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Leviathan Three
Jeff VanderMeer & Forrest Aguirre
Ministry of Whimsy/Prime Books, 468 pages

Leviathan Three
Jeff VanderMeer
Jeff VanderMeer was born in Pennsylvania in 1968, but spent much of his childhood in the Fiji Islands, where his parents worked for the Peace Corps. His recent books include The Book of Lost Places (Dark Regions Press), Dradin, In Love (Buzzcity Press), Dradin, In Love & Other Stories (Oxy Publishing, Greece), and The Early History of Ambergris (Necropolitan Press). His publishing house, Ministry of Whimsy, has done a number of titles including The Troika, by Stepan Chapman which won the Philip K. Dick Award. Other work has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award. He lives with his wife Ann Kennedy, publisher and editor of Buzzcity Press.

Jeff VanderMeer Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Interview: Jeff VanderMeer
SF Site Excerpt City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Review: The Exchange

Forrest Aguirre
Forrest Aguirre received a BA in Humanities from Brigham Young University and an MA in African History from the University of Wisconsin. The uselessness of his education is shown in his employment: he is the inventory manager at Rutabaga, the world's largest canoe and kayak shop. His work has appeared or will appear online and in print in DeathGrip, Demensions, SteelCaves, Pegasus Online, Twilight Showcase, Flesh & Blood, Indigenous Fiction, The Earwig Flesh Factory, Redsine, Dark Planet, The Regurgitated Spork, Roadworks and Eraserhead Press's Strangewood Tales anthology. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin with his wife and four children.

ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

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I will admit towards a tendency not to read short stories. This is in part due to a preference for the less condensed character of the novel, in part a dislike of reading anthologies that invariably contain narratives not to my taste. The problem is entirely idiosyncratic: once started, I will almost always pursue a story to its end, regardless of whether I care for the evolving narrative. One might argue that this habit is a sign of optimism on my part, a belief that the author will eventually reveal or redeem his or her methods of storytelling, even though experience has shown that this is often not the case. However, I suspect it is more likely evidence of sheer stubbornness on my part, or a neurotic doubt that I may have missed something, even when on occasion I know I have not; little question that in my narrow and limiting response to this dilemma, avoidance has caused me to miss a lot of good work. This loss has been brought home to me again by many of the stories contained within this anthology.

Leviathan Three is one of the ongoing projects of the Ministry of Whimsy Press, started my author and editor Jeff VanderMeer, as a writer also known for his imaginative and highly regarded short stories and novellas, some of which have been recently collected in this past year's deservedly acclaimed City of Saints and Madmen. Having shown himself a master of the shorter narrative form, the publications produced to date by the Ministry of Whimsy Press have also established him as one of the better and more astute editors in the field of what has come to be called speculative fiction. Sadly for aficionados of this genre, Leviathan Three marks VanderMeer's departure from Ministry of Whimsy in order to concentrate upon his own fiction, though that should provide other boons for readers, and the publication VanderMeer established has been left in the more than capable hands of his coeditor, Forrest Aguirre. Further, he continues to participate as an editor, along with Michael Moorcock, Paul Witcover, Zoran Zivkovic, and Luis Rodriguez, for Fantastic Metropolis, the leading online site for essays and discussion of new, speculative fiction.

Leviathan Three lends a crowning touch to all VanderMeer has achieved with this series, comprising the best and largest collection of stories yet gathered together in this ongoing anthology. Including work by Michael Moorcock, James Sallis, Jeffrey Ford, Zoran Zivkovic, and Brian Stableford, to list perhaps only the more notable or readily recognized contributors to the collection, this anthology is immediately underscored by the consistently high level of writing present throughout, an acknowledgement both of the various authors' talents, as well as the exacting aesthetic standards applied by the editors in their selections. And while not every offering is likely to appeal universally to each and every taste, it is hard to conceive of any reader not finding at least several that make their experience of this anthology both memorable and a pleasure; not a single story insubstantial or unworthy of notice.

