Monday, February 14, 2011

Review: Eggs of American Songbirds by Kenneth L. Clark

"This book is © 2010 by Kenneth L. Clark. It has no ISBN or other official presence in the world. Like all of us and every thing, it will disappear someday with the rest of what we love and remember with fondness."

The cover design for 'Eggs of American Songbirds' is by GUD's layout editor, poetry maven, and Issues #1 and #7 Instigator, Sue Miller. Redneck Press is owned and operated by friend-of-GUD and Night Train editor Rusty Barnes. A free .pdf of the chapbook was provided by the publishers and will be kept by the reviewer. Poet and short-fiction writer Kenneth L. Clark was published in Issue 1 of GUD Magazine.

Now we've got the disclaimers out of the way, on to the poetry.

'Eggs of American Songbirds' is a handsome chapbook of poems drawn from life. In them, Clark clearly enjoys playing with the slipperiness of language and the exploitation of the way we read poems, in order, linearly. If you read this line from 'Still Time' in isolation it tells you one thing:

we make time to forget the laundry

When you move on to the line that follows, what it tells you changes:

list of things to do and ignore today


who fills out an incident report. It’s a crime
to be quiet as a puddle after chrome violence

('Roadside Crosses')


At the spillway the red
winged blackbird crouches down

('At the Spillway')

There's fun with and love of language in this chapbook, but at the same time, the poems feel deeply personal. They are about love and loss, grief and intimacy. Clark writes himself and his preoccupations onto the page.

"Don’t say anything else tonight,
put your head in my lap and sleep, forget 25 hours
of news and information, relapse to when sleep came
by the cadence of rain, hard rain. Rain, hard rain."

('Ethics for the New Gulf')

Anything and everything is grist for the poet's mill--anything seen, overheard, everything felt, experienced. It's all here: little slices of life pinned to the page.

...She pulled
photographs from an album while her husband went to walk the dog
and find the cat. "This one is Steven and this one’s an old barn."

('The Body Paused')

Clark's poems can convince you that there is beauty in the mundane, but that it takes a poet to see it and bring it to our attention.

There should be an easier way to speak
about crazy women—it’s not enough to just
change the names or distort the facts,
you have to make the stories believable

even though they aren’t.

('On Returning Home To Find My Things Destroyed')

This self-assumed task permeates the pages.

Some of the poems, of course, are more successful than others. I particularly liked 'The Body Paused' and 'Home and Garden', perhaps because they spoke to me more than the others. That's the secret of literature; everyone brings their own experience to it, and takes it away changed, re-interpreted, perhaps--we hope--better understood. You could do worse than start that process here.

Kenneth L. Clark's work appears in GUD Issue 1: Catholic Girls, A Doorbell, and In Defense of the Boll-Weevil

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Review: Cloud Permutations by Lavie Tidhar

I stumbled into a #hashchat on Twitter, where World SF blog creator, GUD contributor, and prolific writer @LavieTidhar was answering questions from the audience. If the Library of Congress was on the ball with their Twitter archive, or I had a better memory, I could amaze you with the brilliance of my question. As it is, I will try to impress you with the brilliance of the book that I won with that lost-to-posterity question.

'Cloud Permutations' is part myth, part science fiction adventure. Its roots are both broad and deep; they nurture a story that is personal, well-defined, and brilliantly textured and contextualized, yet still archetypal.

Tidhar draws from his experience in the remote islands of Melanesia to paint for us one possible permutation of the clouds. Heven is a world populated, centuries ago, by Melanesian settlers from distant Earth. They have been cut off, due to unknown circumstances (a trope Tidhar has pulled off beautifully before), and their day-to-day life has grown to fill those circumstances as /kastom/. There is one rule above all others, core to keeping the peace: you will not fly.

Kalbaben and his best friend, Vira, go against the /kastom/ of Heven and pay a heavy price, Kal's first step towards a prophecy he ill understands. He is banished to the merchant-island Tanna, given to remote relatives. There, he is befriended by an ostentatious and crafty albino, Bani, who takes him under his wing.

The adventure they embark on is not easy, nor just, nor kind, nor innocent, but it is told with a rich brush, in language, in interaction, and in scope. The world of Heven has many histories, touched on lightly in parts, and heavily in others. Tidhar borrows from many standard sfnal tropes, and makes something unique of them: in blend, tone, and setting.

The story that is told most directly, the life of Kalbaben, is sweet or bitter-sweet depending on how you choose to read it. It ends perhaps a touch too simply, except 'Cloud Permutations' has many more stories besides, and Tidhar weaves them in a tapestry worth reading for its many ragged layers.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Review: Storm Warning: Echoes of Conflict by Vanessa Gebbie

This collection of short stories by Vanessa Gebbie is not cozy bed-time reading. Even the most apparently innocent openings--"I'm on a train going to the sea"--only mask for a short time the brutal truth that's about to be revealed. Liesl is on a train, and she's been told she's going to the sea, but the train in 'Red Sandals' has a very different destination.

Gebbie gives us little slices of insights into people's lives that are often so harsh that you want to look away, but also so honest and intimate that you feel looking away would be a betrayal. From the baker returned from WWI who goes down a tin mine instead of returning to his trade, but finds that even underground he can't hide from what happened to his neighbour and fellow-soldier to the bedridden ex-soldier whose self-conceit never quite catches up with the change in his circumstances, Gebbie shines a spotlight into those places we'd rather not look.

