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Leviathan 4: Cities
edited by Forrest Aguirre
Ministry of Whimsy Press, 235 pages

Leviathan 4
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 Three

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Matthew Cheney

Forrest Aguirre, the editor of this anthology, may be the only person on Earth who thinks every story here deserves publication. The book is a manifesto at war with itself, an assault of conflicting aesthetics, a conflagration of styles, a puzzle put together by Procrustes once he'd finished with his bed.

Perhaps Leviathan 4 is just what we need to cleanse our label-addled minds. It is a book that rises from the marketing category known as SF, though most readers of science fiction and fantasy will find much frustration in amidst the wonders sensed here, because some of these stories slip into a different stream, one where fabulation looks conservative and traditional when viewed through a lens of narrative displacement, meta-fictional paradox, and autonymic antitropes. How many fish can breathe in such rich, polluted water?

I don't mean to scare you away. At least four of the ten stories here are perfectly accessible to readers who are only mildly adventurous. The other six fall along a wide spectrum ranging from peculiar to baffling.

The one commonality the stories have is that they are concerned with cities, a concern nicely laid out in a passage from "The Wizard of Wardenclyffe" by Ursula Pflug:

The City is a figment of someone's imagination. It is a game The City's inventor created in a moment of boredom. It kept him amused. It passed the time. He created a city that has no existence outside of itself, that is sufficient unto itself. ... The City concedes to no reality other than the one which exists within its bounds. It obeys no laws, not even those of nature, unless The Inventor chooses to impose them himself.
Replace the words "The City" with "The Story", and you're as close to a statement of purpose as this anthology ever gets.

Pflug's story, one of the more coherent and entertaining in the book, would have been a good choice to begin Leviathan 4, but instead it is the penultimate story, and Michael Cisco's "The City of God" opens the anthology. As might be guessed from the title, Cisco's story takes a certain amount of inspiration, or at least an epigraph, from St. Augustine. It is less a story, in any traditional sense, than a series of fragments overflowing with dense and disturbing images, the unfinished memoirs of a priest of death.

(Pardon a pause: Only a few of the pieces of writing here can be classified as "stories". Fiction, yes, but not exactly stories. I have called them stories because that's what we expect an anthology of fiction to contain, but I worry about the expectations such a term creates. If we approach all of these pieces of writing expecting stories, we will be more disappointed and angry than is justified, because some of the pieces work better as light bulbs or seismographs or containers of infinity. Nonetheless, I will, out of stubbornness, continue to call them stories.)

"The City of God" gives way to "The Dreaming City" of Ben Peek, where Australian history alternates with myth and Mark Twain learns about the plight of Aboriginal people. It sounds ridiculous in summary, but it's actually marvelous, and Peek cunningly mixes fact and imagination. The ending may be a bit of a sermon, but the impulse to sermonize was one Twain himself knew well.

Jay Lake's "The Soul Bottles" is a good story with a bigger ending problem than Peek's had: Lake ties things together too neatly, letting writing that has been painfully clear-eyed drift, in the final page, into sentimentality. The central elements of the story, though, are compelling: the son of a man who collected breaths in bottles becomes the servant of his father's servants, rises again to aristocracy, and learns the dangers of obsession. It's the most traditional tale in the book, a story that could have been published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, but in the present company it feels out of place except as an example of the kind of narrative scorned by its rambunctious peers.

The most traditional story is followed by the most experimental: Catherine Kasper's "Encyclopedia of Ubar". Here I must toss my hands in the air and cry surrender and defeat, because after reading it three times I still couldn't tell what it was trying to accomplish or how its pieces related to each other. A hundred monkeys with typewriters might eventually write Hamlet or they might write "Encyclopedia of Ubar" or they might smear their feces on the wall. Someone is probably capable of creating rubrics to value all three events, but such a task is beyond my abilities.

By this point, any reader who reads the book chronologically will have sampled the borders of its eclecticism. The next story, "Mimosa in Heligoland" by Alan Kausch, suffers pretenses of experimentalism, but is more coherent than what came from Catherine Kasper's laboratory (though both use the name Mimosa in their texts, which means the authors may have traded Bunsen burners somewhere along the line). Kasper's creation is befuddling, Kausch's is tedious.

