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January 2003 E-Magazine Roundup
by Trent Walters

1) Consider that these are opinions about one story -- not writers' careers. Often, writers can create art forms that elude the casual critic sampling magazines (see
2) Consider, too, that I'm hard to please. If you hate critics, don't read this column!
3) Forgive the reviewer rough wording this once. He passed through a rough season when he wrote it.

To get to the best stories, and to elevate the important ones so that the genre has a critical foundation from which to elevate itself instead of counterproductively setting all stories on the same plane, thereby increasing the chance that SF dabblers will be turned off, in which case, if we follow Sturgeon's 90%, the likelihood of an occurrence is extremely high. With a strong critical foundation, SF nay-sayers will only have their bigotry to fall back upon. Don't forget that Damon Knight told us that one bad novel is worse than fifteen bad reviews.

Critiquing The Critic:
Why not? It's only fair. If, considering both my caveat and purpose, you think I am out of line, please feel free to call me a bastard to my face or send a polite and constructive email. Like all humans -- be they critics, writers, editors or publishers -- I am prone to err and will rewrite or apologize as need be.

Roundup Summary
Recommended: Gardner Dozois' "Fairy Tale" (ambitious), Octavia Butler (informing and profound)

Writers to watch: Ideomancer's Daniel Goss (John Varley without the plot)

Other Trent Walters Columns

Dark Fluidity Gerard Houarner's "She Who Speaks for the Dead" deals with really potent material -- a father heartlessly leaving his children -- but we never quite enter the world of the story without the details and drama of the immediate now. Judith Slater writes this difficult tell-don't-show fiction well. The title cleverly speaks two ways, but the female character's beginning and end do not justify her means.

"Cooperation" by Woody Carsky-Wilson is a humorous vampire/ghoul shtick complete with straight man/comedian, answering one of the eternal type questions: who's stronger, The Hulk or The Thing?

Ideomancer Oooh, Robert Hood creeps off to a spooky start in "Nobody's Car" -- the kind you've spotted and wondered about in your neighborhood that pulls up and sits there then drives off. Allan, the stalkee, goes out to check whose it is. The title resonates despite an intriguing yet disappointing end. Thematically, however, we never understand why this should be, to what purpose.

In "Bioplastic Blues" Daniel Goss oozes raw talent (with distinct characters, excellent dialogue, and description seen only in the best of professionals), if he could just get to the story and make it dramatic. Hence, the term raw. Hand this man a plot to refine his prose and the genre will have another John Varley to reckon with. Check it out:

"Two intelligently shirtless [because it's hot] women near the rope barricade finger-painted corncobs on each other's breasts, while the half-dozen sheriff's deputies sweating outside the cordon examined their batons -- pretending not to appreciate Areola Art.... The flock of local news vultures at the perimeter feigned no such qualms: their vidcams swiveled for money shots," and "We're helping the environment.... More cathartic button abuse. Let it out, sweetheart, Dana thought. Let it all out."
Wow. But plot? Reporter pretends to report while doing something instead. Where is the conflict? Goss needs to Bissonize. Where is Terry Bisson when you need him? He needs a bright orange suit with the letter "B" emblazoned on his chest, peering into word processors near and far to rescue writers searching for a plot (through a process which shall hereafter be called "Bissonize"). Please cut all "said" replacements, too ("enthused?").

Bill Gauthier gives a bit of truly vignette, missing-person crime in "Snow Day."

Sci Fiction at SCIFI.COM Discursive stories can succeed. Take Mark Rich's story in the second issue of Electric Velocipede. It had a rich, novel and difficult idea that required discourse to explicate and enough plot dynamics to pull the idea along. [Allow me to leaven the following criticism that I loved Beatty's clever "If You Like W, You'll Love Z!" in Full Unit Hookup #3. As with all magazine reviews, this is not a critique of an author's body of work but one story.] Greg Beatty's "Midnight at the Ichnologist's Ball," on the other hand, foregoes conflict in favor of the perennial people-talking-in-a-bar syndrome which grows tedious without dynamics and not just the purposeless filler that James Blish called "phony realism" of smiling, swigging beer and the like. In Beatty's favor some good dialogue arises with occasional nice touches pecking toward the theme of ichnology like:

"Dan grabbed his beer, and slid his hand around the glass, back and forth, until it was wet, and all the remaining dust on his hand had darkened. Murmuring, 'I'll clean it up, Phil,' Dan flattened his hand on the bar. Again. Again. Again, until the handprints covered the bar, overlapping in baroque mosaic of mud."
This story could have worked. Had story innovator Terry Bisson had his hands on it, he might have pared it down until it was so slick, with nothing but essentials, that the reader would forget he was reading a story.