The writing is clean and to the point with few words wasted. "The sky was the deepest blue, over there above the hill. No stars. Security lights at the factories." Thus, the scene is set in 'Background Noise', where Maidie learns there is more to her grandfather's story of a daring escape from a submarine than she previously suspected. "My lips moved against the rubber. Every breath I took filled my chest with bad air. I pulled at it, tugging it back down, trying to keep it. It was mine. I was Bambrick." Like so many of Gebbie's characters, Grampa has something to hide. Out it comes, though, eventually, choking and gasping its way out into the night, as if it simply can't be held back any longer. Then we have it, the raw truth of the character's secret, exposed on the page.

The characters in these stories are ordinary people. They could be us, or our close relatives, our friends, people we meet in the streets. The stories put us into their lives, and make them more real by only offering these slices, by eschewing backstory and long explanations. Characterisation is deftly achieved in a few strokes. "Before the lockers were broken, Takundwa laughed from behind the schoolhouse. Before the tables were burned in the open, the last time he was a naughty little brother and ducked under Hondo's fist and ran away." ('Maiba's Ribbon') "He stands a full head above me and I am considered not short. It is said he has the strength to lift a full barrel and carry it to the slow count of an hundred. His hair it is thick and long, and of reddish colour, and his gaze most impassioned when he speaks of two things: his God and his ale." ('The Ale-Heretic')

With this volume, small but perfectly-formed, both Gebbie and Salt Publishing cement their reputations for producing quality short fiction that demands to be read.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Review: Canterbury 2100, edited by Dirk Flinthart

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

Although Chaucer's Canterbury Tales was a mammoth undertaking--and one he never completed--at least he only had himself to deal with. Writer and Andromeda In-Flight Spaceways Magazine Maintenance chief Dirk Flinthart took on an even more difficult task, that of weaving stories by disparate writers into a narrative of a futuristic pilgrimage to Canterbury.

This anthology contains eighteen stories by eighteen Australian writers, all woven together using a framing story consisting of a letter written to his overlord by a Crown agent. If, at times, the conceit stretches at the seams, let us not complain, but rather marvel that the thing was done at all. Just as Chaucer sought to share with his readers the stories his pilgrims shared among themselves, so Flinthart set out to 'depict a fictional future by exploring the stories that the people of that future tell each other'.

These new Canterbury tales are told during a lull in train journey through a post-apocalyptic 'Engelond' of the year 2100, where Canterbury has become the capital city, seat of a King Charles V. (Asking where Charleses III-IV came from is one of those seams we weren't going to pull at, remember? In fact, despite being written from the opposite side of the world, these stories contain very few obvious mistakes. I will just say, though: the A1 is not a motorway.) Climate change and plain old human nastiness have taken their toll, Scotland is under ice, the population is much reduced, and the very fact that the train on which our pilgrims travel is nuclear-powered is a secret. Raising--or laying--the demons of the past is a preoccupation of many of the stories, and, for me, there was a little too much harking back to the past throughout. I preferred the stories that immersed themselves in the future rather than trying to explain how it had come about. YMMV.

The brief for this anthology must have been a tough one to write, and hard to undertake, and all the writers who succeeded in having their stories chosen deserve kudos for even trying. Yet I felt that too many of the stories tried to set the scene rather than being set in the scene. Compare this aspect with Chaucer's tales, and you see the difference: Chaucer's storytellers felt no need to explain their world to the reader. It was their world and they and the prospective reader were in it. Few of the writers in this anthology felt that comfortable with their task; it is after all almost de rigueur for the SF writer to give some explanation for how things came about. In this context--perhaps uniquely--that feels like a mistake.

There's a great selection here of professions from which the tale-tellers are drawn, although my favourite is definitely The Dead Priest, which manages to be funny and intriguing in itself while harking back to Chaucer's Nun's Priest. Who though could resist the Tingler, or the Gnomogist? It's almost worth buying this anthology to find out what the Janus and the Carbon-Knitter actually do. For the most part, these tales are not short on imagination in the telling, although sometimes perhaps a tad predictable in what they tell. The world they build, one of basic survival and growing ignorance, in which rape, murder, and callous exploitation are routine, clashes somewhat with the framing tale of the glossy and somewhat steampunky train. Personally, I'll take that train any day.

We're meant to be travelling on that train to Canterbury, on pilgrimage, but where do the pilgrims' stories take us?

In Geoffrey Maloney's 'The Tingler's Tale', we hear about "a Hangman and a Scribbler, and a most foul and evil murderer, or two." This tale throws the reader straight into a post-apocalyptic world that's strangely reminiscent of Victorian England. We could have walked one of Leon Garfield's foggy streets to meet the Scribbler who finds himself a little too close to the action when reporting on a hanging. Most of the characters in this story are treated like archetypes; they have signifiers rather than names. The exceptions are the murderers who have been or are to be hanged. With names, they stand out against the background as the only people in this story. Everyone else has their role, and nothing more. This makes for an atmospheric tale, especially as the focus is on the hanging that's to come, and little wordage is spent on scene-setting, but it's hard to care about the Scribbler's ultimate fate.

'The Nun's Tale' by Angela Slatter is one of the more futuristic stories in this anthology. Set in a city "built on a platform and raised high on gigantic metal legs, above the fumes and filth of a diseased earth", it tells of Terminal Six, a human cyborg who has become detached from the Grid that runs the city following a power surge. Half-lost in dreams and shorn of memory, she pretends to be comatose in order to avoid being reduced once again to a component in a machine. At the heart of this story is a betrayal. "I was your wife. I was your lover. But you loved your city more." The story-teller is present in this story, as witness, as participant, as embittered aspirant to the role Terminal Six is desperate to shed. A strong story that overcomes a shaky dream-sequence opening.

