by Dave Truesdale
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Off On A Tangent: Short Fiction Reviews columns.]
Lucy Sussex's novelette "Ardent Clouds" concerns a volcano photographer who receives a tip from her mentor on an upcoming eruption of a South American volcano. She and others get caught in the caldera and everyone dies but her. There is nothing new regarding character development or individual catharsis we haven't seen before. This is technically SF only because a single line references extraterrestrial volcanoes.
"North American Lake Monsters" by Nathan Ballingrud is a short story about an ex-con just released from prison. He is on vacation with his sullen teenaged daughter and wife. Said daughter has discovered a large dead Something washed up on the shore of the lake near their cabin. Most of the story is about the father's broken relationship with his daughter and wife. The Something represents the moral of the story, for as its skin sloughs away there is a bright light/phosphorescence emanating from it, denoting that there is beauty on the inside of even the ugliest creatures. If the story the author had just told us hadn't related this telegraphed observation already, the author, in an extremely heavy-handed manner, tells us at the very end of the story: "Maybe there was beauty in there somewhere. Maybe you just had to look at it the right way." If you have to state the obvious, then you haven't done your job as an author. This ending is highly amateurish. The vast majority of the story is naught but the usual character study of a man getting to know his family again after being in prison, and making peace with his artistic daughter.
Richard Bowes' "Aka St. Mark's Place" is an urban fantasy novelette following the street lives of three teenagers in New York from 1965 to 1971. They are among a rare few who have real visions of their own, and each other's destinies. Bowes captures the reality of New York at that time, nailing the street scene and its inhabitants quite well, and the story is rather engaging, but since the fantastical element is so minimal (more just the catalyst which provides the author the platform to capture the New York of his youth and tie the teenagers' lives together) it reads more than anything else like an historical slice of life piece, a mainstream story. But yes, it is a fantasy, if you like your fantasy element on the minimalist side, which is what much Urban Fantasy does. Bowes, as always, tells great character stories, and this is no exception.
"Shira" by Lavie Tidhar tells of a woman on a journey to Haifa to track down a poet she has a liking for. She finds him and, as in one of his pulp science fiction stories, they meet, make love, and depart. Only two slight, one-line references (one about the asteroid belt) make this even marginally an sf story, and neither references are germane to the tale. Including an author who pens SF pulp tales may be a cute touch, but it doesn't make for an sf story. This story is primarily about poetry, which is quoted heavily. Nicely written, but hardly a true sf story.
A woman's husband and young son are killed in a plane crash in Laird Barron's "The Lagerstatte." She can't cope with the loss and in her grief gradually descends into flights of depression. She eventually sees her dead husband's likeness in every man she sees, then regresses further into hallucinations and quiet madness. Laird Barron is a fine writer, but his subject matter this time around didn't do anything for me, and there was no real fantastical element to this dreary tale, unless one counts mental aberration as fantasy. Horror of the mundane sort, perhaps, in this case, if one wishes to stretch a common occurrence (mental aberration). This nevertheless reads like a (sad, admittedly) mainstream tale about the death of loved ones to this reader.
"Gladiolus Exposed" by Anna Tambour is mainstream. A urologist finds a human sternum (gladiolus, aka sternum) buried in the ground while on a weekend retreat with his wife (anatomy was his favorite subject in med school). He takes a liking to the object; gets comfort from it. Eventually, he discovers a tiny Victorian era carving of flowers on the bone (Forget-Me-Nots, he supposes). He arrives home after being away at a conference to find his wife has thrown the bone away. He now hates "the bitch." End of story. Why this is included here I can't fathom. Might as well have written about Frasier throwing out his father's favorite old chair. Nothing SF or F about it, now is there, unique as both objects may be. This story is of the predominant kind found in 2006's Paraspheres. Coincidentally, Ms. Tambour had a story in that volume as well.
