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Paraspheres
edited by Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan
Omnidawn Publishing, 640 pages

Paraspheres
Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan
Rusty Morrison has had reviews or essays published in Boston Review, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Traffic, Cross Cultural Poetics, Electronic Poetry Review, How2, Poetry Flash, Rain Taxi, and poems published in Boston Review, Conjunctions, Colorado Review, New American Writing, Pleiades, VOLT, Fence, Five Fingers Review, First Intensity, Conduit, Fourteen Hills, ZYZZYVA, Interim, untitled, Antennae, and Tinfish. She is the winner of the 10th Annual Colorado Prize for Poetry (2004) judged by Forrest Gander for her poetry collection, Whethering, published by Center for Literary Publishing and distributed by the University Press of Colorado. She is also the winner of the 2006 Cecil Hemley Memorial Award and co-winner of the 2003 Robert H. Winner Memorial Award, both from the Poetry Society of America. She also co-edits the poetry journal 26, which is affiliated with the Saint Mary's MFA program.

Ken Keegan has a background in theater, graphic design, desktop publishing, and the founding, management of, and consultation for, non-profit organizations.

ISFDB Bibliography: Rusty Morrison
ISFDB Bibliography: Ken Keegan

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

Back when the annual Year's Best Science Fiction selections were still numbered in single digits and Gardner Dozois was in diapers, editor Judith Merril proposed that SF might better stand for "speculative fiction" as a way to distinguish the more literary practitioners of the genre from their much-denigrated pulp forbears. To perhaps underline that the genre was producing quality writing, Merrill's picks included stories that originally appeared in mainstream nameplates such as The New Yorker or The Saturday Evening Post or The New York Times, as well as the genre magazines. Isaac Bashevis Singer and Russell Baker had a place next to Fritz Leiber and Ray Bradbury. In 1962, Merrill wrote:

For my part, I do not care whether you, or he, or the editor in that corner, or the reviewer in the other, call them "science fiction" or not. They are -- like all the material considered for inclusion in this Annual -- examples of the broad field of S (for speculative) F (for fantasy, fiction, or fact), SF: the literature of disciplined imagination.
(8th Annual of the Year's Best SF, p. 375)
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More than forty years later and the genre "still don't get no respect." In trying to attain, or at least justify, legitimacy, it is still striving for definition, if only to distinguish it from what many view as jejune. The one difference may be that the focus has shifted from science fiction to fantasy, perhaps in part because just as modern life has become science fictional, fantasy tends to outsell it. Interestingly, just as we achieve, if not exceed, the technology that was considered fantastic back in the 60s, the appetite for trilogies of medieval-based societies governed by magic increase. But the type of fantasy held up as a literary form eschews cute elves, wise wizards, and youthful initiates banded together to fight evil. The problem for some folks is, what do you call "serious" fantasy to distinguish it from escapist cliché?

Which brings us to Paraspheres, edited by Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan who are also owners of Omnidawn Publishing (the significance of which will become apparent shortly). The mouthful of a subtitle -- "Extending Beyond the Spheres of Literary and Genre Fiction Fabulist and New Wave Fabulist Stories" -- reflects the latest categorical gyrations, although, to their credit, the discussion the editors offer is actually quite straightforward, unlike some things written by, say, John Clute. Essentially, their position is "that there are really at least three different kinds of fiction: genre, literary (in its realistic, character-based sense), and a third type of fiction that really has no commonly accepted name, which does have cultural meaning and artistic value and therefore does not fit well in the escapist formula genres, but which has non-realistic elements that exclude it from the category of literary fiction" (p. 633)

If the name the editors apply to this category sounds familiar, it's because, as the editors note, Paraspheres takes its cue from Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists, the Fall 2002 issue of the literary magazine published by Bard College and guest edited by horror writer Peter Straub. It gained some notoriety less for the content of its fiction than for its coinage of a literary movement. Fabulism, also called magic realism, typical of such South American authors as Gabriel Marquez Garcia and Jorge Luis Borges, is accepted by the literary academy as a valid artistic approach. The adjective of "new wave" was taken from a movement back in Merril's time that infused the 60s counterculture of psychedelia, sexuality, stylistic experimentation and political protest with science fiction. The most famous new wave anthology, originally published in 1967, was Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison. Its intention was to explore taboo topics (hence, the title) that the mainstream wouldn't touch (and it's kind of funny to realize how far we've come that hardly any of these stories seem at all shocking today).