Gardner Dozois' ironically titled "Fairy Tale" turns aside the beloved and grotesque versions of Cinderella into brutal realities for women in nineteenth century Europe. There is no science and no speculation apart from guessing how a story of this sort might come about. The story reads comfortably with a casualness that maintains for a bit too long until Dozois comes to the story proper and straightens out misperceptions into probabilities. However, some of the best and cleverest insights actually come from the long build-up to the story: "[the castle]'s a grim enough pile, and, in another story, cruel vampire lords would live thereóbut this isn't that kind of story either. Instead of vampires, the King lived there, or lived there" and "you must grant at least that she was a striking and charismatic weight-lifter or potato, one who had had men sniffing around her from the time she started to grow hair in places other than her head." But like reality that Dozois mimicks to a powerful degree, life peters out without a thematic conclusion, so we're left with an indescribable, almost supernatural feeling of connection to our ancestors.

A short story by Octavia Butler is an incredible rarity that the lucky (conniving?) Ellen Datlow managed to procure it. Description may not be Butler's strong suit, but, like a master of tell-don't-show Judith Slater, Butler knows how to play her trump cards. What is amazing is that not only does she never write about things not worth writing about but also she keeps a keen sense of balance. If Butler says there's a problem, you better damn well listen because she pares away the politics to get to the heart of an issue. Her characters may be victimized, but they never play the part of a victim. They are strong and will not allow anyone to corner them into such a role. Her stories are not limited to mono-racial issues as she makes certain to balance the evil of slavery with a black woman lovingly married to a white man (Kindred), or limited to all-evil male and all-good female as the characters marry and circle one another like superhero representatives of Yin and Yang (Wild Seed). Because she pares away possible political implications does not remove their application to politics, but only broadens them into a universal theme for everyone to heed.

In "Amnesty," communities are 12x12 plant-like, shape-shifting aliens that came to Earth, abducted and experimented on humans. Many humans died in the experiments until aliens and abductees learned to communicate. Non-abducted Earthlings reasonably feared the aliens but reacted unreasonably to the abductees, torturing any who appeared outside the Communities. Because times are hard, humans reluctantly and bitterly apply for jobs at the Communities. In this potent discussion, protagonist Noah Cannon educates the applicants:

" 'You tried to kill yourself?' Rune Johnsen asked. 'Did you do that when you were with the... the Communities?'

"Noah shook her head. 'I never did.' She paused. 'It mattered more than I know how to tell you that this time my tormentors were my own people. They were human. They spoke my language. They knew all that I knew about pain and humiliation and fear and despair. They knew what they were doing to me, and yet it never occurred to them not to do it.' She thought for a moment, remembering. 'Some captives of the Communities did kill themselves. And the Communities didn't care.'

"But if you didn't choose to die, there was the perverse security and peace of being enfolded. There was, somehow, the pleasure of being enfolded. It happened often when captives were not being tested in some way. It happened because the entities of the Communities discovered that it pleased and comforted them too, and they didn't understand why any more than she did."

Many interpretations can be drawn from the best fiction, being the mode to realize change within its readers. If you're reading fiction as a discourse to bash others, you're reading for all the wrong reasons. We can change no one but ourselves. So, as any responsible reader should, allow me to apply this story to myself, a critic in a Community like Science Fiction. Conveniently there is a character named Sorrel Trent (Sorrel meaning sour as all us acerbic, hard-to-please critics are). Also, like Sorrel, I have learned at the feet of one-who-knows, one-who-has-weathered-the-floods-of-the-Communities-like-Noah, one-who-can-unabashedly-claim-to-be-a-giant-of-the-genre-Cannon-like-Butler (CW '99 rocks!). Like Butler who began writing SF by the age of twelve, so too had Noah Cannon "met her current employer before she turned twelve."

The other Community applicants get flamed far worse in some ways and Sorrel Trent demonstrates some cognizance outside herself and inside Communities/SF as having their/its own language, yet "Sorrel Trent said wistfully, 'If we honor them, maybe they will take us to heaven with them.' Noah suppressed an urge to hit the woman." Ha! Pie-in-the-sky artsy-fartsy SF vs. nuts-and-bolts practical SF? By gar, as unrealistic and slap-worthy as Sorrel Trent may be, she still wistfully hopes SF gets recognition outside the community and why not have an SF author win, say, a MacArthur Foundation grant? Moreover, if this work has meaning outside its surface, doesn't that argue against itself?

