There was much rejoicing this month as not one but two new issues of Prime’s Fantasy magazine found their way to me. While it didn’t quite bring me to the raptures of the debut issue, #2 (I haven’t had chance to read #3, yet, but it looks equally juicy) proved to be a strong selection of excellent story-telling. My personal favorite was, unsurprisingly, "Lessons with Miss Gray" by Theodora Goss, set in late nineteenth-century North Carolina. It follows five young girls from the various strata of Southern society through a summer of secret witchcraft classes with the eponymous, mysterious lady. The tone may be a little more lighthearted than certain other Goss stories, but the subject matter is just as wistful, at least by implication: the imaginative clarity of childhood slowly giving way to the harsher and more mundane facts of adult life.
Not, of course, that things are blissful even when viewed from within a child’s flight of fancy; rather, the fantastical trappings are simply a different means of seeing, and modulating understanding of, the world around them. Each girl nurtures her fondest hopes and her deepest insecurities in a greater or lesser degree of secrecy: Justina struggles with her grandmother’s madness, and fears that it may be hereditary; Melody, having learned of a college that admits black women, spends all her free time working to save money for her escape; ‘Mouse’ lives an itinerant, outcast life with her alcoholic father; and both Emma and Rose exist in the shadow of impossible parental expectations and consequent disappointments. The narration flits between characters, letting each girl express herself through the interplay of fantasy and reality in the way they perceive their lives:
In Boston, her mother had told her, it snowed all winter long. Rose imagined it as a city of perpetual silence, where the snow muffled all sounds except for the tinkling of bells and the bells of churches built from blocks of ice. Within the houses, also built of ice, sat ladies and gentlemen, calm, serene, with noses like icicles, conversing politely — probably about the weather. And none of them were as polite or precise as her mother or her aunt Catherine, the daughters of the Snow Queen. When they drove in their sleigh, drawn by a yak, they wore caps of egret feathers. If she were more like them, more like a Snow Princess, instead of — sunburnt and ungainly – would she, Rose wondered, love me then?
In the course of their lessons, Miss Gray offers them the chance to attain their hearts’ desires. A brief glimpse into the future, coupled with the abrupt ending of the witchcrafty summer, demonstrates the joys and the pains of this — while leaving much open-ended about the girls’ fates.
Also notable in this issue are Yoon Ha Lee’s "Nine Tales, Hundred Hearts" — about a hunter and his prey, drawing on Chinese fox folklore — and Paul Tremblay’s "It’s Against the Law to Feed the Ducks". The latter sees four-year-old Danny on holiday with his parents and baby sister in the backwoods of New Hampshire. While Danny enjoys the lake and the beautiful weather, and wonders why he may not feed the ducks and why fewer and fewer people come to the lake each day, his parents become increasingly distracted and alarmed by reports on the television, which he is not allowed to watch. Tremblay maintains his child’s-eye-view on events throughout (with very occasional slips, like the comment about "renegade feeders" which, while funny, didn’t ring true for the narrative voice), leaving the reader to imagine what world-shattering catastrophe might have taken place while Danny’s parents were trying their best to protect him from the news. It’s a very effective and disquieting ploy, although by definition there is no pay-off, as such.
Over at Strange Horizons, Amanda Downum’s "Flotsam" (14/8) is an evocative story of an artist with terminal cancer, torn between two ways to approach her death. The different paths are symbolized by two lovers in her life. On the one hand there is young, vibrant Siobhan, an admirer on the cusp of her own artistic career — a fleeting pleasure, perhaps, but well suited to celebrating the final months of her life. On the other there is Aoife, long-lost childhood sweetheart who also happens to be a mermaid, a siren — and who offers immortality beneath the waves. The choice and what it represents are dealt with starkly but sensitively, and I found that it resonated long after the first reading. In addition, Downum has a gift for description, and her mermaid is pleasingly earthy (or watery, perhaps):
Her hair is a coppery tangle, streaked with verdigris, snarled with sea wrack. Skin like moonlight, like nacre, luminous, iridescent. But as she moves closer, Rebecca can see the shimmer of scales, the mud and blood and mildew streaking the white dress. The smell of moss and brine fills her nose.