Next comes 'The Dead Priest's Tale by Martin Livings, which follows Father Thomas as he travels to Canterbury. The journey keeps taking strange turns as Thomas meets with strangers who, inexplicably, recognise him. "The woman opened her eyes, looked at him. Tears trickled down her cheeks. 'Do ye not know me, Thomas?' she asked. 'Has the Devil taken even that from me?'" The explanation for these encounters involves cloning and a curious plan to reignite public fervour for the Church and enable it to resume power. It's an odd idea, but then religion is perhaps the usual repository for odd ideas. The problem for me was the story didn't make me believe it, and portentous reminders that "Thomas was born to die" tended to awaken the sceptic in me rather than put it to sleep.

'The Veteran's Tale' by Stephen Dedman was probably the least successful story in this anthology. It's set during a period of transition, when warlords in a particular area are trying to move from settling disputes by the use of force to a more structured single-combat style of resolution. The story is hampered by the introduction of a National power that tries to push their society towards a more democratic regime that it's clearly not ready to embrace, thereby taking much of the ability to develop the society out of the hands of the story's characters. Unfortunately, although the National powers are faceless, the warlords too are pretty much ciphers. One's called Odi, and he's bad--odious, in fact--and another's called Edrich, and he's the good guy, and then there are a lot of names with not much else attached to stand for the others. By the time they're all fighting each other again, there's no way to know who to root for, if anyone.

Further, to be honest, Edrich the good guy is only good in a relative sense. He pleads with his rival warlords to check their depredations before "the men raiding the villages are killing their own sons and raping their own daughters" purely for their own sakes. "That's an abomination too, do you think God won't punish us?" Judging by what seems to have been going on in these villages, I'd say God was dragging his feet more than a little on the punishment front.

Perhaps this was simply too big an idea for such a short story--it can't even be three thousand words long. Certainly there are too many characters for the reader to engage.

Shortage of room to develop may also have harmed Laura E Goodin's 'The Miner's Tale', which has a strong voice and convincing characters, but which resolves its central conflict far too easily. The story's nicely told, using the device of having the hero's sidekick, rather than the hero, as the narrator. Thus we learn about Thomas Griffiths, or 'Griff', who has the peculiar but useful ability to detect the stresses in the layers of rock above the heads of miners digging for coal. Forced to take up work with an outfit mining "dirty" and possibly illegal coal, Griff and narrator Mike find themselves at risk not only from their dangerous work, but from a suspicious and secretive management. Griff particularly doesn't like the stabilisers used in the mine; he'd rather rely on his own abilities, which do turn out to be useful in the end. There's a lot to like in this story, but the resolution comes too easily to be satisfying.

Sue Isle's 'The Sky-Chief's Tale' has the feel of developing myth, which is rather fun in itself. A small group of people hidden away in Bath, where the hot springs enable them to survive the man-made Ice Age, discover that a ship from the moon is about to land near them and bring them a new, if semi-crippled, population. The story felt top-heavy to me, perhaps because a lot of time is spent on whether these moon people are going to be accepted, when, frankly, it's a foregone conclusion that they are. This kind of shadow conflict can be a bit irritating, especially when it's being used to disguise set-up. I love the hidden community idea, and Chief Camilla, the community leader, is a strong, pragmatic, and believable character, but is this her story? Or her son Davin's? Or the story of the people from the moon? It's all a little confused. Again, too few words to tell too much story may be to blame.

Kaaron Warren's 'The Census-Taker's Tale' is two tales sandwiched together: the tale of the Census-Taker's parents and their role in immunizing the population against the Great Plague, and the more interesting tale of the Census-Taker's work taking a full census of the English population, both living and dead. This is a man who not only can see dead people, but who counts them, and finds out how they died. "Yet here was a whole brood of boys, killed by their mothers away from home. I needed to know their number." Whether or not the story that he learns is true is up to the reader to decide; if interviewing ghosts is possible, then perhaps boys who can raise fire from their fingers can be a true tale, too. A good story, even though it meanders a little at the start.

Another story involving ghosts is 'The Mathematician's Tale' by Durand Welsh. It's the better story, perhaps because it focuses on one tale and tells it well. The Knot Man, last of his trade, is approached by a Jailor to untie the ghosts of prisoners left to die on an icebound ship. Old and still puzzling over a knot left him by his last apprentice, who was imprisoned on that ship, the Knot Man is reluctant. "He didn't miss the rapists, murderers and thieves in their rusty, water locked tomb; he only missed the children." Go he must, however, or allow his apprentice to continue his tortures even after death.

This story builds strongly towards a satisfying conclusion. Although it works well in context, it's also complete in itself. Great stuff.

'The Doctor's Tale' by Ben Bastian returns to one of this anthology's preoccupations: brutal men who run small communities through violence and, especially, the abuse of women. It doesn't make for comfortable reading. The narrator, a doctor, arrives in a small town run by a thug named Ripley and his henchmen where the doctor's old friend Virgil is trying to protect his adolescent daughter from the gang-rapings that have befallen more than one woman in this 'community'. It's an unpleasant set-up that borders on caricature (surely some aggrieved relative would simply stab Ripley in his sleep?), but perhaps what's most offensive is the idea that all that needs to be done is rescue this young woman. She matters because her father is the doctor's friend. As for the rest of the women--well, what about them? The story doesn't say.

Misdirection in stories is great; I love misdirection. There's a fine line however between misdirection and cheating. This story doesn't just cross that line; it takes a run-up and then leaps merrily over it and is gone far into the distance. Don't cheat. It will make the reader hate you.

