| Dispatches From Smaragdine|
|A column by Jeff VanderMeer|
| January 2007 |
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Dispatches From Smaragdine columns.]
December in Smaragdine exposed me to several unusual holidays. Most of which revolve around the giant Logorrheic Coelacanth, an ancient freshwater fish that lives in Lake Baikal, but which labors its way like the walking catfish down to Smaragdine once every few years to spawn. The bellowing can be heard for miles and the local children make a game of going into the old-growth forests in the surrounding hills to catch them. It's a race against time, as the Logorrheic Coelacanths are headed for the river. Once there, they cannot be caught. They have an almost supernatural ability to avoid the fishermen's nets.
I went with Big Bad Bear to see the hunt for these fish one afternoon, the sun a weak beacon behind gray skies. The city's domes and skyscrapers were a shadow at our backs and to our left the rich green hills, to our right, the river, slow and sad. It was not long before we heard the rhythmic bellowing of the fish (which is the sound of the complex interchange of water and air that allows them, using their gills as lungs, to remain on land for so long). Soon, we heard the shouts of the children chasing them, and then over the rise of the nearest hill came the fish! They were enormous and battle-scarred from their journey. They looked more like living tanks than fish. Barreling and shoving, river-ward they came, while the children with their nets swarmed over them, consigning some of them to the dinner pot.
I've really never seen anything like it, to be honest. We stood there until early dusk, watching. Once the fish made it to the water, they seemed to disappear in it -- not even the hint of a fin cutting into air. The water didn't churn with their passage. They simply became part of the water. The only change: a slight scent of lime, which the locals told me had to do with the chemical changes the fish undergo during their journey.
That night, we ate fish until we were stuffed, the bellows of those around the dinner table kin to those of the fish dashing down the hill.
As we sat around an open fire, Big Bad Bear said, "This is the life." He was as relaxed as I've seen him in a long time.
Of course, he had good reason to be happy. He'd finally cleared up his misunderstanding with the police. Which means I can finally reveal that he is Horia Ursu, a Romanian editor who ducks down to Smaragdine from time to time for reasons that are still unclear to me.
Anyway, that was one of many fish festivals celebrated in these parts, under these foreign stars. I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed it, and hope your holiday season has been even half as festive.
In Grey, a first novel by Jon Armstrong, Michael Rivers sees only in black-and-white through one eye, at least. As the teenage heir to the RiversGroup fortune, Rivers comes from a futuristic plastic, superficial scene in which looks, fashion magazines, music choices, and parties define you. He thinks he has found his equal in Nora, who also, literally, sees the world in black-and-white due to eye surgery. But their engagement is threatened by their families' corporations. After Rivers is shot, he must uncover the ugly truth behind his family's wealth. The plot is somewhere between The Great Gatsby and Romeo and Juliet, with a mystery thrown in for good measure.
Rivers is about as interesting as a nineteen-year-old can be and his superficial world is described in meticulous and often joyous detail. But something seems flat or at least off. It might be that Armstrong is walking that uneven and perilous line between satire/social commentary and the creation of three-dimensional characters. It doesn't help that today's glitzy super-rich, celebrity world is continually satirizing itself in the reality TV world. Frankly, Rivers comes off as a tool for the most part, rather than tragic or even truly rebellious. Is this a failure of nuance in the service of character? A limitation of the idea? I'm not entirely sure, but I did find Grey an ambitious, interesting first novel despite my reservations.
As I mentioned in my last column, the publication of Grey in Smaragdine resulted in riots and book burnings. This was due to the ruling of a respected priest that Michael Rivers' black-and-white eyesight mocked the memory of Saint Trakcul, who miraculously cured the blind, but only to the extent of allowing them to see shades of gray.
Who knows? Life's a mystery sometimes.
If you would like to send me things for review, or even complaints, hints, suggestions, or other feedback, please do so via email at email@example.com or via my U.S. snail mail address:
There will be a delay of about a month from receipt at the post office box to the arrival of your missive in Smaragdine, but to send direct would be folly as my stint at the hostel runs out at the end of the month and I don't know where I will be after that.
Jeff VanderMeer's reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, The New York Review of SF, Bookslut.com, and many others. VanderMeer writes the graphic novel/comics summation for The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror (St. Martin's Press) and is a guest editor for Best American Fantasy. Monkey Brain Books published his non-fiction collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat? in 2004.
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