Letter From The Editor - Issue 55 - February 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
December 2016

Title: The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016
Editor: Karen Joy Fowler
Series Editor: John Joseph Adams
Publisher: Mariner Books

This year’s entry in the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy series contains (as did last year’s) an impressive and intriguing array of twenty authors: Sofia Samatar, Kelly Link, Adam Johnson, Catherynne M. Valente, Kij Johnson, S. L. Huang, Liz Ziemska, Dexter Palmer, Rachel Swirsky, Julian Mortimer Smith, Salman Rushdie, Nick Wolven, Maria Dahvana Headley, Dale Bailey, Will Kaufman, Charlie Jane Anders, Sam J. Miller, Seth Dickinson, Vandana Singh and Ted Chiang. I think calling this roster impressive requires little explanation. These are some of the most talented, versatile and imaginative practitioners of sf/f/h today. But I say “intriguing,” because some of these writers, like Dexter Palmer (whose novel Version Control I recently reviewed in this space) are not normally associated with the short form, and also because in some cases (e.g. Julian Mortimer Smith) they were simply new to me, and I was excited to make their literary acquaintance. Isn’t that one of the most thrilling aspects of anthologies, the joyous discovery of gifted storytellers of every ilk and inclination?

My overall impression of this selection of stories is very favorable. There are five that blew me away, and I would unhesitatingly count these as not only among the best of the year, but also as some of these writers’ best efforts. Catherynne M. Valente has, with the chilling “Planet Lion,” perhaps created the ultimate future colonization story, which is an accomplishment indeed in a field that hasn’t shied away from genocidal considerations, going back to Robert Silverberg’s “Sundance” and Nancy Kress’s more recent follow-up “Eaters,” and others. Like “Sundance,” “Planet Lion”’s multi-point-of-view depiction of events taking a terrible turn on an alien planet is told in alternating styles that reveal a writer at the peak of her powers. The human logs are equal parts scientific jargon and quotidian banter, while the description of the horrific effects of humans’ actions on the planet’s lion-like beings is conveyed through aggressively experimental, metronomically hammering prose, as for example:

One lion hunts alone in the steelveldt Vergulde Draeck. As well she hunts with every other lion in the watering hole. She hunts with one lion called Thulium. She hunts with one lion called Bromide. She hunts with one lion called Manganese. She hunts with one lion called Nickel who sired her and one lion called Niobium who bore her and one lion called Uranium who carried one lion called Yttrium in her pouch until she could devour the smallgod and enlist with the pride. In the watering hole every lion swims with every other lion. Every lion swallows the heart of every other lion. Every lion hunts in the den of every other lion’s brain. Two hundred thousand lions hunt in the steelveldt Vergulde Draeck with one lion called Yttrium. Ten million hunt in the watering hole. The watering hole has enough water for everyone.

Liz Ziemska impressed me greatly with her finely constructed narrative of a woman becoming “The Mushroom Queen,” a dazzling combination of precise, scientifically-informed imagery and surreal metaphysics. (“Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies, the reproductive organs, of mycelium. They feed on rotting things, like rabbit poo, and troubled relationships.”) I’ll be on the lookout for Ziemska’s work going forward.

Maria Dahvana Headley’s brutal, unrelenting “The Thirteen Mercies” tells of engineered soldiers, trained in the dark arts of “reversed” mercies, living out their final days in a hellish prison of jungle and rain. Headley has established herself as capable of effortless pyrotechnics and inventive fecundity in her stories of recent years. Her gift for mythology-imbued fantasy is here delivered in an existentially hefty, grueling prose missile, one that blasts off with the premise, “There’s never been a world that isn’t a world at war. That’s the truest thing we know,” and follows it through to its most cacophonous detonation.

In “Things You Can Buy for a Penny,” Will Kaufman takes one of fantasy’s oldest tropes—be careful what you wish for, particularly when supernatural entities are involved—and weaves it into an exquisitely sly and eerie spell of temptation and tragedy.

Charlie Jane Anders is in fine form indeed with “Rat Cather’s Yellow,” a touching examination of the realities of dementia as made concrete through the fantasies of its sufferers.

Other stories that moved me include Adam Johnson’s “Interesting Facts,” a thoughtful examination of what it means to be present in one’s life; S. L. Huang’s “By Degrees and Dilatory Time,” a probing vision of adaptation to sensory rewiring; Julian Mortimer Smith’s “Headshot,” a sharp investigation of democracy and warfare as lensed through social media; Sam J. Miller’s harrowing alternate Stonewall Uprising, “The Heat of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History;” and the impossible post-human choices faced by Seth Dickinson’s “Three Bodies at Mitanni.” There’s a lot of other solid work here: Salman Rushdie’s historically-informed narrative sails along with prose as elegant as we’ve come to expect, Kelly Link’s strange vampire odyssey is thought-provoking and unexpected in the ways she excels, and so on.

As you’ve probably gathered from this review, this anthology skews towards the literary, the unconventional, towards oblique storytelling and experiments in form, and not all of them will resonate or even satisfy every reader. Some of these stories, like Rachel Swisky’s profligately nutty “Tea Time,” really demand quite a bit—but they deliver generously, in turn. No doubt this is a reflection of Karen Joy Fowler’s aesthetic sensibility: Her own stories are replete with misdirections and delicate ambivalences, and her emphasis on challenging, provocative material for this compilation isn’t surprising in that light. Fowler once wrote that she had “no compunction regarding my contract with the reader, to use a phrase I hear often in writing groups.” For many of these startling and delirious tales, it will be up to you, Curious Reader, to draw up your own contract.