Talking of cheating makes me wonder if 'The Hunter's Tale' by Grant Watson cheats as well. On the face of it, it's a straightforward tale about a hunter who comes into conflict with a wolf that he believes has murdered his daughter. "It was winter that brought the wolf close to the village, I suppose." Unable to kill the wolf itself, he takes his revenge on its mate and their cubs. Only then does he discover that the wolf may not have been guilty after all.

The problem for me is that the story drops absolutely no hints that might point to the identity of the true perpetrator. It's one thing to bury clues so subtly that the reader becomes aware of them only afterwards, the 'oh of course!' moment; it's another not to plant any clues at all. Then again, there is a strong hint before the killing even happens that the hunter should not tangle with the wolf. "Something made me to [sic] say it again: 'You don't want to hunt this wolf.'" So the jury's out. Read the story and decide for yourselves whether I'm too harsh.

I'm honestly not sure whether Thoraiya Dyer's 'The Peat-Digger's Tale' is meant to be funny. On the face of it, it can't be; it deals with a woman dying of bird flu and her husband's and son's desperate attempts to save her, attempts that result in the son's death. Yet it has a rollicking feel that suggests the reader is meant to laugh here and there. "If the needle was an awful great needle, so was the haystack an awful great haystack." When the narrator mounts a handy nuclear-powered robot horse and goes in search of a cure for his wife, it's hard to continue to take the story seriously.

Despite the sadness wound through it, this one's a great romp. It does make a bit of a hole in the framing story, though--presuming you believe a word the narrator says. I get the impression this story may be the one that gave the editor the greatest headache when he was trying to make it fit with the narrative arc.

"What a place I find myself in. A rich man flavours his meats with herbs and spices, and tells such lies in the name of selling dog as pork, and he meets with nothing but favour and success." So speaks the Metawhore of Lee Battersby's 'The Metawhore's Tale' (or 'Love Story' if you go by the page headers), in riposte to a merchant who has insulted her profession.

The Metawhore seems to be similar to Ray Bradbury's tattooed man; she is a mass of scars and each evokes a different story, for which she is paid. She describes her work as mere rote learning and recall, yet you wonder what there is in that to bring down upon her such disdain. And why whore, anyway? This story succeeded in presenting a set of social mores that are familiar (one constant being of course that women are always wrong) but nonetheless baffling to outsiders. The narrator--a young novice on pilgrimage--is surprisingly sympathetic towards the Metawhore, but we discover towards the end of the story that he has his own reasons for empathising.

The Metawhore is an enigmatic and intriguing character, one who makes and takes her own way; she insists on leaving the train to make the 'proper', Chaucerian pilgrimage from the Tabard Inn, or, at least, "a ruin I can pretend is the right place." Yet the story is bitty and fragmented, and the youthful narrator's decision at the end not well developed. Rough but readable.

I got a little lost in the course of Penelope Love's 'The Janus Tale' as I wasn't sure at first whether the "veiled woman" was the same person as "the girl". It was also a tad confusing that this apparently naive character turned out to be on her third lifetime. Some aspects of this story didn't gel for me. However, once it gets going properly, this develops as a great tale with a fascinating central conceit: that God keeps sending the Janus' component parts back to Earth after they die, horribly and together. "So when the husband and wife appear before God, so mixed up and muddled that neither can be told apart, God throws up hands and sends them back to the world, to have another chance. 'Don't mess things up this time,' God warns them. So here my story starts again."

It's an intriguing conceit, this "divine mistake", so much more so than the mundane idea that the Janus is 'just' a clone built on peculiar lines. Here again we see myth being created right before our eyes.

Trent Jamieson's 'The Lighterman's Tale' is perhaps the most Chauceresque in this anthology, not just for the subject matter but also for its free, confident, and unabashed use of language. It's a solid tale of love and how one mistake may cost you everything...or will it? "I've seen things come post-storm, out of the mist, drifting dead and serene down the Stour. I've seen 'em, as I wait for my cargo, and blessed am I that I'm still to drift myself...because I know there'll be tears all the way along to Canterbury proper, because the ships are the lifeblood of this island." This story summons familiar myth without making the reader conscious of harking back to 'our' past, perhaps because it's part of a collective past, something we and the storytelling Lighterman share despite the distance between us. A job well done.

In 'The Carbon-Knitter's Tale', Rita de Heer tells us of failing technology, and the lengths to which people will go to keep it--or a semblance of it--going, whatever the cost. There are gorgeous hints here, again, of myth emerging from ignorance, or perhaps reforging ignorance into a new, useful kind of knowledge. "The red angel takes with war. The black angel with ash." It's a shame that this is confined to the opening, and the rest of the story takes a more conventional turn.

Ram is thought to be safe from the recruiters for the gameshell at Stoke because he is a 'yellow-angel-addled child'. Times change, however, and soon Stoke needs him--and others--to stand in for the avatars and computer-generated monsters that no longer work. It's pitiful work. A knight standing by a boy who's trying to fight another boy while under the knight's direction is no training for knighthood, nor even for fighting. It's fascinating and more than a little sad to see the people of Stoke trying to hold together their one asset in this fashion. Who would believe it could work? Only the desperate.

I felt Ram was a little too-good-to-be-true in this story, although that perhaps is meant to come of his addling. He'd rather starve than kill the monster he's replacing, yet he has a quest to fulfill, and how can he fulfill it if he's dead? The story strains credulity with its determination to make Ram the really good guy, who's prepared only to sacrifice himself. A thought-provoking tale that might have worked better without the character of Juttie, who doesn't really do much, and keeps obtruding at unexpected moments.

