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Short Fiction Focus: September 2001
by Nick Gevers

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Sci Fiction at SCIFI.COM Whatever the infamous associations of the month of September 2001, a small footnote can join the historical record: although September's published SF stories did nothing to predict events (other than adumbrating aspects of the global context that generate, among other things, fanatical anger and hegemonic reaction), they were, on the whole, rather good. They bit deep. They entertained. They estranged cognitively. They mirrored, resonantly, this world, and others that mirror it. It is time, in this footnote, to give them some small notice.

Sci Fiction posted only one story in September, but this was the latest extraordinary novella from Lucius Shepard, "Aztechs." Fierce, erotic, revelatory, this is a tale that, amidst some farce and renunciation, says a good deal about the conflicts between America and her poorer neighbours, and implies that the more rigid their opposition or separation, the more they move in ominous harmony. More concerning "Aztechs" on Locus Online; but full praise here for a similarly probing political parable, "Into Greenwood," by Jim Grimsley, the lead story in Asimov's. Packing into the backdrop of his novelette a huge and fascinating future history of galactic colonization and stifling social control akin to much out of Earth's past, Grimsley directs blows to many quarters: cultural parochialism; the expediency lurking behind ideology; the sentimentalization of Nature and the Other; the lingering influence of SF's own genre myths (notably that of the merry sheltering greenwood). This story is dense, discomfiting, claustrophobic on several levels; it is one of recent SF's most penetrating sallies into so-called or actual hearts of darkness; it marks Grimsley as a potentially notable heir to Ursula K. Le Guin. More must follow...

Asimov's SF Asimov's also features "Seven Times Never" by Robert R. Chase, a savage knowing analysis of the moral and philosophical implications of Uplift, the prosthetic induction of higher animal species into human-equivalent sentience and conscious participation in the global economy. While Chase never overtly alludes to David Brin, his target is very clear: where Brin's sprawling Uplift novels, ever goofily optimistic, postulate successful enlistment of chimps and dolphins in the cause of homo sapiens, Chase in his 25 pages takes a sadder, realistic tack, and portrays -- through letters written by an augmented chimp caught up in human political intrigues -- the triumph of difference and instinct. Sobering stuff after Brin, and well-handled, even if the chimp's articulateness defies probability in the name of artistic license. Similar license in "Old MacDonald Had a Farm," one of Mike Resnick's best stories to date: the perfect meat animal is genetically engineered, only to interrogate its creators and processors -- maybe. A change of diet is recommended. Oh dear.

Resnick writes in Swiftian satirical vein, and well enough; reprinted from Nature, Bruce Sterling's vignette "A.D. 2380: Homo Sapiens Declared Extinct" is also an echo of Swift, in characteristically blustering post-human fashion. Lois Tilton, writing depressive woeful anti-military SF in "Prisoner Exchange," could learn some humour -- or at least some irony -- from her male colleagues, but her fable is sufficiently stark to warrant mention in this column, a footnote's footnote.

Fantasy & Science Fiction The September F&SF is a Special Kate Wilhelm Issue, complete with comprehensive bibliography and editorial appreciation of the chosen author; and Wilhelm herself contributes a long and highly atmospheric novella, "Yesterday's Tomorrows." Like much of Wilhelm's work, this is basically a murder mystery, but it is set apart by the decidedly unusual vectors of its driving criminal investigation, well matched by its unorthodox narrative presentation of the pertinent facts. Two generations back, one scientist abruptly and suspiciously died; one of his students has prospered since, but in a very different field; can the haze of probabilistic mysticism surrounding chaos theory (and, conceivably, reincarnation on top of that) propose a solution to the puzzle? Well, yes, apparently so; Wilhelm's explanations are not altogether convincing, and her implied diatribe against genetic modification militates against the overall subtlety of her story, but most expectations are satisfied. So good enough.

Interzone Subordinate in the lineup to "Yesterday's Tomorrows" are two agreeably mischievous entries. "Grass" by Lawrence Miles is a crazy historical meditation on blank cartographic spaces and their appropriation -- their inhabitation -- by the imperial gaze. The gaze is Thomas Jefferson's; the native creatures are mammoths; the outcome is inevitable. And the style is woolly and wild, rather like the mammoths themselves. "Mayhem Tours" by Michael Kandel is pure extrapolative carnage, witty and withering. But humane too, with even a dash of pathos.

Despite including some curdled cosmology by Gregory Benford, the September Interzone acquits itself well. "Junk Male," by the able young British satirist James Lovegrove, is an hilarious epistolary (well, sort of) tracing of the psychological decline of a man who loves his mother too fondly and whose cookies (in Internet terms) are rather too public. Down he goes. "Meeting the Relatives," a tale of nanotechnology amok by a Scotsman who apparently is not related to Interzone's editor, is rather like the more exuberant comedies of Paul Di Filippo, a party to which all matter is generously, if imperiously, invited. Prepare to be distributed. And "The Fire," the latest of Zoran Zivkovic's translated fabulations, is neatly inexorable and inexorably neat, a pyre of the soul. Things still seem cheerless off in Serbia.

So that was September in short SF, interludes of thought amid the hysteria, a footnote worth more than a glance down history's conflagratory page. Keep thinking, keep writing.

Copyright © 2001 Nick Gevers

Since completing a Ph.D. on uses of history in SF, Nick Gevers has become a moderately prolific reviewer and interviewer in the field of speculative fiction. He has published in INTERZONE, NOVA EXPRESS, the NEW YORK REVIEW OF SF, and GALAXIES; much of his work is available at INFINITY PLUS, of which he is Associate Editor. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.


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