Short Fiction Review #19: Fantasy & Science Fiction 60th Anniversary Issue
Fans of Tom Waits are often divided into two camps: those who favor the early boozy Kerouac, be-bop inspired crooner of life’s derelicts and losers up until he transmogrified beginning with the “Heartattack and Vine” album and “crossed over” into Kurt Weill cacaphonous orator of the absurd; fans of the later period sometimes disdain the earlier, and vice versa, despite the obvious connections. Me, I’m in the third camp as a huge admirer of both milieus. (I suppose there’s a further quarter of people who can’t stand Waits at all, but, much like the folks who still tiresomely maintain Dylan hasn’t done anything since his protest days, aren’t worth serious attention.)
A similar kind of division exists in genre. Those who regale the Golden Age of pulp when men were men and women’s curves were accentuated by tight-fitting space suits and can’t stand all this new weird, new wave, fabulist whatever it’s being called, stuff that frequently has a radical socio-political feminist agenda (see, for example, Dave Truesdale) as opposed to those who welcome a reinvigoration of stale conventions (me, for example).
Then there are those whose eclectic tastes recognize and appreciate the connections of the old and new. This brings us to the 60th Anniversary Issue (October/November) of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which blends both the newer literary stylings as well as its pulp antecedents in celebrating its longevity (no mean trick, these days) as a classic genre magazine.
The cover reflects the magazine’s continued commitment to pulp tradition: a sleek silver rocket ship landing on the moon that could have been drawn in the 1950s that has nothing to do with the contents (a similar variation graces the cover of the latest Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction retrospective anthology) and which is also odd because the stories for the most part emphasize the first part of the title (which I think typical of most issues) over tales of interplanetary travel. Of course, these days, what’s fantasy and what’s science fiction tends to get murky. For example, earlier in the magazine’s history, Kate Wilhelm’s “Shadows on the Wall of the Cave” (allusions to classical figures such as Plato something the pulps did frequently as a nudge-nudge way to imply respectability; these days, it’s more hip to reference punk rockers and pop culture icons) that hinges on the intersections of multiple universes would have been considered fantastic nonsense; these days, it’s a working premise for theoretical physicists.
Wherever you loyalties lie, you’re going to find something to like. Fair warning though, if your taste leans more towards the less-than-conventional, you’re going to have to be patient. Things start off with “The Far Shore” by Elizabeth Hand. Now, normally I love Hand, and while this tale has the atmospherics you might expect, it doesn’t take much effort to figure out where it is going. A gay man, recently fired as a ballet company instructor, takes up a friend’s offer to leave the city and stay by himself at a camp in Tuonela, an wilderness resort area in Nova Scotia that is also the name of a Jean Sibelius tone poem, “The Swan of Tuonela,” based on a Finnish rebirth myth. Of course, there’s also this famous ballet about a swan. So when the protagonist finds a mysterious naked young man in the woods during migratory season, well, you know what this is leading to.
While the quality of Hand’s prose is levels above most anything you might have found in the pulps, Albert E. Cowdrey revels in the conventions of the style, complete with a mediocre academic with a puzzle to solve, a tall tale involving a pair of Western bandits, and a Twilight Zone type ending that doesn’t aim so high as to be ironical as just kind of creepy. Much the same applies to Ron Goulart’s, “I Waltzed with a Zombie,” which is funnier, but also is not much more than you’d expect with a title like that. (Perhaps I should mention a one page length attempt at a bad pun that is credited as “compliments of Ron Partridge,” called “Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot – LXXI, about which I can only say is not much of a hoot.)
Joe Haldeman treads similar pulp cliches in a tribute to Lovecraftian horror mixed with a science fictional setting in “Never Blood Enough.” A xenobiologist on a planet outpost is called upon to solve a murder; thanks to help from the local bartender (I kid you not), they uncover what somehow or other everyone else seemed to miss, even though it shouldn’t have been hard to find, at least if the author was playing fair; dire consequences ensue. Each of the stories in this collection are prefaced with some recollection by the authors of their relationships with the magazine, usually their first sales. This is the one story where the introduction was more interesting than the story itself. Haldeman is author of one of the classics in the field, The Forever War, and I wish him a quick recovery from his recent hospitalization, so it pains me to say that this is one of those stories that I tend to doubt would have ever have seen print, certainly not in a magazine as prestigious as this, if it didn’t have Haldeman’s deservedly reputable name attached to it.