LL Hannett's 'The Evangelist's Tale' brings two crazed individuals into direct conflict. Oule is a perfectly ordinary hunter until he wanders into 'Mother--' and encounters a surviving sales pitch broadcast on myriads of tiny screens.

"I've seen a message of hope my friends, written in electric light."

Unable to make sense of what he's seeing in the context of his own life up until then, he becomes fired with Belief. Poor fellow. Trying to spread his Belief brings him into conflict with, well, just about everybody, until he meets Lilah, who has gathered around herself a group of misfits and lost souls who help guard a warehouse with mysterious contents. Lilah, it turns out, is a similarly-crazed evangelist with a quest of her own.

This story relied a bit too much on telling rather than showing, which is a shame, as the writing is strong enough to work without that. There are definitely moments when Hannett tells us something they have already shown us. Overall, although it's a good tale, Oule seems a bit out of place as an evangelist. He doesn't take nearly enough pleasure in nobody listening to him at all.

'The Gnomogist's Tale' by Matthew Chrulew is, by a narrow margin, my favourite of this anthology. It's a rambunctious, shameless, romp of a tale, an entire world's mythology all by itself.

"In those days Mamont ranged through not only the park but all of Beria. And Mamont re-formed Aerth again: he pushed down trees and trampled shrubs; he cleared the snow and tore up the mosses. Wherever Mamont grassed, there grasses grew. And though Aerth was still angry, and the waters still rose, wherever Mamont ranged, the boggy ground became firm again, and the hollow scenery was once more plentiful."

So much thought and work has gone into this story that it's a smooth pleasure to read. Only at one point did it jar on me. We learn about Sapien-Ape, the people of this apocalyptic world, then in only three words the author betrays that all along he's been writing about men, not people. It's a slight flaw, but one that could easily have been avoided. Still, it's worth buying this anthology just to read this one story and learn about Mamont and his dead children. It would also be worth seeking out what else Chrulew has had published.

The anthology concludes with 'The Conductor's Tale' by Lyn Battersby, the story of a man whose very self-effacement is his means of keeping control of the passengers on his train. He's a driven, haunted man, and his story is Faustian in concept. With his story, we arrive at last in Canterbury, despite an attack by raiders from Londistan--whose story is hinted at, but not told here--and an attempt to destroy the locomotive, and Battersby takes us on a brief tour of that city.

"I, I want to make the pilgrimage, but I don't know what God requires of me."

The Conductor is seeking an expiation beyond the norm; walking through the Buttermarket to the Cathedral simply doesn't feel like enough. Is he perhaps doomed to doubt God's forgiveness even while he desperately yearns for it? We don't know, but at least this time he does manage to get off the train. A sad, sad story on which to conclude.

The amount of work that's gone into this anthology is impressive. Almost every story is worth reading. It is sometimes hard to reconcile the worlds of the storytellers with that of the shiny nuclear train, but the stories themselves work together surprisingly well, and that's no mean achievement. There's also enough imagination here to fill several novels, and it's possible that some of the stories would work (even) better at a longer length.

Even the handsome cover art seems to wink and invite you in.

Worth buying.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

First Review of GUD Issue 6

Skull Salad Reviews GUD Issue 6

"For me, the best story this issue was Ferrett Steinmetz’ ‘In the Garden of Rust and Salt.’ Nine-year-old Evelyn, Queen of the Junkyard, discovers unsavoury truths about her guardian and makes an unusual friend. Lovely."

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Review: Albedo One Magazine (Issue 39)

Ask any twentieth-century reader of speculative fiction what they'd expect to find in an SFF magazine, and they'd probably describe something that would look a lot like Irish magazine Albedo One: a print magazine featuring a selection of SF and F stories, a non-fiction article or author interview, and some book reviews. It's a long-lived and effective formula and Albedo One is a handsome example.

Visit the Albedo One website, however, and you'll find concessions to the twenty-first century. Albedo One offers a range of online content, including Albedo 2.0 fiction--currently featuring 'The Million Pound Shop' by Ian Wild and Donald Mead's Aeon Award short-listed story 'A Falcon Sharp and Passing', as well as downloadable .pdfs of the magazine and some exciting-looking content that is still 'under construction'. It's worth visiting for the online shop alone, where you can view covers of Albedo One's past.

The issue under review, 39, has cover art by Cyril Rolando in which a dejected androgynous figure trails a love balloon through a landscape of otherworldly trees. Although the figure is heading for a bench, it's hard to believe they even know it's there, as they are so downcast. It doesn't sound like an invitation to open the magazine, but it intrigues in its own way, and its background offers the possibility of brighter alternatives.

Inside, there is an interview with prolific award-winning SF author Mike Resnick, an editorial, six pieces of fiction including a reprint of a story by Resnick, 'Hothouse Flowers', and a handful of book reviews. The magazine is well set out, with small but readable type and nicely unobtrusive embellishments to headers, footers, and pull-quotes. Author biographies appear in sidebars rather than at the end of stories, which means endings aren't stepped on. All this gives the impression of an editorial team confident in what they're producing, and who don't feel the need for bells and whistles.

