like We Plan," "Love, Art, Hell, and the Prom" and "King For a Day."

Zeus and Hera are up to their old tricks. Hera wants to prove to Zeus that "The Goddess is Alive, And, Well, Living in New York City," thank you very much. After the Tanya-Nancy Olympic (ha, ha) affair reminds Zeus of his tumultuous marriage, he sets up a rendezvous with Hera but not without first having a quick tryst with a tall blonde. Hera grows jealous, drinks, then transforms herself into a louse to get closer, but her blood alcohol level soars in the transformation (insect blood? though admittedly I missed the minor flaw on the second read) and she falls unconscious. A male louse has his way with her, the pregnancy of which she will use to get back at Zeus when he finally comes round and thinks it is his. All the other gods died from boredom, implying that, in their own grotesque way, little marriage spats may be the tiny spark keeping them alive. If this is the best we can hope for, if this on-again, off-again Zeus-Hera marriage mimics our modern reality (as divorce rates seem to indicate), then what a sad state of modern affairs.

Leslie What's Nebula winner examines "The Cost of Doing Business" in what Fictionwise calls a fantasy but could just as well be called science-fiction by extrapolation through our present-day "reality" and game shows whose primary joy is to eliminate personalities by any means necessary. The variable SF/fantasy (horror?) distinction brings with it good and bad: good in that the story will be accessible to the widest possible audience (a strictly literary reader need not be frightened), bad in that it doesn't truly explore the limits of this fantastic or science fictional situation apart from protesters. Zita is a professional victim. Those who are about to be humiliated, beaten, robbed or otherwise victimized can sign contracts with the criminals that allows a professional victim to take the paying victim's place, which lets both the paying customer and criminal to get their rocks off. People protest, but for Zita she'd rather be paid. What has some potent points brought to light about victims and their purpose in society.

The science-fantasy "I Remember Marta" recalls the transgressions of those who find sex casual. As a salesman, James Speck sells more than the company products, he sells himself freely to the company women and men's wives. Unfortunately, a new STD transmits memory loss of sexual encounters. Despite an eye for detail, James knows he's slept with most of the women but which, when and under what circumstances has slipped his mind. Marta turns out to be one of his more recent flings whose name he barely manages to recall. The STD seems to be affecting more than men. As often happens in SF when an idea assumes control, James never becomes more fully realized than the minor characters which are well-proportioned -- rather, the idea becomes the main character. If that's the intent, the story becomes more of a curiosity than an emotional mover and shaker. Surely, James has something a reader can care about -- a Yin for every Yang and vice versa. A reader doesn't have to like but at least sympathize with a character's plight -- a symptom not limited to any one SF artist but has become endemic to more traditionally academic writings as well (even Joyce Carol Oates fell prey to this tendency somewhere between the beginning and present career). If SF is serious about its meaning, it's not enough to establish life-like yet ideologically opposed straw men but to characterize and characterize well. If SF is serious about it's being taken seriously as a literature to be reread, it's not enough to characterize well but also to develop those characters.

The reader interprets "Mothers' Day" in one of two ways: as a surface-level flight of escape fantasy for fed-up mothers or as a deeper, ironic misnomer. The Pied Piper has made off with the children of Hamelin, but they're a hundred needy, whiny brats who are difficult to control and complain about the day-in-day-out oatmeal breakfast since ever since they ran out of ratcakes, rat muffins and rat soufflé. The Pied Piper decides to travel across the globe for mothers to care for and control these children. The ones he picks up, however, are all disgruntled mothers who, tired of listening to needy, whiny children and husbands, skipped town away from their families and many responsibilities. Back at the Piper's cave the former mothers behave in a manner befitting a title like "Father's Day." And why not? It's the age-old best-laid argument of pro-choice: if parent isn't into parenting... Perhaps a third way to interpret the tale exists: as an admonishment to future fathers who steal the hearts of mothers to mother children not of their own making...?

Patty grudgingly escorts her drunken husband to a New Year's party, pledging not to take care of her childish husband again only to discover that "Things Don't Always Turn Out Like We Plan." They get into a car accident that will separate the medically-minded from the rest of the world.

A certain tension derives from a knowledge of hidden subdural/epidural bleeds in which a "lucid interval" may come about to what appears to be a nearly intact survivor who is closer to death than a person with multiple bruises and bleeds that are more apparent to onlookers. Though the difference between appearance and reality could have been played up to better effect, another theme worthy of examination arises.

"Love, Art, Hell, and the Prom" mix in one of the most original deal-with-the-devil stories yet. Debi doesn't have a date for the prom so she prays to Satan that he give her Jordan, a heavenly hottie whom her best friend is also in love with. Instead, trailer-trash Satan moves in next door and offers himself as a substitute with no soul offered as a down payment -- just her heart. With no other prospects and since he's got a cute though chunky butt, she accepts. Only her best friend who got asked by Jordan stridently doesn't approve of Debi's prom date -- it's either her friendship or that scumbag Satan. Leslie What does a great job characterizing adolescence and getting the reader to root for Satan (especially if you're a guy dumped by a girl's girlfriend -- but he dated her four years later, Ms. P--!). The ending felt a little abrupt or unresolved -- a feeling derived from disappointment that the good bad guys didn't win? -- which may account for how others voted, but still one of What's strongest and worth reading.