Pat Cadigan's novelette "Jimmy" is basically an excuse for the author to relive a slice of the early 60s (Nov. 1963 and the JFK assassination to be precise) as seen through the eyes of a young girl. The SF element is slight and superfluous (some sort of aliens -- it's never made clear; we never see them and they aren't described -- protect a runaway boy under a bridge with an invisible force field). Labeled unruly, Home Services hunts for him to return him to what amounts to an orphanage. Cadigan captures well the neighborhood and school life of the time, along with a dysfunctional family (every neighborhood has one). Since the misunderstood boy's troubles do stem from something the aliens have gifted him with (the ability to see things or events; we don't know why or to what purpose), there is more SF element here than in other pieces, but one is left with the feeling that the core of the story is really about the heartbreak surrounding the broken home, and with which youngsters in like circumstances (and ostensibly reading this story) can identify. Thus, this is obviously a YA story about the outcast, the one shunned, using the cushion of the aliens to provide the distance from reality. Nice, but average. Cadigan has created much more powerful work recently (see "Nothing Personal" in 2007's excellent collection Alien Crimes, ed. by Mike Resnick, which deals with child abduction).
Of the remaining stories we have "The Elephant Ironclads" by James Stoddard, an alternate history set sometime after 1945 in the American Southwest. Navajo land, as it is now called, has been reclaimed from the Americans and is threatened by a couple of white men looking for uranium for use in making atomic bombs, of which America and the Soviet Union each have one. A faction of the Navajo also want the Bomb so they can claim equal status with the big powers. A measure of intrigue follows, culminating in a decision one of the Navajo youths must make. This tale also smacks of the New Weird, for in this alternate setting we have elephants dressed out in shingled armor as beasts of burden and transportation. All of the aforementioned gives the story a different, fresh look, which is appreciated. The story reads well enough, but the basic conflict isn't all that original.
Speaking of the not-too-original, we have Christopher Rowe's "Gather." Set in a post-collapse future Kentucky, the land holds buried secrets, the remnants of a once technologically advanced society. The now low-tech, agrarian inhabitants find some of these remnants and hold them up as God (or the equivalent mystical object). Been done many times before, and much better.
On the brighter side, Jeffrey Ford offers up one of the true bright spots in the entire collection, "Daltharee." This tall (stf) tale, pulp idea-imbued homage, cute little comic book type story of an evil scientist who invents a method of creating, then shrinking people and objects, making whole cities come alive inside milk bottles via a shrinking ray -- is a hoot, as is "Prisoners of the Action" by Paul McAuley and Kim Newman. We are given captured aliens, old missile silos, a crazy old guy wearing a tinfoil hat to protect himself from alien influence, and more. It has a goofy plot with some wry (and slapstick) humor thrown in. A nice, cliché-filled, action romp.
Elizabeth Bear gives us something entirely different from what readers are used to from her with "Sonny Liston Takes the Fall." It's a sad alternate history of how and why Liston wasn't given his due in light of the more charismatic, press-worthy Muhammad Ali, and the suffering and heartache the underrated Liston endured. Another wistfully sad tale is Carol Emshwiller's "All Washed Up While Looking For a Better World," wherein the author deftly explores a librarian's dream world, only to find she can't quite bring herself to dream it; something inside her just can't seem to want perfection desperately enough, for in her dream world there is always her subconscious blocking that perceived perfection. This one will give psychoanalysts a field day, and I recommend it for the author's ability to put on paper some of the most universal feelings we all have about dreams. Uncanny.
"Special Economics" by Maureen F. McHugh gives us a glimpse of a near future China decimated with a quarter-million dead following a bird flu plague. A young 19-year old girl tries to make her way in this post-collapse/post-plague China. We have the usual high-tech, urban, gritty, street atmosphere reminiscent of cyberpunk. Jobs are, in this story's China, easy to come by due to the burgeoning bio-tech industry and because many potential workers have died in the plague. The young girl, Jieling, finds work in a bio-tech company called New Life, only to discover it is an indentured servant mill. Enjoyable, but nothing we haven't at least seen in one form or another over the years.
