Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Lit Geek
  Book Reviews by James Maxey
December 2008

Perfect Circle by Carlos J. Cortes

The premise of Perfect Circle, the debut novel by Carlos J. Cortes, is a real grabber: The International Mining Corporation sets up a drilling platform in the heart of the Congo to sink the world's deepest mine shaft to seek out the source of a magnetic anomaly detected by their satellite. The story opens in the heart of the action as a rough team of drill workers bring up a core from miles beneath the earth, opening the sample to reveal the damaged remains of an artifact made by a higher technology than anything our world is currently capable of producing. Adding to the weirdness, the mine shaft turns out to be right on top of the fabled elephant graveyard, and a camouflaged pygmy with high tech spy gear is haunting the forest around the platform sending messages to his mysterious superiors. Toss in the CIA, a fair deal of corporate spying, a mysterious monk with four thumbs (two on each hand), and a sordid family history that haunts the protagonist, Paul Reese, and you have all the elements for a page-turning, hard SF mystery.

It's a good thing the premise is so powerful, however, because the execution can be somewhat plodding. Cortes is a one trick pony when it comes to revealing information: Every important plot element is revealed through meetings. The IMC board meets to discuss their discovery. The CIA meets to discuss the IMC board meeting. Paul Reese meets with his security team to discuss who the CIA spy is in the IMC meeting. Easily two thirds of this book consists of men sitting around tables, talking about what they know, how they learned it, and what they're going to do about it. At one point, Paul Reese is going to meet a mysterious benefactor who has knowledge of what's under the earth. The scene builds to the grand revelation, then cuts from the actual encounter to the CIA meeting to discuss what Paul might have learned. Immediacy isn't Cortes' strong suit.

When the characters aren't sitting around info-dumping, the actual story is fairly satisfying. The solution to the mystery of the high tech sphere buried in the Congo is surprising and imaginative. I also appreciated the author's obvious knowledge of the science and engineering required to make this story plausible, and his forays into African cultures felt real to me. Ultimately, the strengths of the story overcome the flaws to make this worth reading.

The Living Dead edited by John Joseph Adams
Spicy Slipstream Stories edited by Nick Mamatas & Jay Lake

Two anthologies of note arrived in the mail recently. In tone and approach they have little in common, but both are worthy of space on any reader's shelf.

The Living Dead is a reprint anthology with a zombie theme. I'm somewhat indifferent to zombies, so this wouldn't normally be a book I'd be drawn to except for one thing: John Joseph Adams has assembled what may be the most impressive list of authors ever put together in a single anthology. You've got Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Kelly Link, Clive Barker, Dan Simmons, plus a story co-written by Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg. There are no duds or filler here. The stories range from the darkly humorous, such as Catherine Cheeks "She's Taking Her Tits to the Grave," to the heart-breaking "This Year's Class Picture" by Dan Simmons. There are complex mind-puzzles like Kelly Link's "Some Zombie Contingency Plans," and outright, shudder-inducing horror in stories like "Dead Like Me" by Adam-Troy Castro. This anthology belongs on the shelf of anyone who likes good short stories, whether they're interested in zombies or not.

The only downside to The Living Dead is that it's a reprint collection. I'd read at least a half dozen of these stories before and given the impressive list of authors, I can imagine that there are some readers out there who've read even more. This is not a problem for the next anthology, Spicy Slipstream Stories. This is a collection of all original material assembled with a rather quixotic goal: these stories blend together elements of pulp detective and horror tales with a more modern slipstream approach to storytelling, with a tongue-in-cheek take on both.

As editors Nick Mamatas and Jay Lake admit in their introduction, slipstream is a difficult to pin down genre -- its main claim to being a genre is that it isn't a genre. Slipstream stories draw on fantasy and science fiction elements but possess a certain literary pretentiousness. For me, a defining element of a slipstream story is that it's a story whose ending I don't understand. Mamatas and Lake state in their introduction that their goal for this anthology was the "make fun of all things slipstream," while at the same time paying homage to some of the great writing that emerged from the pulps, writing now dismissed as the works of hacks yet still capable of producing moments of brilliance.

The anthology opens with the most direct parody in the collection, "The Call Girl Detective" by Lori Selke, a send-up of Kelly Link's "The Girl Detective." If you're familiar with the source material, you can't help but laugh. Call girls and vixens get a lot of play throughout the book. In "Heroes Welcome" by John Bowker, we get to find out the fates of all those women that the square-jawed hero uses and literally discards, handing them a parachute and tossing them out of his plane. "Sequined with a Vengeance" by Lisa Mantchev is a story of dragons and strippers, one of whom has a literal heart of gold.

The most ambitious story of the collection is probably "The Fantastical Acquisition of the Sword of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna" by Angeline Hawkes. This is the tale of two undercover agents on a mission to recover the eponymous sword. It's got just about everything a pulp story should have -- magical artifacts, a woman tied to a bed by a sleazy captor, secret Nazi plots, double-crosses and cross-dressers. The most slip-stream story in the collection is penned by David Schwartz in "Proof of Zero," a tale of secret math-worshipping cultists that is strongly written yet utterly bewildering.

For me, the most well-rounded story in the book comes from Carrie Vaughn, "Little Black Dress." While the story does have some pulp elements -- the protagonist is a heart-broken hooker named Shirl; the villain is a man who trades in magic gems -- it succeeds in its impressive blend of symbolism with straight-forward, old-fashioned storytelling that stands on its own, something more than a parody or homage, just a finely crafted story that made sense to me on both an intellectual and emotional level.

Finally, the editors open the book with a collection of great lines from pulp fiction, and I feel it's appropriate to close this review with my favorite line from these stories, the opening to "Wild Tchoupitoulas" by Chris Nakashima-Brown:

"Bob Denver," said Captain Betty, "is going to be murdered by assassins from FEMA. Deal with it, get your ass over here, and oil my back."

Read more by James Maxey


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