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Swans Over the Moon
Forrest Aguirre
Wheatland Press, 112 pages

Swans Over the Moon
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
SF Site Review: Leviathan 4
SF Site Review: Leviathan Three

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

In the back of this book, where we are told about the author, an anonymous Locus reviewer is quoted as saying Forrest Aguirre 'could benefit from disciplining the wilder flights of his imagination a bit'. I am not sure I would have wanted to include such a quote if the book had been by me. But then, I certainly wouldn't have responded as Aguirre does: 'Forrest spurns such disciplinary measures'.

You see, the thing is: Aguirre is wrong. His writing needs discipline. As a writer, Aguirre employs two main tools: an exotic vocabulary and exuberant imagery, and both require incredible discipline to work properly. A reader needs to be absolutely confident that the unfamiliar word which sends her searching the dictionary is precisely chosen to do a job that no other word would do. Similarly the reader must recognise that the strange images built upon layer after layer of adjectives actually make sense, they must describe something that works visually outside the words. In other words, the more extraordinary the language, the harder the work required of the author. Yet such discipline is the thing Aguirre's writing sadly lacks. This thin volume is barely a novella, bulked out to 112 pages by large type and wide leading, but if all the extraneous and extravagantly unnecessary words had been cut out, I doubt whether it would have even stretched to being a novelette.

What he has written owes more to the decadent pseudo-medieval fantasias of the late 19th century than it does to the science fiction of the 21st century. It is a baroque extravaganza full of exotica and extraordinary set-pieces and elaborate vocabulary. It is, superficially at least, set upon the moon. But it is a moon that owes absolutely nothing to any knowledge we may have gained about that worldlet in the last century or more. This is a barren landscape blasted by a daylight no-one can look upon without madness or wreathed in a ghastly blue glow from its mysterious neighbour. There is trade here which has sustained the lands of the moon since time immemorial, but there is no sign of agriculture, nor indeed any sign of how agriculture might actually work in such an environment, which does leave one wondering how the monarchs and soldiers that populate this tale actually live. But then, this is the sort of romance in which any demands of realism are shunned as inimical to the flights of imagination. And what Aguirre is set upon imagining are decaying kingdoms where febrile armies clash upon a darkling plain. It is a world, moreover, where every noun has to be qualified by at least one adjective quarried out of the remotest reaches of the thesaurus.

And yet, for all that Aguirre has researched the most arcane terms for everything he mentions, he does not seem to have thought too carefully about what he presents. It is a place of knights in armour, yet while bullets bounce off the metal breastplates, bayonets penetrate them. It would appear that announcing that this story is set on the moon is all that it takes to reverse all of military technology.

Not only that, but Aguirre's relationship to grammar seems to be just as cavalier. On the second page of this story, in a passage considered so significant, so suggestive of the whole book that it is quoted on the back cover, the central character, an hereditary ruler known as the Judicar, asks of his chamberlain, Heterodymus: 'Who say men that I am?' It is a question that makes no sense. It can be parsed in no way that suggests this man should be allowed anywhere near the English language.

Enough, let us move on to the story itself. It is a dying world fantasy of the sort that periodically become popular in the genre. Writers like Jack Vance and Michael Moorcock have both been there before, though I can't help feeling that Aguirre is both more brief and more overwrought than either. The forces of night are pressing on the realm of Procellarium, and all that the Judicar can do to oppose them is stick rigidly to the traditions of his people. Already he has ignored the sacred order of tradition once, and his wife died. Now he faces the betrayal of his daughters. One daughter has organised the barbarian Scaramouche, and he must go to war against her. Another has led his ancient ally, the Barony of Euler, to break with tradition and oppose him. Only the third and youngest daughter has stayed loyal to him.

Even that brief account is probably enough to show that this is a sort of reversed King Lear, and as the Judicar makes his prescribed journey into madness the resonances with Shakespeare's play are enough to tell you who is the real villain in all this. Except that you don't really need such arcane clues, since the baddie is accompanied by dodgy imagery that screams danger right from the first appearance. Indeed, in a world that values symbols as much as this one apparently does, one can only wonder that no-one seems to see this. Ah well, this is clearly not a story where logic is meant to play any part in our appreciation.

Yet even as you make your way through the unholy mess that is this book, you can't help feeling that as Aguirre scatters words with a wild abandon, there is a genuine raw talent in there. If only he would invest in a little discipline.

Copyright © 2007 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. He is the co-editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology.

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