Title: What the #@&% Is That?: The Saga Anthology of the Monstrous and the Macabre
Editors: John Joseph Adams & Douglas Cohen
Publisher: Saga Press

These twenty stories, perfectly described by the book’s subtitle, form one of my favorite original anthologies in some time. The irresistible linking conceit is simply that each story contains a variation of the line, “What the #@&% is that,” the appearance of which readers will probably try to spot, sportsmanlike, in the way of Hitchcock cameos. The contributing authors, many of them masters of the twisted and tenebrous, are Laird Barron, Amanda Downum, Scott Sigler, Simon R. Green, Desirina Boskovich, Isabel Yap, Maria Dahvana Headley, Christopher Golden, John Langan, D. Thomas Minton, Seanan McGuire, Grady Hendrix, Jonathan Maberry, Gemma Files, Nancy Holder, Adam-Troy Castro, Terence Taylor, Tim Pratt, An Owomoyela and Rachel Swirsky, and Alan Dean Foster.

If you derive any sort of pleasure from the grotesque, the fanciful, the freakish and unnatural, buy this book and, better still, gift it to an innocent friend along with the gentle promise of some fun, haunting yarns. The friendship may not survive, but you’ll still feel pride in your dark deed of dissemination.

I have six top picks and two close runners-up, with my response to the rest of the stories ranging from enthusiasm to an acknowledgement of technical professionalism.

Laird Barron’s “Mobility” is the perfect anthology opener. It is an explosion. “Life is hard in forty million B.C. beneath the apple-green heavens,” we are told, and a few paragraphs later Bryan is ordering baked tuna “at the grill where Lovecraft had eaten whenever Weird Tales sent a check, which was sufficiently infrequent to qualify as a special occasion,” and we know we’re off to a special occasion of our own. Any kind of plot synopsis would defy coherence. What we have here is an uncanny, utterly mind-stretching blend of cosmic terror, Grand Guignol and bio-body-horror. Which is another way of saying it’s a story the effect of which is best experienced, not described, and about which we might reasonably and affectionately think, “What the #@&% was that?” Also, Barron gets a prize for his use of “In for a penny.”

Amanda Downum’s “Fossil Heart,” in which regret and monsters fuel the actual rewinding of time, is a very strong follow-up, distressing and stylishly nightmarish. Ever wonder how angels, a cult leader, and pterodactyls might be related? Maria Dahvana Headley is here to clear things up with her wildly offbeat story “Little Widow.” Even the story’s most quiet passages contain pathos and satire in abundance: “We knew better than to stay Sister. When everyone died, we chose emergency new names. We looked at a magazine of celebrities and picked by dress color. I chose Natalie, and the other two Sisters, who were both sixteen, chose Reese and Scarlett. Then Reese took out a pair of scissors, cut off my hair, and hacked my dress up from the ground to my knees. She snipped her own hair so short, she could pass for a boy. Scarlett tore her hem into a miniskirt, and chopped her hair into a bob. We were all crying but we looked better.”

John Langan’s “What Is Lost, What Is Given Away,” which begins with a high school reunion and ends up somewhere far more terrifying, focuses as much on the ravages of time and the disillusions of adulthood as it does the bizarre, mathematically-generated predicament of Joel Martin, the character in whom the protagonist takes an interest. Langan’s long sentences, the careful diction and enveloping tone of his storytelling, are a welcome contrast to some of the anthology’s more rending, staccato narratives. Parts of the conversation in which the narrator probes the plausibility of Martin’s claims with innocently logical questions, and Martin’s furious responses, are also positively funny.

A story that truly managed to get under my skin, to adrenalize me with fear and deliver a galvanic surge of angst and otherworldly jitters, was Gemma Files’s “Ghost Pressure.” Mister Zukauskas, during hospice, begins to concern Jaiden, one of the “end-of-life doulas” caring for him, with his folklore-rooted claims that his wife, to whom he’s been married over sixty years, is not really a person but “this thing, called a Slogutė or a Naktinėja . . . that, like, comes through the keyhole and oppresses people while they’re sleeping.” Files’s ability to be so hair-raising in comparably few pages is admirable.

An Owomoyela and Rachel Swirsky offer a brilliantly claustrophobic and unflinching look at misogyny and the schisms of identity appropriation in the multi-layered “Whose Drowned Face Sleeps”: “I’m not her and she isn’t me. When I say ‘I,’ I might mean either one of us, but that’s not precise. I have no past, so I took her memories. I have no name, so I took her name. I had no body, but I have hers now, and she’s the one languishing in a puddle, snarling, hungry, and hating.”

Two more standouts. In Desirina Boskovich’s expertly modulated “Down in the Deep and the Dark,” a family gathering for a wedding gradually and unnervingly pivots into Shining-esque nefariousness—and beyond. In addition to its other virtues, Boskovich’s story takes the prize for best title-line riff, though if you’re inclined to religious offense you may disagree.

In Grady Hendrix’s punch-in-the-gut “The House That Love Built,” a man lives with two women who don’t appear to see each other. I’ll note too that my favorite opening is that of Adam-Troy Castro’s EC Comics-gory “Framing Mortensen”: “Once I had become wealthy enough to buy miracles, I used one to obtain the living head and shoulders of my longtime enemy, Philip Mortensen.”

The overriding spirit of this anthology, if there is one, might be summed up with this line from Headley’s story: “All us three were suffering badly from the pissed-offs.” The pissed-offs: almost sounds like a literary movement, doesn’t it? But not everything in this anthology is raucous or angry. There’s also soul-searching, tenderness and a very serious preoccupation—even when apparently distorted by fiction’s most extreme funhouse mirrors—with the quiet horrors of the real world.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro


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