Personal favorites -- for in any anthology such as Leviathan Three, individual preferences will inherently predominate -- in order of their appearance, were James Bassett's "While Wandering a Vanished Sea," Stepan Chapman's "State Secrets of Aphasia," Zoran Zivkovic's "The Night Library," Jeffrey Ford's "The Weight of Words," Tamar Yellin's "Moonlight," and Brian Stableford's "The Face of an Angel." In the first story, James Bassett spins a mysterious, circling tale concerning the disappearance of the sea that nurtures and defines the ancient city of Raunevan. The vanishing of Raunevan's lifeline to the ocean coincides with the death of an artist, whose skill is in the singing of songs that in their vocalization tells not only of history, but creates its memories, "changing [the] ignoble past into a more noble reality," "out of [an] old story [singing] a new truth." Three men wander the now exposed ocean floor, seeking to discover what has become of the missing sea, but they become lost in a seemingly endless desert that is alien in its appearance, littered with strange bones and unfamiliar rock formations, remnants of a flora and fauna that could never have existed in an ocean. Upon finally finding their way back to Raunevan, they discover a city that outwardly resembles the town they had left, but that no longer remembers them, seeming to have forgotten even its own prior existence. The end result is a haunting tale that questions the nature of memory, and how it defines our perception of reality and identity.

Stepan Chapman's "State Secrets of Aphasia," on the other hand, is like a nursery rhyme on steroids, or the gimcracks of Dr. Seuss on acid, with a good dose added of methamphetamine, a magically absurd vision of an invasion of the cloud continent Aphasia by a monstrous Black Glacier that arises one day from a lake, threatening to destroy everything in its path. The ectoid citizens of Aphasia, from the most ephemeral sneefler to the remote tribes of Snoogs, Loud Mouth Orpers from the Inside-Out Isthmus, Fright Bulbs, or even ordinary citizens such as Moonlight Sphagnum Dancers and the Mollusk Boys, rally to the defense of their etheric kingdom, only to be ultimately overwhelmed by the inexorable onslaught of the glacier, transformed into soggy papier māché. Even the cloud land's greatest heroes -- Oilspin the Pen-Nibbed Octopus and The Enormous Chocolate Face With Green Sprinkles In The Sky At Twilight -- fall before impossible odds. The only hope for Aphasia resides in her doddering dowager empress, Alba the First, also known variously as Skinny Old Alba, Alba the Senile, and secretly, though not by her own recollection, the redoubtable Alba Angerbread. But before she can save the world, she must first be forced to undergo regression therapy, administered by the most recent descendent of a long and sentient line of Secret Pianos, part pianola, part projection screen, aided by the assistance of medical millipedes, and compelled by Alba's long-time nemesis, the barbarian Cactus King, Skronk. If all of this seems to defy any semblance of reason, one would not be far off. However, one should also be suspicious of the story's title, as well as assume there may be more going on than meets the eye, disguised beneath the vivid and energetic fervor of nonsense and absurdity.

The entire anthology is anchored by Zoran Zivkovic's six short stories, together, as in previous work by this author, comprising a larger body of individual yet linked tales. The broad theme of each concerns a particular library, though not in the usual sense of the setting. Each institution instead becomes the focus of strange and surreal experiences, taking place in what might pass for the literal world, but assuming localities and characteristics that can only be attributed, even though disguised among the mundane, as bizarre. This deception of appearances is abetted by the author's typical spare and minimalist prose, a semblance of straightforwardness in narration that belies the author's subjects. And, as I have stated elsewhere, it often strikes me as I read his stories that if Rod Serling had been alive today, Zivkovic's work might well have become one of Serling's most fertile sources for inspiration. While all possess a degree of similarity in their overall composition, the story that stood out most for me was "The Night Library," an after hours visit to a public book depository that provides an unnerving view upon the character's own biography. Each of these brief stories in some way provide a logical if loose subdivision and underpinning to the anthology's collection, with "The Noble Library" offering an apt and satisfying conclusion as the narrative's protagonist, a book collector, parodying the Greek god Chronos, consumes the contents of an unwanted volume entitled The Library. It is likely that different readers will find other favorites among Zivkovic's six stories.