As Keegan and Morrison acknowledge, fabulist with or without the "new wave" modifier may not be the best terminology for the fiction they've collected, but since it sort of reflects the notions of those who've come before them, they'll use it until something better comes along. Actually, they've got their own suggested nomenclature, the titular "Paraspheres, because these stories seem to extend 'beyond the spheres' of either literary or genre fiction. In the process, we hope to exist partly in both forms as well as extending beyond them, and to build a bridge between the two, where writers and readers from both can easily meet "

Actually, why anyone should care has less to do with readers than the strictures of the at times interrelated worlds of the publishing business and literary criticism/book review establishment. The editors provide both a short overview (presumably under the assumption that most readers care mostly about the stories and not how they are categorized) of why this is so, as well as a longer elaboration for those who feel compelled to learn more about what they are trying to peddle here. As the editors point out, "peddling" is exactly why genres are important:

As a publisher plans to publish a new book of fiction, as we did with this anthology, one decision that must be made is how to classify it. This is critical because it will determine not only the likely audience, but more importantly, if there will be an audience at all. A book published with the wrong classification or completely outside the commonly approved classifications will have a difficult time finding reviewers and an audience. There are some valid reasons for this. Readers usually know what forms of fiction they prefer, and they try to find fiction that is similar to fiction they have enjoyed in the past. Publishers and reviewers know this, and they produce or review books to fit the type in which they specialize. Ultimately, good fiction that does not fit accepted classifications may surface, but the process can be a difficult one, and the writers of such fiction may give up along the way or switch to a more acceptable style. As many writers have put it, "I write what my publisher will buy." (p. 625)
Now, it may be a while before you see a "New Wave Fabulist" aisle at the local Borders and Noble, or even a "Paraspheres" section. But there is an Internet. And Omnidawn is aiming at a market niche, for which this collection aims to provide a flavor of the titles it offers on-line at, according to the site, prices better than Amazon. Indeed, it is not coincidental most of the authors with multiple contributions in Paraspheres are also those who have upcoming novels from Omnidawn.

The best of these is "Skunk" by Justin Courter, a John Collier-ish tale of a social misfit with a strange affection for the musk of his pet skunks whose resulting personal isolation may be imperiled by a chance meeting with a woman who has a similar fetish for the smell of fish. The forthcoming novel is subtitled, "A Love Story." Courter also has another contribution entitled "The Town News," about a slacker who works a magazine shop who develops a friendship with a cancer-doomed short story writer. This could just as easily have been realist fiction if it dropped the conceit that the narrator can foretell a person's future death, which doesn't seem to me to play any critical role other than as a slight accent to the ending.

Equally marvelous, and representative of Latin American magic realism, is "The Night of Love's Last Dance," by Randall Silvis in which an old man retells a story of his frustrated amour at the insistence of his grandson who has heard it enough times to point out how the tale diverges from previous recountings. There are three contributions from Finnish writer Leena Krohn -- "The Song of Chimera," "The Ice Cream Vendor," and "About the Henbane City" -- for some reason each by a different translator, excerpted from her 1998 novel, Pereat Mundus that Omnidawn is publishing in English. The first of these, as the title indicates, relates the dilemma of the mating between a human and "one of the first multi-species hybrids." The other stories feature a recurring "everyman character" in two very different alternate realities that suggest transformative realities. It's hard to know quite what to make of these, which may be the point, or is perhaps more evident after reading the larger work.

To be fair, this isn't just about getting you to order books from Omnidawn, as there are a total of fifty stories here to sample, some apparently original to this collection. Indeed, "Finding the Words" by Michael Constance is his first published story, which, while promising, ultimately doesn't hold together. Firmly entrenched in Philip K. Dick territory, there are two narrators -- a "Microsoft-On-Worlds"-certified technician capable of rewiring his own brain so as to experience alternate "mindscapes," and Connie, his laptop (no doubt a play on the author's last name). Although the story has its merits, I'm not really sure where Constance is going with all this -- he's satirizing virtual Internet communities that are increasingly substituting for real life as well as trying to write a meta-fiction about what happens when writers try to write. The latter theme (one favored in a lot of contemporary literary fiction, and is also practiced here by Robin Caton in "B. Goode," yet another novel excerpt, as well as the aforementioned Silvis) is never really developed, sidetracking the former to the point where it doesn't seem to have much to say beyond its own cleverness.

You can still enjoy this story even if its grasp is slightly beyond its reach. That can hardly be said for Lauren Mullen's "English/History," which seems to be some sort of recounting of a traditional fairy tale on which various philosophical and philological fragments are imposed. I think. This was the one story I started to skim because, to me, it's incomprehensible. That may be my limitation. It may also represent a stylistic tic popular among MFA in Creative Writing candidates in which the more opaque the story, the supposedly more profound it is. The author's note points out that Mullen is primarily a poet, and perhaps this is an attempt to imbue prose with poetical constructions. If so, it is, much like Krohn's hybrid chimera, an ill-fated combination.