Robert Silverberg also aims for a little Lovecraft in “The Way The Wove the Spells in Sippulgar,” with more success. The tale is set in his Majipoor universe, a sort of third-world interstellar backwater in which sorcery co-exists with an odd combination of high and low technologies. The narrator is a practical merchant who reluctantly sets off on a journey to discover the whereabouts of his wife’s missing brother, a hustler involved in a series of shaky business deals. The clues lead to a religious cult and while the Lovecraftian moment that reveals the fate of the lost relative struck me as hokey and almost disappointing given the considerable detail of the set-up, I liked an ending in which while there can be no definite resolution to life’s question, what we know will have to suffice.
Where things really start to pick up is with Carol Emshwiller’s “Logicist,” a Bradburian depiction of a teacher tasked with taking her class to play near a battle going on so the children can learn directly about war (not nearly as preposterous as it should be; during the first Battle of Bull Run — or Manasas, depending on which part of the country you’re from — civilians took picnic luncheons to witness what they mistakenly thought was going to be a route of the rebel forces). The “enemy” doesn’t act as expected, and attacks the class, leading the teacher into a contemplation of what is being learned and what are the correct moral choices in a reality he fails to recognize as absurd. Much as we do in the “real” world.
M. Rickert’s “The President’s Book Tour” is also a venture into an absurdist alternate reality that reflects our own absurdist social conventions:
Before the war, our village was green, and we remember the variety of green, the green of apples, the green of long grass, short grass, sweet grass…We did not think of it as a weapon…The President makes several TV appearances to promote his new book. “We made a strategic choice to destroy the vegetation,” he says. “This was a compassionate decision, and history will reflect that.”
A result of this ecological disaster is the village children are born deformed. Two of the most normal, and almost bizarrely attractive, are a couple. But then the president arrives on his book tour, and the female attracts his eye to become one of his wives. But her motivation in entering the match is not love. Meanwhile, the deformed children are entering puberty and no one can control their natural urges. Deformity wantonly spreads, both physically and situationally.
Similarly, in “Blocked,” Geoff Ryman’s protagonist faces a choice between following his adopted family into underground exile as protection against an alien invasion and his instinct that the government is lying about any danger and that it might be better to stay put. Surreally set in Sihanoukville (Sihanouk being the controversial Cambodian leader admired by some for keeping the country out of war in Vietnam and his seemingly genuine rapport with his people , but criticized for his oppression of dissent that arguably led to the rise of the brutal Khmer Rouge), Ryman seems to be saying that no choice is absolutely good or bad, that” … even now after nine years of peace, [there are] stark ruined walls with gates that go nowhere” and that “We must always move on and if we can’t leave home, it drives us mad. Blocked and driven mad, we do something new.” Though new may not necessarily mean better.
At first, I thought Robert Reed might also be treading in trite pulpish waters because his story is titled “Mermaid.” But, while it does concern the fabled creature, Reed puts a nicely drawn new spin on what could have been the same old, same old:
“You called me your mermaid. In the beginning, remember?..Even though I didn’t come from the ocean.”
“You didn’t,” I agreed.
“‘Into the prince’s kingdom, you have come, and I am your prince, and we’ll live in perfect joy from this day out.’
That’s what you told me.”
I said, “It hasn’t been all that joyful. I’m sorry.”
A fairy tale that doesn’t end happily ever after.
There is a sort of happy ending, or at least an acceptance of ending, in “Another Life” by Charles Oberndorf, in which resurrection technology is readily available, but with some loss of memory and the need for rehabilitation. The narrator is attending a lover’s decision to let nature finally run its course and is recounting the consequences of his first love in his first life as a soldier. For young men, particularly those who have yet to live more than one lifetime, love is not always what it seems to be. Something that usually takes a while to figure out, by which time you are an old man. And, in this case, a considerably old man.
The centerpiece is the Lucius Shepherd novella “Halloween Town” (Shepherd also contributes his always interesting crumudgeon take on movies in his regular film column — he even actually sort of likes the new Star Trek reboot.) Like the Silverberg, the denouement, in which our hero fends off creepy creatures, is a bit of a letdown after the considerable set up. A social misfit, cursed with the ability to see into people’s true souls thanks to a blow to the head, seeks refuge in Halloween Town, a claustrophobic geographical cloister founded by a rich aging former rock star. Our hero gets romantically involved with the rock star’s wife, who is seemingly immune to his perceptive abilities, and a series of disasters ensues leading up to the humans vs. creatures Roger Corman scene. Also like Silverburg, there’s a little more going on than gee, we escaped the horror (or, gee, we didn’t escape the horror, woe is we). Love is strange once the blush is off the bloom, and you can’t go home again, but maybe the answer is you have to create your own personal kingdom to survive the kingdom’s of others.
My personal picks here are Emshwiller, Reed, Ryman and Rickert, with Shepherd, Silverberg and Oberndorf not far behind. But, really, overall, something for everybody, which I imagine was the point.