Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Review: Albedo One Magazine (Issue 39)
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.