Barry N. Malzberg asks us to question, in the religious sense, sacrifice, and his anger toward it, and how his main character sets about avenging this affront to morality when he creates a bestial golem (rare, but not forbidden by rabbinical texts). Malzberg goes head to head with God in this troublesome, thought-provoking piece.
I really don't know where to begin in describing "The Goosle" by Margo Lanagan, except to say it is a retelling of the Hansel and Gretel story. Lanagan turns this traditionally gruesome fairy tale into one of child porn (depending on your point of view) and repeated homosexual rape of a child (Hansel).
With several other stories in this collection aimed at juveniles or teenagers (the Ballingrud and the Cadigan), I find this story highly inappropriate. Would you want your young child to be introduced to science fiction or fantasy thinking a story like this represents, as the cover of the book entices, SF's "finest voices"? One rape scene is fairly graphic, and at one point young Hansel thinks he might even like what is being done to him -- over and over.
Given that there are many versions of this grim fairy tale, and gore and violence abound in the original(s), there must be lines drawn somewhere, folks. Depicting child rape, with the author having the child think he might like to be buggered in his "poink hole" (as the story euphemistically calls it) is where I draw my own line. Editor Datlow has co-edited some six collections of retold fairy tales, with tremendous and deserved success. Has the idea well run so dry, and are authors so bereft of true originality in these retellings that they must resort to shock value of the most depraved sort?
Freedom of artistic expression does not trump good common sense, and at least a perceived modicum of morality (whether divinely inspired or by human agreement and consensus), or an innate sense of fundamental ethical awareness. We're talking homosexual child rape for shock value here. If not for its gratuitous shock value, then this reader would like to know what this adds to the fairy tale canon of Hansel and Gretel. Especially in light of the fact that Hansel doesn't make his raper pay for his perverted behavior, for it is the "witch" who eventually devours him, who sets right the moral balance.
There are those in today's society who believe that anything goes, especially in the artistic community, where moral relativism would seem to be the philosophy of choice, and so the mantra goes something like this: Who is anyone to tell an artist what he or she can't "create," be it a work of fiction, a painting, a sculpture, or a song? They shout "censorship!" at the drop of a hat. I don't think censorship is the primary issue here, and neither is the issue of prudishness. If we don't at least question the act of homosexual child rape (where the child questions whether he likes being raped or not) which insertion into the story is for shock value only, then we have serious problems.
Del Rey ought to get a long, loud, wakeup call... and quick. If the author, editor, and publisher can nuance this story, massage it, spin it to where the objectionable inclusion of child rape for shock value alone is acceptable, then there are absolutely no boundaries, for any reason, anywhere -- and we can expect more of the same. This sets a precedent, if not challenged. And again, what audience were the editor and publisher expecting to hit here? Several stories seem written just for a younger crowd, so then what can be the reasoning behind also presenting a fairy tale retelling with repeated instances of child rape for shock value?
Taken as a whole, The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy offers no earth-shattering or profound insights (save for the Malzberg, and maybe the Emshwiller) from any of its characters or characterizations, there is nothing substantially new (in freshness of idea in general, and the SF entries in particular), and several of the stories fail to meet any commonly regarded definition of "genre." I am given to wonder what Del Rey intended here, for the launch of the first volume of any new series should begin with a bang, a wake-up slap to the reader's face, something that says Wait Till You Read This!
Along with the dearth of science fiction stories here (or any real sfnal themes of import), and with (most of) the fantasies being either slight, marginal, or unoriginal, but especially because of Margo Lanagan's story, I cannot, in all honesty and fairness to potential buyers, recommend this collection.
I do, however, recommend (to one degree or another) the Ford, Malzberg, Bowes, and Emshwiller stories, for entirely different reasons.
Dave Truesdale has edited Tangent and now Tangent Online since 1993. It has been nominated for the Hugo Award four times, and the World Fantasy Award once. A former editor of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, he also served as a World Fantasy Award judge in 1998, and currently writes an original online column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
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