By Nic Clarke
The future is, as usual, bleak. The April issue of Interzone (# 203) contains no less than three stories that fall under the broad heading of "future dystopia". Karen Fishler’s "Among the Living" has a neatly disquieting premise — experienced but aged soldiers are given new bodies so they can continue to serve their country, and kill foreigners. But the emotional impact of the story is somewhat undermined by its length, and by the unnecessary extra moral sting in the tail, which overplays an already stark scenario. "Ten With a Flag", by Joseph Paul Haines, meanwhile, is a succinct but ultimately predictable exploration of prenatal predestination.
Easily the most effective and original of the bunch — and my own pick of the month — is "The American Dead", by Jay Lake. From its opening lines it is the issue’s stylistic standout, the present-tense immediacy of the narrative offsetting the languid heat of the environment:
"Americans are all rich, even their dead. Pobrecito knows this because he spends the hottest parts of the day in the old Cementerio Americano down by the river. The water is fat and lazy while the pipes in the colonia drip only rust brown as the eyes of Santa Marguerite. […] He sits within a drooping tree which fights with life and watches the flies make dark, wriggling rafts out on the water."
The colonia’s inhabitants live under the repressive rule of a cadre of priests and their enforcers. The American graves represent young Pobrecito’s dreams of escape — of prosperity, and the beauty and ease that he believes will accompany it — which he shares with others by selling pictures torn from a hidden cache of pornographic magazines. But there are hints that America, fallen victim to some unspecified apocalypse, is now unobtainable to outsiders for reasons other than just geography and economic opportunity.
Lake resists the temptation to spell out the details of his world too directly, choosing instead to filter it through colloquialisms and imagery drawn from Pobrecito’s experience and surroundings. The result is a tantalizingly spare picture wrapped up in Biblical metaphor and the affecting tragedy of the characters. How did this state of affairs come about? Does the ending suggest that change is imminent? Questions about sex, society, and the sexualization of society — in particular, how women are continually made into Eves — are raised without hectoring, and without any attempt to provide programmatic answers.
Another strong offering, markedly different in tone and style, is Elizabeth Bear’s "Wane". This is a detective story in an alternate history setting: an early twentieth-century world where the US never gained independence, the Aztec Empire still exists, and the moon is the color of copper. It has an engaging lead character in Lady Abigail Irene Garrett, and a flavor of both steampunk (there’s a dirigible) and court-politicking high fantasy. The prose is ornate, with an emphasis on intricate description, but not overly so.
Also notable is Paul Di Filippo’s "The Furthest Schorr: 32 Fugues Based on the Paintings of Todd Schorr", a collection of vignettes inspired by the titular artist’s work that appear spread throughout the magazine. They showcase a wide range of settings and subgenres, from the exploration of alien planets to a greedy child who summons up spirits in quest of an endless supply of chocolate milk. All share the same fundamental structure, however. Each one ends with an ironic, humorously-nasty twist. My personal favorite was "The Torment of Sammy Squashbrains", a splendidly creepy snippet about a group of children invited to a Halloween party thrown by the author of their favorite books.
By way of contrast, the two stories I most enjoyed this past month at Strange Horizons were a pair of modernist contemporary fantasies. "The Flying Woman" by Meghan McCarron (20 March) is sad, lovely fairytale about a love that dare not speak its name. The narrative is sparse and fractured, structured as a series of snapshot episodes — some retelling events, some simply reflective:
"The Flying Woman in Profile. […] If the image were a daguerreotype, she would seem mysterious. If it were a bust, she would seem noble. If it were a holy card, she would be a saint. But the image is a photograph on my wall, and when people see it, they all say, Who is that? She looks so far away."
Nia Stephens’ "Every Angel is Terrifying" (10 April) is an evocative piece about a dying artist in New York. Like "The Flying Woman", the style is impressionistic and the structure thematic rather than linear. It uses the images of angels to personify abstracts — Death, Beauty, Home — and thereby link together the narrator’s recollections of the dead man.
Sybil’s Garage #3 (March 2006) (sensesfive.com) is a small-press ‘zine of speculative fiction and poetry. Most of its stories wear their genre elements lightly — if at all — and the trend is towards the brief and intriguing mood piece, rather than the intricately plotted epic. My favorite was Cat Rambo’s "Lonesome Trail", a succinct, magical transmutation of poetry-writing into a night journey through a luminous desert valley. "So That Her High-Born Kinsmen Came" by Yoon Ha Lee is a haunting glance into the mind of a nursing mother. Eric Gregory’s "The Redaction of Flight 5766" begins as the mundane story of a disillusioned airport security worker, but soon becomes something else entirely — and has a fascinating, ambiguous ending.
Two other unusual and funny pieces stand out. "Indentured Advertisements" by Gary J. Beharry is one half of a dialogue between an advert and its target, in which the ad claims to be an indentured servant, pressed into service by "them" and forced to sell liquor against its will. Brian Conn’s "Six Questions about the Sun" is a gloriously inventive alternate cosmology in which the sun is an ambivalent presence in the sky, fuelled by human beings’ blood, sweat and tears (fed to it by flocks of tiny white birds), and longs to lay down "the burden of sustaining life":
"Some thinkers have proposed that what the sun wants is a state of darkness, coolness and peace. […] What it wants is not precisely death, for nothing prevents it from directing its poisons at the birds that bring it fuel, and so destroying itself. No, it yearns rather for the bottom of the sea, where the salty water of life surrounds it, yet where only the most solitary creatures go, where movement and noise are minimal."