John Kenny's interview with Resnick stretches over six pages of this issue, and offers a solid introduction to the writer and his work. Resnick gives the impression of holding nothing back, and talks as freely about his early work in men's magazines and adult books as he does about his dog-boarding business and his work in SFF. 'You may view my post-1980 career as a public penance for my pre-1980 career,' he says at one point. He also has a distinct vision of the future of publishing--traditional (commercial) publishing is on its way out, digital is the future, and 'the print publishers have no one to blame but themselves.' Resnick sees the digital future of publishing as being driven by writers dissatisfied with print publication, rather than by consumers who prefer to read ebooks. It's an interesting interview, although I would have liked to see some discussion of the more challenging aspects of Resnick's work.

The first story in Issue 39 is Annette Reader's 'Frogs on my Doorstep', the winning story in the Aeon Awards 2009, which are run by Albedo One's publishers Aeon Press.

This somewhat unbalanced and uneven tale tells of Ellie, who disappears from a walled garden as a child and then mysteriously reappears as an adult--or does she? The story begins with the intriguing statement that 'Reality is a myth' and then goes on to prove this by taking the reader to the set of the Oprah Winfrey show.

Okay, cheap shot. There is potential for immense impact in the scene on the show when Oprah unveils an enhanced photograph of how Ellie might look as an adult, only to be shown an almost-identical photograph, evidently years old, that is in the possession of Ellie's brother, the narrator. Ellie's father reacts to the enhanced photograph with such violence and anger that both Oprah and the reader are confused. Unfortunately, we then leave the Oprah set, and the story continues in a more prosaic fashion, with paragraphs of backstory about Ellie's disappearance.

There's a sound idea for a story here, but it's not fully realised. The most striking flaw seems to me that we never return to the set of Oprah, which makes that sequence ultimately seem something of a gimmick rather than a means of telling the story. Even the frogs of the title come in a bit late. Jack the narrator never lives in the reader's mind; first person was, arguably, not the best choice to tell this particular tale. Yet the sequence where the adult Ellie returns to her family after only a year has passed holds both truth and poignancy.

A story translated from Finnish, 'The Horse Shoe Nail' by Mari Saario follows, as part of Albedo One's 'continuing commitment to bring you the best in foreign language fantastic fiction.' The author biography is endearing, including gems like, 'Finnish is a long language and Finnish science fiction short stories are not short.'

Reviewing stories in translation is a minefield for the unwary, as any flaws could easily have been inadvertently introduced at the translation stage. Certainly at times there's a roughness of language in 'The Horse Shoe Nail', but not enough to spoil the read. This is a story of portals and smith-magic, and of how lives that intersect only briefly can make long-lasting impressions. Main character Alice seeks refuge from her dysfunctional family in the old smithy once run by her late grandfather. She doesn't think she'll be disturbed there, but finds herself expected to provide smithwork for two strangers--two very strange strangers, one of whom is brusque and arrogant, and the other of whom is somewhat hairy, not quite human.

As Alice grows up and makes her way through life, she encounters these two again, but time is out of joint and although she recognises them, they don't always recognise her, taking the adult Alice for the mother of the child they met previously. When Alice has a child of her own, she's forced to make a heart-breaking decision for him that will change everyone's lives.

I wasn't entirely convinced by Alice's solution to the dilemma surrounding her child; it seemed rather neater in the author's mind than it would be in reality. Yet this is a strong story, albeit perhaps one that runs a little too long. Alice comes across as a real person with real, difficult problems that she can't easily solve, and the entrance of magic into her life brings consequences that are bittersweet. Worth a read, although its feel is Fantasy rather than SF.

Resnick's 'Hothouse Flowers' might almost have been included to prove that it's not only novice writers who produce first-person narrators that are less than fully-rounded. This is an SF story of the old, Asimov school, in which the characters are less important than the idea. About the only characterisation we get of the narrator is when he disparages his wife.

The flowers of the title are those grown by that wife, the pudgy and graceless Felicia, but also the incredibly old people that the narrator tends in his day job. Most of them seem to be effectively brain-dead. They are kept alive anyway, because, as the narrator says, 'We were so busy increasing the length of life that no one gave much thought to the quality of those extended lives.' This is the story's premise, but I found it a hard one to credit. We're nowhere near being able to keep anyone alive until they're 153 at present, yet the debate about quality of life is active and polarised. If that has changed in this future, we need to know how and why to be convinced.

There's also an extended joke about the word euthanasia that I found irritating.

Into the narrator's quiet routine of baths and resuscitations comes Bernard Goldmeier. A difficult patient who won't shut up and not die quietly, Bernard irritates the narrator no end. 'Anyway, here I've finally got someone who could thank me, could tell me that I'm appreciated, and instead he's furious because I'm going to do everything within my power to keep him alive.' There should be irony here, yet it doesn't quite work.

Nor, really, does the attempt at a parallel between the exotic, genetically-modified flowers and the patients. The similarity wasn't clear to me beyond that both need a lot of care and both sometimes get sick. Yet the narrator takes a startling new direction in his life based on the analogy he finds between people and flowers. It's a story that might have worked better at half the length.

Martin McGrath's 'Eskragh' is a short piece about loss. It opens with the funeral of the narrator's best friend's father. The best friend has already been buried, a year and a half before, or rather buried symbolically after drowning in Eskragh and never being found. The story is written with a nice minimalism and uses short scenes to evoke the grief and bewilderment the characters feel.

'Eskragh isn't big, but it is deep'.

The story's setting, Ireland during the 'Troubles', is brought to life rather than merely described, with the 'fat bumblebees'--British Army helicopters--just part of the backdrop of everyday life.

Author McGrath dedicates the story to a friend of his who 'went swimning one day and never came back', and that sense of personal loss infuses this story to great effect. I'm not sure this is either SF or F, but it is powerful.