The October issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction carries a number of substantial pieces. Some are hit-and-miss, but there are two stand-outs. In "Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy)" Geoff Ryman imagines Sith, a surviving child of the titular dictator. Living in bored luxury amid her father’s ill-gotten gains, she is selfish, petty, and starved of human contact, and tells herself she prefers it that way:
Sith liked tiny shiny things that had no memory. She hated politics. She refused to listen to the news. Pol Pot’s beautiful daughter wished the current leadership would behave decently, like her dad always did. To her. […]
Sith shopped. Her driver was paid by the government and always carried an AK-47, but his wife, the housekeeper, had no idea who Sith was. The house was full of swept marble, polished teak furniture, iPods, Xboxes, and plasma screens.
Sith’s comfortable, sheltered, contentedly-ignorant world is rocked by the sudden appearance — or, perhaps, her belated awareness — of the ghosts of her father’s victims. Their photographs turn up in her printer tray, their sobbing voices call to her from her mobile phones, demanding her attention. Although she resists them at first, she can no longer hide from the murky truths underlying her life, and that of the shiny, modern Cambodia around her. Her own redemption, she finds, can only be found by making amends; the dead must be remembered and honored, not ignored in the pursuit of progress, if there is to be any peace with the past.
In the same issue, "Pop Squad", by Paolo Bacigalupi, presents a starkly dystopic future in which anti-aging "rejoo" treatments have brought effective immortality to the human race. The flip side of a death rate of almost zero, of course, is the specter of overpopulation in a world already struggling for resources; rejoo drugs are therefore formulated to cause sterility in their subjects. Fertility is still possible, if one stops taking the drugs, but it is a crime, punishable by labor camp for the parent(s) — usually a mother — and immediate execution for the offspring. As a result, children are no longer legally born, and parenting is an underground lifestyle clearly analogous to extreme drug addiction in our own world: a squalid, hidden existence cut off from all social support, including any access to rejoo, with a backdrop of constant fear.
Our narrator is a cop responsible for investigating and putting a stop to illegal breeding; a man firmly committed to the system and utterly ruthless in upholding the law. In a world of universal immortality, finite lives are futile, without value; our narrator cannot understand why anyone would wish to give birth to and raise children who will never get rejoo, who can only, one day, die. Fecundity is something terrifying; he sees only horror and filth in the lives of the mothers:
Night time. More dark-of-night encounters with illicit motherhood. The babies are everywhere, popping up like toadstools after rain. I can’t keep up with them. I had to leave my last call before the cleanup crew came. Broke the chain of evidence, but what can you do? Everywhere I go, the baby world is ripping open around me, melons and seedpods and fertile wombs splitting open and vomiting babies onto the ground. We’re drowning in babies. The jungle seems to seethe with them, the hidden women down in the suburb swelter, and as I shoot along the maglines on my way to bloody errands, the jungle’s tendril vines curl up from below, reaching out to me.
The tone is noirish, the setting is rich and pungent — Bacigalupi really makes his reader smell the results of desperate people trying to raise children in secret — and the central idea is both hard-hitting and haunting. The only question is whether the pay-off is quite daring enough to match the brilliance of the set-up; the ending is not a let-down, precisely, but it does seem a little tame compared to what comes before.
(But then, perhaps that’s a relief…!)
Interzone #205 looks as gorgeous as ever, although the golden alien lady on the cover did raise a few eyebrows among my friends. Several enjoyable stories here, although nothing to match Jay Lake’s and Elizabeth Bear’s contributions to the last issue I reviewed here (#203). "The Measure of Eternity" by Sean McMullen is a historically-flavored fantasy about the introduction of zero to mathematics, framed by a series of encounters between a courtesan’s attendant and a marketplace beggar. Central character Mei is a little too enigmatic to truly warm to, but the story is well done, if a little longer than necessary. Steven Mills’ "Blue Glass Pebbles" conjures a future where water shortages dictate geopolitics, and the sort-of First Family of a separatist West Canadian state become embroiled in a potential Armageddon. Mills’ story rests as much on the inner lives of its characters as it does on plot; all emerge as damaged but well-realized individuals, linked by a pleasingly complex and dysfunctional backstory. The only downside is that we’re told what has happened much more frequently than we are shown it; at times it feels as if most of the significant events took place before the story began. The ending, however, leaves open plenty of possibilities without being inconclusive.