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Polyphony 2
edited by Deborah Layne, assoc. editor Jay Lake
Wheatland Press, 297 pages

Polyphony 2
Deborah Layne
Deborah Layne lives near Portland, Oregon with her husband and son. She has earned degrees in History and Philosophy of Science and Law. A member of the Wordos Professional Writers Workshop in Eugene, Oregon, she recently placed her first work of fiction with Clean Sheets. She also reviews short fiction for Tangent Online. Polyphony is her first publishing venture.

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Jay Lake
Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon with his family and their books. In 2003, his fiction will appear in over twenty markets, including Asimov's, Realms of Fantasy and The Thackeray T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases. He is also a first place winner in Writers of the Future XIX.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sherwood Smith

Polyphony 1 made its debut at the World SF COnvention in 2002, seeking to establish a place between the literary mainstream and science fiction/fantasy genres. Many long-time readers who enjoy short fiction across the breadth of the literary spectrum welcomed this anthology full of strong stories told in distinctive voices. I know I counted myself among them, looking forward, quite eagerly, to the second volume. Would the promise hold up? Will Polyphony find a square on the genre vs. mainstream chessboard?

I found this volume, overall, even stronger than the first, and I exhort readers from both sides of the board to give Polyphony a try.

Life and death, love and art appear to be the connective tissue for most of the stories; the settings range from the future to the afterlife, the ugly war-torn beaches of Honduras to the poisonous air of L.A. to George Washington managing a baseball team.

With the exception of Bruce Holland Rogers' superb, witty symmetrina "Dead White Guys" and newcomer David Moles "Theo's Girl," I felt that the best work was at the front end of the anthology.

Leading off is Lucius Shephard with "The Same Old Story," about a drunken loser living on the edge of violence on the edge of civilization, a type of protagonist and setting that Shephard does particularly well. In fact the story seems slyly recursive, but that in no way diminishes its impact. The reverbs carry well beyond the ending, making it a tough act to follow, but Jack Dann's short, tight "The Hanging" manages. The protagonist, a writer, is flying back to the States from Australia to visit his best friend, Marty; their life stories are intertwined with the present, the funeral for Marty's son. Buried in the center of the story is a wrenching history that seems chillingly plausible -- the logical outcome of our culture's rapidly proliferating broken and dysfunctional families.

Third up is newcomer Theodora Goss in her weird, exquisitely written "Professor Berkowitz Stands on the Threshold." Here our mainstream cliché, the lonely professor who can't quite manage a happy relationship and is facing a tenure board, is not considering adultery, but the afterlife. Following that is a strong first sale by Honna Swenson, "Animal Attributes." Mitchell is a doctor who specializes in altering human beings, giving them various animal characteristics: wings, spots, retractable claws. What happens to the people, and to Mitchell, is centered around a strange young woman who survived a near-death experience, and a dead young woman who should have lived. Swenson's writing is mostly stylish and vivid, but I was distracted by a tendency towards the already overused convenience of eyes "speaking volumes" -- speaking, signaling, and data-dumping.

Alex Irvine is next with "The Uterus Garden," whose two story lines rapidly intertwine -- Julia and Henry, a wealthy couple who, like 73% of the civilized world, cannot conceive, and Denise, who wakes up in a hospital bed pregnant, after passing out at a party two years before. Julia saves Denise, who is imminently due, while considering the ethics of genetic bleaching of the African baby she is on the verge of adopting. It's a compelling look at a grim, all-too-plausible future.

The next two stories are the last of the front-end heavy hitters: Carol Emshwiller's "Coo People," and Beth Bernobich's "Chrysalide." Emshwiller's first person protagonist is one of the coo people -- others who live among humans, looking and acting like them, careful not to mix permanently. Their only differences seem to be their cooing when they are happy, and their ability to "lift" -- a leap reminiscent of the leap-lifts in Zenna Henderson's lovely People stories, perhaps an oblique homage. This protagonist, a ballet dancer, is attracted to a human man to the extent that she follows him to the mountains and tries to arrange for him to rescue her so they can be alone. They meet a hermit, whose hut is covered in either weaponry or art. The ending comes rapidly, leaving the reader wondering what is art? What does art?

Emshwiller's distinctive voice is complemented by the painterly prose of Bernobich's "Chrysalide," another story about art -- and its cost. This story takes place in an alternate France of the Ancien Regime, its protagonist a painter named Claudette who earns her living doing portraiture. Her genius does not depend completely on the skill of her hands, but requires a mysterious ability whose consequences are deeply troubling, especially as she faces perhaps her greatest challenge as a portraitist.

With the exception of one, Timalyne Frazier's "Burning in the Montage," which did not quite work for me (it's an ambitious form, but the three protagonists behave more like the puppets of allegory than like real people, and the author addresses the reader directly in a disconcerting series of aphorisms we've heard too often -- "The story is in letting go of yourself" ... "The story is about having to define yourself in each new situation" -- that don't seem to add up to anything new), the remainder of the stories are entertaining, and different readers might find all of these just as outstanding as the early ones, if not moreso.

The two that stand out for me in the second half are the Rogers symmetrina which brings the Founding Fathers to or market-conscious present, and David Moles' remarkable "Theo's Girl," which takes us to an alternate world where Alexander is the undying emperor, sending his army out to conquer the entire world. Mies, the protagonist, is forty-five years old, a veteran warrior who no longer believes in magic or the old gods, and who befriends a young recruit. The two men encounter a mysterious girl, and time seems to fracture. In this world of bows, swords, knives, and copper-bottomed airships, suddenly anything is possible.

A good note to end on. Speculative fiction at its best -- give it a try.

Copyright © 2003 Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith is a writer by vocation and reader by avocation. Her webpage is at

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