Similarly, I didn't get Laird Hunt's "Three Tales," which struck me as just putting together a series of words. The fact that it's one long paragraph that goes on for nearly four pages also struck me as an annoying affectation that's been done before and has little purpose that I was able to discern.

There are also the perhaps overused themes of retelling fairy tales from a contemporary standpoint ("White Girl" by Maureen N. McLane, "Ever and Anon" by Kate Kasten), the outright fantastical ("The Magnificent Carp of Hichi Street" by Paul Pekin and "The Concert Pianist's Flight" by Carole Rosenthal), the allegorical (represented by, among others, "The Short Term Memorial Park" by Shelly Jackson, as well as the surprisingly obvious and heavy-handed "Losing the War" by Stepan Chapman; Alasdair Gray is much more successful in pondering the nihilism of politics and war in "Five Letters from an Eastern Empire"), the satirical ("Power Couple, or Love Never Sleeps" by Charles Anders), the vignette ("Lettuce" by Rikki Ducornet), the children's fantasy that isn't just a kid's tale (Ira Sher's "Lionflower Hedge" as well as his darker contribution, "Nobody's Home"), the literary "in-joke" ("The Beginnings, Endings, and Middles Ball" by Anna Tambour) and the seemingly standard medieval fantasy trope that's taken to a higher level ("The Tears of Niobe" by L. Timmel Duchamp). To name just a few.

If some of these authors aren't immediately familiar to you as they weren't to me (and that's the immense value of a work that aims to "bring writers and readers together"), there are also, no doubt by intention, more recognizable genre names. These include Rudy Rucker and Jeffrey Ford, but also, somewhat surprisingly, Kim Stanley Robinson, who offers an alternate history version of the captain of the, in this case aborted, atomic strike on Hiroshima. Other than the alternate setting, it is one of the more realistic narratives here.

Oddly, the one strictly realistic story is contributed by a major figure from the new wave, Michael Moorcock. Even without a book deal from Omnidawn, Moorcock merits two stories, one a nice piece of fluff in which characters from Rudyard Kipling and Edgar Rice Burroughs participate in British politics. Moorcock's "Cake" is more typical realist fiction of the O. Henry school, which the editors in an "Outer Limits" moment conclude the collection "in order to assist readers in their return to reality."

One of the grande dames of the genre ghetto and a pioneer of so-called feminist SF is Ursula K. Le Guin, whose powerful parable of the obliviously self-limiting perceptions and ultimately destructive impulses of theocracies is one of my personal favorites. "The Birthday of the World" originally appeared in Fantasy and Science Fiction and represents one of the few reprints from a genre magazine.

One of the others is from Interzone, though the author, Angela Carter, is more widely recognized by the mainstream for weird themes of literary value. "The Cabinet of Edgar Allan Poe," which dates back to 1982, manages to connect the horrors of the author's childhood with a wandering theatrical family and his ill-fated child-bride marriage in an ending that would have made the grandfather of the horror genre proud. Where Carter takes the narrative liberties she became famous for, in "Gardener of Heart," Bradford Morrow provides a tale that quite nicely mimics Poe's sense of impending doom. Morrow's inclusion also provides a link back to Conjunctions in that, as general editor of the biannual publication, it was his inspiration to devote a volume to the new fabulists -- whatever they exactly are.

There is no overlap of authors between Conjunctions 39 and Paraspheres. If anything, Paraspheres is more wide ranging, as even this partial and incomplete discussion of its authors should indicate. Whether it will help to sell, let alone legitimize, what the editors claim as a "third type of fiction" remains to be seen.

It should be noted that Paraspheres hardly represents the first such attempt to do so, and it's curious that the editors ignore those that have come before them. Besides Merril's and Ellison's efforts to stake out new territory, more recently we've seen Trampoline edited by Kelly Link and the Leviathan series edited by Forrest Aguirre and Jeff VanderMeer, as well as Album Zutique, also edited by VanderMeer, whose "The Secret Paths of Rajan Khanna" also appears in Paraspheres.

Nor will Paraspheres be any sort of definitive last word; upcoming in August is Feeling Very Strange edited by James Patrick Kelley and John Kessel, which portends to be the latest update on "slipstream," a term coined by founding cyberpunker Bruce Sterling and editor of the equally genre-bending Mirrorshades. And that was back in the 80s. Whether slipstream is the same as new wave fabulism is perhaps a discussion left for another anthologizer.

So, the more things change, the more they stay the same, only differently. I hope Omnidawn succeeds in publishing quality fiction of a certain broadly defined, yet ultimately, niche audience. The appeal, I suspect, is, as it has always been, going to be less for people who gravitate towards genre or literary labels than those who seek interesting fiction that takes chances, regardless of its standing in the mainstream. And who really wants to be there, anyway?

Copyright © 2006 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.


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