Next comes 'Partly ES' by Uncle River. For those like me who were a tad confused, Partly is a town and ES is short for Emergency Services. This is a futuristic tale of first response in an America where Homeland Security can close the roads and keep an ambulance from getting through without needing to give any reason.

For whatever reason, this piece is overloaded with characters. Six are introduced on the first page alone. Anyone mentioned even in passing has to have a name and perhaps a piece of information attached. It certainly reads like small town gossip, but it's necessary early on to give up any attempt at keeping everyone straight. There's just too many of them, and most have little-to-nothing to do with the story here.

That said, there isn't so much a story as a series of anecdotes. It is a bit like reading the Partly ES logbook, with occasional interludes of Golan Talinian's private life. Golan is the protagonist, in so far as there is one, and we follow him from dinner with his friends through various emergencies, with a side visit to chemtrail conspiracy theory, and back to the friends again. If you like this kind of folksy narrative, there's plenty here to keep you happy, but you might need to make a diagram of everyone who appears.

The final story in this issue is the spooky and disturbing 'Grappler' by J.L. Abbott, which traces events in the lives of 'the people' following a prophecy made by Circle of Stones on her deathbed. 'She was not fasting to see the whispering world, she was starving, but it came to the same thing. As she lay upon deer hides before she died, the truths were revealed. The first vision, that men with colored hair would come to her village. The second that a deformed man made of dust would bring death. And the third, that if her people wore leather coverings upon their feet, their spirits would be enslaved for as many lifetimes as men had fingers.'

This is a strong, well-written story that makes its people come alive. Ill-equipped though they are to deal with a world newly filled with bearded men, those trials are nothing to the eponymous Grappler, who comes demanding a wife, and is, apparently, unbeatable. None of the men of the village can stand against him, and nobody knows when he will return. Grappler is a figure to frighten the reader--he knows no sympathy or remorse, and ruthlessly uses the people's own way of life against them.

Comic relief is provided by a parrot, and this is one story that needs that relief to enable the reader to keep reading. 'All winter the bird ordered the people to get him a bucket.' Yet even this talking bird is not immune to Grappler, who will prove its downfall.

'Grappler' blends history with fable with myth to evoke an almost-time in which the people live according to their best understanding of the world. Excellent work that makes Abbott a writer to watch.

Issue 39 then rounds off with some useful book reviews.

All this for just €5.95 (approx £5 or $8).

Although not every story is successful, Albedo One is clearly not only a labour of love by the editorial team--John Kenny, Frank Ludlow, Dave Murphy, Robert Neilson, and Peter Loftus. The magazine is professionally produced, competently edited, and looks great.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Review: The Apex Book of World SF edited by Lavie Tidhar (Part 2 of 2)

Introducing this anthology, Tidhar writes, "Languages come and go. But stories stay." Fantasy, of which SF is (arguably) a sub-genre, has certainly proved resilient over the millennia. Sadly, we don't know what tales homo erectus told each other over the campfire, and we probably never will know, but if we could eavesdrop, Babel fish firmly inserted in ear, perhaps their stories would be both familiar and eerily strange. If SF is to retain the sense of wonder that is its hallmark, we need to look beyond its alleged home in the US, and to seek out and embrace the unfamiliar, the new-to-us, the wonderful, enchanting other. This anthology is a small start in that direction. Let's hope the enlargement of our SF view doesn't end here.

In Jamil Nasir's 'The Allah Stairs', we're treated to a revenge cycle with a difference. The narrator and his brother Laeth return to their home town in search of childhood memories. They seek out their old friend Laziz Tarash, whose father died in the street, screaming about monkeys, when they were boys. The story generates a sense of nostalgia, rather than threat, and even when the exotic happens, it's hard to believe anything bad will come of it. This gentle journey of reminiscence, however, is doomed to end badly, and in a shocking and unexpected way that provides a perfect echo for the ending. Mood is beautifully handled in this piece, and it draws the reader in so gently yet irresistibly that the suspensions of disbelief is never disturbed.

'Biggest Baddest Bomoh', by Tunku Halim, gave me perhaps my biggest, baddest culture shock. It's not that I'm unaccustomed to conventional Horror stories being, in general, sexist to the point of misogyny; you can't read slush and not have a special mile-thick spot on your skin for that kind of thing. It's more that this story carries no sense at all that the narrator is acting, well, badly, in asking again and again for dates he's not going to get. Sexual harassment, much? He gets his comeuppance--of course--albeit in an unforeseen fashion, but there's a strong sense throughout that the object of his passion is just that: an object to serve the story and his hubris.

Then there's the multiple adjectives. "The next morning found him gazing into those warm, dreamy eyes, longing to caress her gleaming, shoulder-length hair, yearning to press his lips against her fair, smooth cheeks--not to mention those full, cherry-red lips." This is the sort of overblown writing that Western readers currently won't accept, although, conversely, it seems a lot of Western writers haven't yet realised this.

Short version: it's a Horror story. Enough said.

This brings us to my favourite story in this anthology, Aliette de Bodard's 'The Lost Xuyan Bride'. It's no secret that I like de Bodard's writing; after all, I chose her story 'As the Wheel Turns' to head up Issue 6 of GUD. It's also of course a story by a European, which might bias me in its favour, not through parochialism but simply because its themes, tropes, and approach are more accessible to me. Perhaps I even identify with the lost, just-getting-through-the-days private detective, an archetype some GUD readers might recognise from my story 'Sundown' in Issue 0. Whatever the reason(s), I thoroughly enjoyed this melancholy tale. Set in an alternative America, the story follows the private eye narrator as he searches for He Zhen, a young bride-to-be who has fled her arranged marriage and her home, leaving behind her bullet holes and blood.