"The Weight of Words," by Jeffrey Ford, coincidentally enough concerns a lonely librarian, Calvin Fesh, who, after attending a lecture, perceives a way of secretly inducing his wife to return to him. The means of accomplishing this seduction is through the discovery by a brilliant but rather odd -- some might say mad -- character, named Albert Secmatte, that has divined that words can possess a fixed and subliminal value based upon their phonemic interaction with other words within a sentence, even to the point of the words becoming invisible to the reader, yet will nonetheless subconsciously influence the reader's behavior and perception. Approaching Secmatte, the story's protagonist requests his help in devising love letters within the guise of interesting if seemingly innocent messages of information and odd fact. Secmatte agrees, but is unwilling to divulge his secret, instead requiring that in return Fesh help him with a recent commission he has taken on in order to apply and test his theories. This employment turns out to be at the behest of a local business magnate. Though Fesh suspects that subliminal advertisements are being inserted in the seemingly banal and textually irrelevant flyers he is working on, not fully knowing the secret formula, he is unable to perceive their hidden content, and in the meantime, and most importantly, his appeals for renewed love are being completed by his new employer and sent on to his wife. However, Fesh will come to discover that Secmatte's skills are being applied to a darker purpose, as the veiled weight of words is eventually lifted from the librarian's eyes. While at times the choice of metaphor and symbolism incorporated into this story seems a trifle worn and obvious -- as in the use of a rubber snake called Legion, and its association with a church pageant reenacting the temptation of Eve -- this story nonetheless becomes an intriguing glimpse into the meaning of language, the tailoring of perception inherent in words, as well as secondarily, and less imaginatively perhaps, a thinly veiled criticism of our written commerce and the singular risks of obsession.

Quite different in tone and thrust, yet perhaps not, is Tamar Yellin's marvelous and almost mystical "Moonlight." Centered around the study by an art critic of a painter, this story recounts the artist's life, both his successes and failures, as evidenced not only by his life, but as interpreted through his paintings, and a recurrent theme to which the artist returns, over and over again. The subject of this series, though the lighting and season may change, is invariably of "the same female figure moving away into a distance not spatial but temporal, away into the past." Always the "woman's figure stands at a bend in the road," "the lane bending either right or left." The paintings are entitled after the illumination through which each scene is rendered, the series' famous for the artist's ability to render and translate the varying light of day or night or season. A walled house can be seen to be passed along the side of the road, if at night its windows lit by lamplight. For the art critic, this series of paintings and the artist's obvious obsession with its repetitive theme present "a mystery without meaning, a parable without clues" begging the eye to "[search] for symbols." In the end, their ultimate meaning eludes her, but she reaches an insight equally poignant in its perception. Beautifully done, both sad and moving in its conclusion, were I forced to choose a single story to hallmark this anthology, this would have to be the one.