Elvis ain't dead yet. He's still out there, looking for a job impersonating. His impersonators, growing depressed each time he doesn't get the job, dying to be "King For a Day" again, but would he recognize a fellow impersonating impersonator posing as him or herself? Hell, does Elvis even want the job?

You, the narrator, enter the Dating Zone to "Picture A World Where All Men Are Named Harry" at Infinity Plus. A variety of male stereotypes are auctioned off the dating block, but the narrator opts for the honestly societally-off-balance (you'll have to read it to find out why) one because what-the-hey men are all flat or flawed anyway. In the incomparable words of the narrator: "you know better than to keep looking for a poodle when there's a pit bull scratching at the door." Though her characterization of males leaves something to be desired (unless the male reader enjoys self-effacement or considers himself one among stereotypes or considers himself superior to all the other men who are stereotypes), What delivers a surprisingly hefty package of truth for such a little bag.

Let What fans offer up "Thanksgiving" (at SciFi.com) for What's dedication to an ever-improving craft. The alien world is perhaps her richest and best conceived. Miranda is a young girl close to the age of mating yet worries she is too short despite giving away part of her meals to her deaf, best friend, Checha. She worries more about their relation to the similarity of the "Greens" animals they consume as being kin to cannibalism.

Her bad-boy brother, Ty, however, is unafraid of torturing them, arbitrarily taking their lives or taking more than his fair share of the meals despite a dwindling food supply due to the captive greens failing to reproduce which Miranda thinks would change if they expanded the holding pens. One day Ty leaves the latch of a pen open after torturing one and Miranda and Checha chase after it beyond the confines of the community into the wild brambles. Following the green, getting scratched, cut and weary, Miranda finds not only another hibernating den, but also another potential and plentiful source of food that the greens ate: scum off a fetid cave pond. Miranda scooped some up to cook to see if it tasted any better. On the return trip a poisonous nightbird swoops on the attack -- a poison dangerous only to those who are ill or fatigued as Miranda is by this point.

She survives to experiment with the scum to make it grow. The experiment fails, so she strikes out for the greens den again -- except Ty has followed her with a few ideas she doesn't appreciate. Two minor sticking points are how bad the bad guys are and how technologies of planetary settlers so often get lost and the settlers revert to pre-Industrial Revolution if not prehistorical survival strategies, technologies and thinking patterns ala Ursula K. LeG uin -- but the conceit nonetheless intrigues and should provide fodder for future stories.

The narrator asks the reader to "Let Me Count the Ways" [Vestal Review #9] I hate my formerly-abusive, presently-mentally-disabled husband. She offers him a rose to annoy him with ticklish rose petals he can't brush off his nose and to prick his skin when he rolls over. When the reviewer was a small boy bopped in the nose or called a dirty word and cried to his mama, she always asked, "Well, what did you do to him?" What a wonderful question. It gives the questioned cause to ponder the cause-effect relationship. Whenever the reviewer comes across stories that fail to consider other perspectives, it generates doubt in the narrative's ability to accomplish its overall objective. If we never learn what the character has learned, what is the objective? What is the objective of fiction in general? Since we can change no one but ourselves, the objective must be to learn how better to cope and how to overcome with our own failings. If someone is a jerk and we respond in kind, what have we learned? To err is human. Learning how to rise above human error is fiction.

Finally, What presents her views on the genre's most profane, most infamous 8-letter dirty word: revision with insights like

"Revision doesn't guarantee a sale; it just increases the chances of editors noticing the work. Sure, sometimes a story is perfect and no market exists, but my experience suggests this is the exception, not the rule... I look to see my words were chosen with care. Bungalow vs. little house, for example.

Are there places where the descriptions are vague but need not be? 'She was interesting looking,' when I might have said, 'She had the face of a Doberman glued to the body of a supermodel.'... Kate Wilhelm suggests brainstorming some of the paths the story could take if a few conditions changed -- at least three -- and choosing the least obvious solution... When a story doesn't sell and I can't figure out why, I count up the number of scenes, then rank them in terms of their importance to the story. I count the words and compare the length of scenes -- opening, middle, action scenes, climatic scenes, and resolution. This shows me when my stories are off-balance, the weight unfairly distributed....give characters a chance to react to what they have experienced by first showing the event, then showing the effects."

What fans of her weird humor and social insights will want to read the gamut. In addition to Leslie What's Nebula winner and essay on revision, those willing to sample something exciting and new will want to climb aboard (we're expecting you) "Love, Art, Hell, and the Prom" as well as "Thanksgiving" -- the former for its original rendition of the Faustian contract, the latter for a full view of the touchstones in What's mastery of speculative genre.

Copyright © 2002 Trent Walters

Trent Walters' work has appeared or will appear in The Distillery, Fantastical Visions, Full Unit Hookup, Futures, Glyph, Harpweaver, Nebo, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Speculon, Spires, Vacancy, The Zone and blah blah blah. He has interviewed for SFsite.com, Speculon and the Nebraska Center for Writers. More of his reviews can be found here. When he's not studying medicine, he can be seen coaching Notre Dame (formerly with the Minnesota Vikings as an assistant coach), or writing masterpieces of journalistic advertising, or making guest appearances in a novel by E. Lynn Harris. All other rumored Web appearances are lies.


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