It's a murky trail, inevitably, and there's much for the detective to learn about He Zhen and her passion for a culture other than her own before he finds her and learns of the choice she has made, a choice that stands for all the compromises women have to make in worlds ruled by men. A fine story that uses its world-building to calculated effect.

By contrast, 'Excerpt From a Letter by a Social-Realist Aswang', by Kristin Mandigma is a lot of fun. It isn't a story as such, nor is it a slice-of-life piece. It is, as it says, a letter. It won't necessarily generate laughter to the extent of rolling around on the floor, but more of a knowing smirk. I wasn't sure what an aswang was when I began reading, yet, when I looked up the term later, felt that my ignorance hadn't materially affected my enjoyment of this piece. What more do you need to know, than, "In this scheme of things, whether or not one eats dried fish or (imperialist) babies for sustenance should be somewhat irrelevant." Those who dabbled in left-wing politics in their youth will probably get the most out of it, provided they have the capacity to laugh at themselves--not, I admit, a customary combination.

'An Evening in the City Coffeehouse, with Lydia on my Mind' takes us into Alexsandar Ziljak's vision of the future of pornography. Forget actors; in the future, anyone who's good-enough looking can be a porn star. The narrator sends a swarm of 'flies' to film them without their knowledge, and assembles the footage into clips he can sell. No, he's not a very nice person. He is, however, in trouble, as his business partner has been murdered after trying to blackmail a porn subject who turned out to be in a very exotic line of prostitution, and he fears he's next.

Quite apart from feeling only glad that the narrator's death is imminent, I had a couple of problems with this story. Firstly, I misread it at a crucial stage, and thought the narrative was discussing how the narrator proposed escaping from Zagreb and the hit squad, when in fact he was only describing how he puts his pornography together. I'm not convinced it was entirely my fault, either; the story is in present tense throughout, which makes it tricky to detect a shift into the past.

My second problem goes deeper, however. I simply had a problem with Lydia: the prostitute who services aliens. Yes, okay, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that aliens would want to have sex with humans; after all, many humans have sex with a fascinating variety of animals--horses, sheep, chickens, and so on. It's often not a matter of who (or what) but how. Accepted. However, do sheep shaggers seek out the sheep who's considered the most attractive by the other sheep? Are chicken standards of beauty used when selecting the sex-object from the farmyard? That's the bit I find difficult to believe; that it matters so much what Lydia looks like. Because, of course, Lydia is beautiful: "beautiful face, sensual lips, long and shiny blonde hair cascading over her shoulders." This is a man's story, after all. I can't help finding this a failure of imagination along the lines of Clarke's in 'Childhood's End', where, in an allegedly perfectly equal world, women still find themselves doing the cooking.

Anil Menon's 'Into the Night' is a story of the culture clash that ensues when widower Kallikulam Ramaswamy Iyer moves from Mumbai to live with his daughter on the island of Meridian in the Canaries, "going to a land of cannibals for the sake of their bright-eyed girl who only thirty-seven years ago had begun a mustard seed as modest as an ant's fart." Bereft without his wife, who effectively acted as his biographical memory, Kallikulam is old and waiting to die. The futuristic culture baffles him. When he expresses his interest in elephants via the 'hearsees' used to connect everyone with everyone, he discovers he's invited a young man sitting nearby to engage in a sexual act. This incident mirrors one in his daughter's childhood, for which a young man was beaten, but even after this experience, he's unable to view the past any differently from how he saw it when it was the present. He's a fish out of water: a lost soul who only survives because he's prickly.

"What is the solution?" he once asked the Flamingo in Tamil, "if the ones I love hate what I love?"

This story's view seems to be that there is no solution, save to make the journey of the title. A valid viewpoint, but not a comforting one.

'Elegy' by Melanie Fazie is also about loss, in this case the narrator's loss of her two children, who (may) have been taken by one of the trees near to her house, perhaps as a punishment. "I don't know how Benjamin failed to see the two masks set in the bark. Two faces drawn in the higher part of the trunk, just below the nodes of your main branches, as if carved from the same wood." The children's father's response to their loss is drink and denial; the mother pleads desperately, endlessly, for the children's return, even if they are changed by their experience. Yet the reader can never be sure if this is what has happened to the children at all.

The collection ends with Zoran Zivkovic's 'Compartments', a story set on a train that may or may not be allegorical. Zivkovic's work is familiar to me from the pages of Interzone, in the dim and distant days when I subscribed to that magazine. I always found his work inaccessible; it seemed hard-edged with determination to keep out any trace of human sensibility. So it is here, too, I think--and I confess I gave up trying to read this piece about fourteen pages in. So all I can tell you is there's a beautiful woman (of course) who is judged for her response to a man's sexual interest in her (of course) and a story-within-the-story about a wax button that wasn't.

This anthology is certainly eclectic. It's sad, funny, moving, and infuriating by turns. Tidhar has given us a mere taste of the powder on top of the iceberg of the offshore SF that's out there, but it's a taste that surely will have us searching for more. This anthology is a must-have, more, a must-read, a must-share-it-with-your-friends, even. Let's all lift our heads out of the trough of the usual fare and seek out something different, something new, something wonderful.

The gorgeous cover art is by Randall McDonald, and it wraps onto the back, too. Lovely design there by Apex.

Lavie Tidhar's work appears in GUD Issue 0 (The Infinite Monkeys Protocol), GUD Issue 1 (Hello Goodbye), and GUD Issue 6 (The Last Butterfly).