Ah well, a little deprecation never hurt anyone. Also, under this interpretation, she offers would-be writers scads of advice:

"Most of you won't be required to learn more than the basic signs.... If you have some urgent need that the basics don't cover, you can write notes. Print in block capital letters. That will usually work. But if you want to move up a paygrade or two and be given work that might actually interest you, learn the language. [There are no] classes. Your employers will teach you if they want you to know -- or if you ask. Language lessons are the one thing you can ask for that you can be sure of getting. They're also one of the few things that will get your pay reduced if you're told to learn and you don't. That will be in the contract. They won't care whether you won't or you can't. Either way it's going to cost you. Your employers can and will call you at any time.... They might also ignore you for days at a time, and most of you won't be within shouting distance of another human being.... For the sake of your sanity, go in with projects that will occupy your minds.... [Y]ou might be asked to explain or discuss some aspect of our culture that the Community either doesn't understand or wants to hear more about.... You may be given puzzles to solve.... what's important to [the Communities] is not what they think of our intellect. It's what use we can be to them. That's what they pay us for. The [fans, I mean, Communities] who are having trouble adjusting to this world are calmed and much improved if they can enfold one of us now and then.... There's a final test. When you go in, you will be enfolded, each of you, by a potential employer. When that's over, some of you will be offered a contract and the rest will be given the thanks-for-stopping-by fee that anyone who gets this far and no farther is given."
And Butler on Community revolutions: "The entities of those Communities scattered to join other Communities. I'm not sure whether that was death, reproduction, or both." And Butler on the death of SF: "I have no idea how that attack was repelled, but... the missiles fired at the [Communities] never detonated" (elaborating about how the Communities became the world's friends).

She should have switched the name of this mystical Rune Johnsen character to Rune Trent-sen. Doesn't that have a better ring to it? Who is this John-sen upstart and where's Tanya Harding's boyfriend when you need him? Ah, well. Them's the breaks. Some folks cannot agree on the purpose of genre, but we can all get along, eh? Believe it or not, somewhere I've got a photo of Butler laughing at something I said.

We all have to grab the meaning that has the most to offer for our own need to change. One might also choose to read the Communities as the harsh entry of Old World cultures upon the New World (though a little creaky in the interpretation since the Old World isn't any less human than the New). Or any bureaucratic machine bigger than yourself that you have to learn to communicate and get along with. Great literature is bigger than a narrow interpretation will allow. Is this great literature? That depends. "Amnesty" as a story would have been far more dramatic had we actually witnessed Noah Cannon's struggles with inhuman humanity and Community, had we learned to communicate with Noah. So this is a story more for those who relish interpretation than for those who look for entertainment -- unfortunate since Butler has much to offer in this potent and well-balanced sermonette of peace.

Damn. I wish all stories were this fun to pick apart!

Strange Horizons The poetry this month was, as usual, all competent and pleasant to the ear. Tim Pratt ("Carcinodjinn") probably had the most meaningful although the metaphor was a little strained because of the science (since cancer lives only as long as its source of nourishment). David C. Kopaska-Merkel's "Eel Week," however, should have been the favorite with lines like: "I was surprised to see eels wandering around downtown./ They tried to blend in, but it was hopeless," though he might have sat on it a little longer for a more relevant solution.

Dean Francis Alfar's "L'Aquilone du Estrellas (The Kite of Stars)" is a fairy tale quest of Maria Isabella to find materials for a kite to be seen in the night sky by a boy who closes his while walking down the street in daylight to save his eyes for the star. Alfar tells his story with lush language and potent moments like the butcher's boy's refrain "Nothing is ever wasted," the one successful use of vague language "The kite was huge and looked like a star, but those who saw it could not agree on how best to describe the marvelous conveyance," and the heart-breaking end. Unfortunately, too many words are wasted in questing and vaguenesses without narrative purpose: "her mind began to make plan upon plan upon plan, rejecting possibilities, making conjectures; assessing what she knew, whom she knew, and how much she dared," "[t]hey were beleaguered by nameless things in nameless places and learned to defend themselves," and what could have been a beautiful poignant moment marred by the extra baggage of the last four words "[i]n their thirtieth year together, they took stock of what they had, referred to the thousands of items still left unmarked on their list, exchanged a long silent look filled with immeasurable meaning." But the story gives a nice ride.

