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Editor's Choice: Short Fiction Reviews
by David A. Truesdale

Dave Truesdale has been reading science fiction and fantasy for forty years. For the past four years he has edited TANGENT: The Only Science Fiction & Fantasy Short Fiction Review Magazine. It was runner-up for the 1997 Hugo Award. The intent of this column is to present reviews of selected short fiction that strike Dave's interest as his reading for Tangent continues. If you would like to read more short fiction reviews, try Tangent as it reviews every original story in all American, Canadian, British, and Australian professional SF & F magazines (as well as many others).

For more of David's opinions, we've put together a table of contents for other Editor's Choice columns.

For information on the contents of an issue or for subscription details, you can try the following sites:
Asimov's Science Fiction
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
On Spec
Cemetery Dance
Tomorrow SF
Interzone 127
Interzone #127, January 1998
"Grazing the Long Acre" Gwyneth Jones
"Christmas with Mary" Colin Greenland
"The Mountain Kills People" Graham Joyce
"What I Got for Christmas" Pat Cadigan
"Family-- or, The Nativity and Flight into Egypt considered as episodes of I Love Lucy" Geoff Ryman
I am forthrightly opposed to seeing unabashed, unadulterated "mainstream" stories seeing print, and given space, in science fiction and fantasy magazines. I am adamantly against this editorial philosophy.

There, I've said it.

Actually, I've said it before, and at greater length and in much more detail, in an editorial I wrote for Tangent #15 (Summer 1996). I don't have the space here and this isn't the proper venue to go into my reasons in depth, but in short I think it's playing unfair with the reader.

When you or I purchase an SF or fantasy magazine we expect to find -- within the already expanded definitions of these genres -- SF or fantasy stories in some recognizable form. As readers we're remarkably forgiving in this regard. But we don't want to read a Western. We don't want to pay good money to read an assembly-line Romance, or the screenplay for a Broadway musical.

Put another way: if you are a classical music buff and purchase a collection of classic waltzes -- as promoted on the jacket sleeve -- and find, to your dismay, a country & western, a hard rock, and a pop love song scattered among the Strauss pieces, wouldn't you feel cheated? And most especially so if, upon returning the collection to the music store, the clerk shrugged your complaint off with the argument that it's all Music and what's in a label category, and weren't they good country & western, hard rock, and pop love songs? To which I would answer, "But I desired classical waltzes and this is what the jacket said I was purchasing." I've nothing against country & western, hard rock, or pop love songs, but I was buying classic waltzes.

I mention the genre Western (such few as there are), the genre, commercial romance novel, and the Broadway musical purely as reductio ad absurdum examples in order to make an obvious point. (I make no assessment as to their popularity or worth here, but note them only for their inherent differentness from SF/F.) But as far as science fiction and fantasy magazines are concerned, the reader/buyer is forking over a portion of their hard-earned discretionary income to read SF and/or fantasy stories. Which, when you think about it, circumscribes an extraordinarily eclectic literary sphere to begin with -- which I am all for. Just about anything goes these days anyway, doesn't it?

Well, almost. But not quite.

I ask you to consider the following:

The 20th century's mainstream literati -- those relative few, but highly influential thinkers who have formed and swayed "critical" opinion, as it were -- have embraced a position that, as it has turned out, is diametrically opposed -- by fiat -- to that of any "genre" fiction -- SF included, and holds to an entirely antithetical set of defining predicates, where sf is concerned, of what proper literature should be. Their view of literature has become so ensconced in our collective psyche that it is small wonder that the very reading protocols their view generates are, for the most part, alien to those germane to the science fiction experience. The above assertions can be readily supported, but space requirements prohibit this here.

I feel it necessary to add that any given view of what "proper" literature should be is not, a priori, superior to any other, (despite the second-class status bestowed upon even the best of SF's efforts by many {but not all} of the Litr'ry Establishment) but is merely inherently different. At bottom line, science fiction is an effort to express a unique and (for the most part, but not always) forward-looking examination of the cosmos and Mankind's place in it, which traditional mainstream literature eschews (with exceptions, of course). To my mind, the classically accepted mainstream tutorial esthetic sadly iterates naught but tired variations of what it perceives as its proper reflection of the human experience.