The failed experiments of Kasper and Kausch lead to the success of K.J. Bishop's "We the Enclosed," a story that benefits from a witty playfulness. The story is innovative -- it is itself a quest, wherein puns and wordplay are both clues and genetic material, making the narrative resemble a snake eating itself or a baby being born from its own womb. It is artifice of the highest form, and though perhaps overlong, it is joyfully beguiling.

The real gem in Leviathan 4's mixed bag of tricks, though, is "The Revenge of the Calico Cat" by Stepan Chapman. Were they to hear only a summary, no sane person would put money on this story being anything other than idiotic, and yet it is a perfect mix of whimsy and horror, a fairy tale for existentialists about a playground of hardboiled children. Imagine a movie starring toy stuffed animals, written by Raymond Chandler from a story by Edmond Hamilton, and you'll begin to have an idea of the weird forces at work here. If Leviathan 4 were created simply to give a home for this story, that would have been justification enough. Other authors would have kept the story simple, but to his credit Chapman does not: he moves around from one character to another, he risks confusion, he juggles plots that stretch toward pointlessness, then brings it all together in a finale that is both justified and surprising. The thirty pages of this story are more satisfying than most novels manage to be at ten times the length. I can't resist quoting one paragraph, a glimpse of the many little masterpieces Chapman weaves into his text:

The sidewalk went on forever. An evangelist was preaching on the radio. Doris could follow the sermon through people's open windows. The priests said that the grown-ups of the material plane created dolls in their own image. But if that was true, then why did the grown-ups let dolls be used as the mute and paralyzed playthings of children. That seemed like truly demonic behavior to Doris.
"The City of Lost Languages" by Darla Beasley rivals "The Revenge of the Calico Cat" for richness, but doesn't add up to as much (hardly a crime, any more than the failure of avocadoes to make good orange juice would be). The prose is as lush and mesmerizing as any in the book, creating a collage of implications that let the tales Beasley tells live more through suggestion than conclusion. Readers with a strong tolerance for ambiguity are likely to find this story moving, while less tolerant readers will be likely to think Beasley ruined a perfectly good narrative with flourishes of oddness. Should a story aspire to be a poem? This one does.

"The Wizard of Wardenclyffe" follows, proving Ursula Pflug to be a writer skilled at making weirdly improbable ideas fascinating. A woman wakes in the eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla's idea of heaven, and the story continues from there, becoming a mysterious and moving map of a city that is an extension of personal ambition. It is beautifully structured, and much like "The Dreaming City" it mixes history with fantasy, exploring the intersections of imagination and regret.

Leviathan 4 ends with "The Imaginary Anatomy of a Horse" by Tim Jarvis, a story that is not by any means the best of the lot, but one that is a fitting end, because it contains echoes of many other pieces in the book. Jarvis's story is an ambitious mess, a puree of styles and allusions. Ideas and images burst from each page, seldom with much of a target, though many are compelling in and of themselves. There is a central story -- a man whose job is to prevent music falls in love with a musician and they decide to escape the city that holds them both hostage -- but there are other stories as well, and the whole reads like a collaboration by various authors who never agreed on tone or technique.

The same could be said for Leviathan 4 itself, a fact that will please some readers and annoy others. Leviathan 3, which Forrest Aguirre co-edited with Jeff VanderMeer, was one of the most impressive anthologies of 2002, and went on to win a World Fantasy Award. Leviathan 4 is half the size of its predecessor and not nearly as impressive as an anthology per se, but it contains some phenomenal work, particularly the stories of Stepan Chapman and Ursula Pflug. It is a sampler of imaginative literature's variety, and I am sure at least a few readers will have exactly the opposite opinion of each story as I have had. The territory of imagination is boundless both for writers and for readers -- a truth for which we can all be grateful.

Copyright © 2005 Matthew Cheney

Matthew Cheney teaches at the New Hampton School and has published in English Journal,, Ideomancer, and Locus, among other places. He writes regularly about science fiction on his weblog, The Mumpsimus.

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