Jeff Carlson has solar flares, perhaps instigated by aliens, "Interrupt" the short term memories of everyone on Earth except those underwater and in bunkers. The narrator attempts to block out the flares with interference and/or a makeshift construction. The conclusion -- maybe in an effort to avoid worn-out themes -- is anything but SF and down-right anti-Darwin, let alone (or because of the anti-Darwin nature) against probably every culture on Earth. Is this a sign of the times? a result of too much American luxury?

I am reluctant to judge Jay Lake's "One Is All Alone" yet since it is part of a larger story cycle, but he writes that it is to be considered a work of its own. A man flees from raping and pillaging ransackers into the forest and into the arms of the Green Man whom I had to research. How much of the story's resonance relies upon a knowledge of myth, I'm not sure, but that's the beauty of such knowledge: to draw upon archetypes, which Jung might say lies beyond our conscious minds. What's nice about Lake's work is that the transformation or fleeing from the new religion to the old -- as, depending upon the website devoted to the Green Man you click on, some have done today although the Green Man differentiates himself from another character whom some scholars have linked to the Green Man: "Salvation," the rushes whisper, "is not my promise."

[Again, please leaven the following criticism with a Bernobich's melodic "Of Moon Dust and Starlight" in Full Unit Hookup #1] Beth Bernobich's "Poison" slides on the melody of its narrator's prose, but a horde of minor details marred their pleasure. As descriptively pleasant as the prose is, it gets in the way of the narrator's believability when "on the hunt," for what has the moon to do with any hunter except the light it provides? Other details don't jibe either as the planet has two moons but coconuts and mangos -- transplanted? or is a moon not a moon? Finally, the characters are definitely alien, morphing sexual gender, smell, and color, yet no physical details apart from this contradict the human figure. Are these aliens? future humans? A Dr. Moreau-Frankenstein combination? We find out they're from a different planet and rare on this planet three-quarters through the story. Yet they get the same diseases and can bear human children and a medical doctor cannot tell that the creature is not human -- so if it looks like a human, walks like a human, talks like a human.... they must be human (this is a popular paraphrase one hears in medical lecture halls, by the way). But then this is the first child through such matings -- aside from sexually deviant medical quacks, why would any human doctor attempt to find out if an alien could get pregnant by a human? That and spontaneous generation are important medical questions for the Dark Ages. Why would someone administer IV antibiotics in a week if it isn't needed now? How could a shot of antibiotics make the pulse suddenly better?

Placebo effect? Why would the pulse be more informative than listening with a stethoscope? How could something so deep be transferred without transferring the undesired also? When time is measured in hands or arms or bellies-full, what does it signify? Are these constant repetitions necessary to the telling of the story? I realize Bernobich was going after the big stakes (Tiptree?) with this transgender-transsexual-incestual (although that last should be taboo for any species not doomed for extinction) human/alien, but the details have to add up logically. As other fang-evolved humans/aliens hunt these aliens, one asks more questions they shouldn't be asking. In Bernobich's favor she does much suggesting, but how much is too much? These questions might discourage a newer writer, but as writers mature, story problems become pivotal points from which a story can dig into deeper speculative realms.

Vestal Review Nothing terribly exciting this quarter (Aguado and Toth provide the better half): Daniel A. Olivas gives a standard fairy tale in "La Guaca," Zett Aguado two kinds of earthquake "My Earthquake" with one being rather gritty, Paul A. Toth's "Ghost Of Katzenfritzi" points out the hidden point of a Paul Klee painting, Thea Atkinson gives a rather standard disillusionment with husband (albeit through fetish) in "Dreaming Of Leather."

Copyright © 2003 Trent Walters

Trent Walters' work has appeared or will appear in The Distillery, Fantastical Visions, Full Unit Hookup, Futures, Glyph, Harpweaver, Nebo, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Speculon, Spires, Vacancy, The Zone and blah blah blah. He has interviewed for, Speculon and the Nebraska Center for Writers. More of his reviews can be found here. When he's not studying medicine, he can be seen coaching Notre Dame (formerly with the Minnesota Vikings as an assistant coach), or writing masterpieces of journalistic advertising, or making guest appearances in a novel by E. Lynn Harris. All other rumored Web appearances are lies.

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