On the flip side, we now have science fiction and its venerable older sibling fantasy, and the (we-know-it-when-we-point-to-it) "mainstream." Apples and oranges, friends.

So. And so. I told you all of the above just to tell you this:

I won't be saying much about Gwyneth Jones's lead short story "Grazing the Long Acre." Except for this: It is pure mainstream, albeit thinly framed in some vague very near future which is supposed to stamp it as SF. But it's not. It's depressing. It is bleak. Gwyneth Jones is a consummate fantasist in her other work. But there's nothing here but a trite vignette/slice of life excuse for a sad, brief commentary on life-as-it-is for one young girl gone astray in Europe. Big deal, so what, and who cares, say I.

Graham Joyce's "The Mountain Kills People" is also a tired mainstream story, again thinly cloaked at the very end to qualify, marginally, as a fantasy piece. Our protagonist has lost his wife in a skiing accident. He has trouble coming to grips with it. His internal catharsis comes when he is able to revisit and conquer the mountain that has claimed her life. In a contrived, gratuitous scene near the end he comes across a mystical lodge where all of the mountain's previous "victims" reside. Our main character is mute witness as they burn their possessions in some strange and (philosophically) unexplained rite, signifying a cleansing, or end of sorts, to something... who knows?, which is naught but an obvious literary device meant to objectify the protagonist's internal resolution of his wife's death. Well told, but nevertheless a solid Yawn from this reader. This story has been told many times before.

Colin Greenland's "Christmas with Mary" is solidly sf. It tells of a cleaning woman on a fertility station on a lonely Christmas Eve. The old woman muses about this and that and forms a strange relationship with the altered surrogate mother (also named, ironically, Mary) who is gestating clone fetuses. "Christmas with Mary" is a quiet little tale with an interesting background.

I know of at least three other readers who think very highly of Geoff Ryman's "Family, or The Nativity and Flight into Egypt considered as episodes of I Love Lucy." Unfortunately, it didn't work for me. It is frustratingly setup as an interactive reading experience, with the reader asked to choose from several scenarios in each of four different "steps." Turns out it doesn't matter which complicated scenarios you choose because the author has chosen two of his own and has written them up. The first is a more traditional retelling, with some interesting differences. The second is a more absurdist, slapstick rendering, and while fairly hilarious in parts just didn't appeal to me. Go figure. I guess my funny bone took a holiday when I read this one.

Within the context of the above stories, the following tale gets the nod as my...

Editor's Choice:
"What I Got for Christmas" by Pat Cadigan
Pat Cadigan, late of my home town and now a resident of London, has set her first story for Interzone in a near future London. A noir, bleak, gritty city where sophisticated nano-machines have suffused every part of life and manifest themselves in strange and surreal fashion. The machines are illegal in various parts of the world, but not in England, where they proliferate. One young American girl, who lives in an abandoned subway, has chosen to have nothing to do with her fellow machine-heads and, while on a trip to the surface, encounters a frighteningly nano-ridden old woman. A woman who has been altered from the inside out to look like Santa Claus. The machines have gone awry however, and our American is witness to the rapid ageing and death of "Santa" right before her eyes. Worried that she might have become infected by the out of control nano's she runs to the surface only to be hit by a car. A mob of onlookers attempts to help her up, pawing her endlessly. As she stands and attempts to get her bearings she notices that her footprints glow. No longer a machine "virgin" she has become what she has sought to avoid. The story ends enigmatically, with her sitting with her new found friends in silence.

Punkish and noir, "What I Got for Christmas" offers a chilling and yet strangely seductive glimpse of a possible future where machines control us rather than the other way around. A cautionary vision where designer nano-machines have become our newest drug of addiction.

Copyright © 1998 by David A. Truesdale

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