My final selection would have to be Brian Stableford's "The Face of an Angel." Concerning an arrogant plastic surgeon that makes a deal with the devil, Dr. Hugo Victory becomes tempted by learning the surgical techniques of a secret and purportedly now non-existent society, the comparchicos. In name meaning child-buyers, the society arose in the 18th century, and was responsible for providing the courts and carnivals of Europe with the freaks, dwarves, contortionists and acrobats sought for the nobility's entertainment. But their research and experiments into refashioning the human face and figure possessed also a more spiritual purpose, that of recreating the form of Adam. It was the comparchicos' belief that were they able to recreate the face and features of Adam, who was made in God's image, that they and the world would be able to glimpse the divine, and thus usher in a renaissance of religion and the ultimate return of Christ. Devout Catholics, they were nonetheless excommunicated for their monstrous methods and heresy, eventually hunted to extinction. Nonetheless, it is rumored that they were on the verge of success in 1665, when their operations were interrupted by plague and the London Fire of the same year. Those who survived fled to the Pyrenees of Spain, where the society eventually died out. The book containing their secrets, however, was to disappear during the Fire. Dr. Victory is visited by a horribly scarred and evasive stranger named Gwynplaine, who enlists Victory's surgical skills in performing another operation based on the book upon a deformed child, in return for revealing all the book's secrets. Unfortunately for Victory, Gwynplaine disappears with the child immediately after surgery, and though the doctor is able to recall and reconstruct enough of the surgical techniques to elevate his practice beyond his peers in the profession, he lacks the essential step necessary to bring the comparchicos dream to fruition. But the good doctor, after a passage of years, will once again be paid a visit by the mysterious Mr.Gwynplaine. This story is abundantly rich in metaphor and symbolism, masterfully written and constructed, and I have only but touched upon some of the salient points in the narrative, as with all the stories I have described, not wishing to diminish the readers' experience.

As you may have gathered, I would highly encourage anyone to peruse Leviathan Three: in all likelihood you will discover your own favorites. And there are many other good stories that for varying reasons I have not mentioned: two by Michael Moorcock, always worth reading, one a Jerry Cornelius story, the other a chapter from a work in progress, both filled with observations and insights now more than ever of import in today's political and social climate. James Sallis offers a disturbing and some might say cynical view of human existence set within a possible future, in many ways a perfect if more barbed accompaniment to the story by Jeffrey Ford. There is an excellent "historical" piece by L. Timmel Duchamp, with its feminist message framed by the court of James I and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, and told appropriately enough (not for its message but its setting's verity) by a Fool. Tamar Yellin has a second tale which compares unfavorably only in terms with the first. "Buz," by Rikki Ducornet represents one of the more successful attempts at experimental fiction that I've read recently, and the preceding parable, "The Prince of Mules," presents a wonderful admonition of being careful what you wish for. Both Jeffrey and Scott Thomas have turned in fascinating if quite different tales, and there's even a rather old-fashioned story by the French Decadent, Theophile Gautier, that was quite good, even if written in a style that in many ways dates it. As it has never before been published in translation, the same true with Remy de Gourmont's lesser and decidedly weak "Phocas," bibliophiles should be thankful that these stories, regardless of their merit, are finally available in English.

Some may be surprised by the inclusion of stories that might more normally be identified as mainstream. In asking Jeff VanderMeer about this, he replied:

"I define fantasy at a metaphorical level. A story that deals in fantastical metaphors but is mainstream qualifies as fantasy for me. Both the Tamar Yellin stories are at the edge of the fantastical in this regard. I'm more interested in theme and style than defining something as genre."
The inclusion of these stories does not diminish or confuse identification of Leviathan Three with the fantastic, but only highlights the fluid line that exists, and has always existed, between what is commonly embraced as "literature" and what is often, sadly, dismissed as mere genre or entertainment. In looking back over the history of the fantastical and its beginnings, as evidenced by work such as Alice in Wonderland or Gulliver's Travels, fantasy has always shared a role in literature. Indeed, it could be argued that what is often considered the first novel written, Cervantes' Don Quixote, represents an exceptional example of fantastic fiction. This tradition is often forgotten or ignored when thinking of the genre, increasingly overshadowed in the last century by the commercial success of more obvious and less ambitious tale-spinning whose primary purpose is admittedly to entertain. Hopefully, anthologies such as this will remind readers that fantasy can represent much more, and that the genre possesses a broad and varied enough vitality to encompass outside a single tradition. Arguments about validity seem pointless. In balance, work such as this deserves a widening audience, not only for the richness of the writing, but the ideas that it explores and makes available. Hopefully more readers, both genre and mainstream, will make room for this work upon their shelves. They will be very well rewarded.

Copyright © 2002 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction. In addition to his writing, he is pursuing masters degrees in information science as well as history at Indiana University.


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