HEROES AND HURRICANES
Seems I always have an excuse for my delay in posting these review columns. Well, this time, my excuse is a very good excuse, indeed, and one I leave up to you to figure out by following this link: www.pitchblackbooks.com
And if that wasn't enough distraction (though a pleasant and very rewarding distraction) there were, count 'em three hurricanes in the vicinity of SFReader.com since my last column posted and - never mind the threat to Dave Felts, who luckily emerged unscathed - the storms threatened SFReader.com's cyber-host and actually blacked out our discussion forums for a day.
More strong winds, the winds of change, are sweeping over the short SF industry with similarly disorienting and perhaps destructive results. As we all well know, however, destruction often brings rebirth in its wake. Sure, many print magazines are slipping right off of the radar and the climate for publishing short speculative fiction seems alternately on the brink of obsolescence and at the threshold of a brave new frontier....
One thing many people tend to forget is how powerful their dollars really are.
For instance, a single subscription to a print magazine will usually run you less than a night for two at the movies and provides year-long pleasure. If you haven't subscribed to a print magazine lately (or purchased a title from a small press publisher,) you should - there's a special magic that comes when you find a magazine or book waiting for you in the mail. It's better than buying off the bookstore racks. In the case of e-zines, a simple clickthru and maybe a post in a discussion forum here and there really helps morale for these brave enterprises, most of which are about as not-for-profit as you could ever ask for and survive by laboring out of love for the genre.
Speaking of labors of love, Amazing Journeys Magazine is a quarterly small press SF print pub, specializing in "science fiction and fantasy that mirrors the classical style of Golden Age speculative fiction." AJM is edited by Edward Knight and published by Journey Books Publishing, which offers original titles, plus "used, rare, and antiquarian" books. Visit www.journeybooksonline.com for more info.
AJM is an efficiently edited and printed pub. By this I mean, there's not a lot of flourish or slickness to the pub's presentation. This puts an emphasis on content with very few interior illustrations or distracting advertisements to get between the reader and the stories.
The lead-off piece for AJM's first anniversary issue, (Vol. 2, issue 5) "Emissary" by Steve Carlton, made a good impression on me, but the story also suffered from some needling info-dumps-as-dialogue and seemed awfully reliant upon a Trek-type vision of interstellar politics and technology. Ambassador Sakumi is a "Menondite" (read: Mennonite) who makes the rounds in diplomatic circles with a narratively convenient ambivalence and/or mysterious ulterior motive for condescending to visit the inferior diplomats of the war-like "Rym" societies which are part of, oh yes, the Federation.... The Menondites are part of the Consortium, of which Sakumi boasts, "Not in two-thousand years have we had to defend ourselves."
The big surprise here is how well the piece holds together given its intricate political backdrop. In the absence of any clear sub-plotting or stylistic nuance, Carlton relies on creating a visceral sense of wonder and ... poetically justified angst on behalf of the Rym conspirators at the story's techno-spiritually explosive ending. This is where the real power (and danger) of Carlton's tale resides: if the reader is sympathetic to the Rym planets, the reader will tend to view the story's close as self-righteous or even bitter; if, on the other hand, the reader's sympathy resides with the "Menondites" as Carlton intends with this story, then "Emissary" will likely resound with a unique sense of moral and techno wonder.
"My Name is Jim" by Bill Snodgrass compliments the emigre and outsider themes of Carlton's story with a deftly scribed story of interplanetary proletarian prejudice. Like Carlton's story, Snodgrass's piece reaches toward the allegorical, but unlike Carlton, Snodgrass manages his exposition with good style and also manages to build a suspenseful story out of ordinary events, at least as ordinary applies to mining colonies on asteroids....
I believed the boredom, the toil, and the spiritual spleen as reflected through the first-person narrative POV. The concept of a "worker swap" that draws the story's protagonist from his underground job to a new position mining on the asteroid's surface was likewise an effective conceit and one that brings with it a nice irony, in that the "good" character, the protagonist, emerges from the underworld, while the story's ordinary, if not outright banal, villains dwell in light.
Hazing the new guy, the surface miners play a practical joke that has loathsome consequences. The thematic idea that petty crimes are no less sinful than ones we may see more obviously was effective. I liked many of the story's elements, but I found the piece noticeably impeded by the last two paragraphs: a capstone for the story's themes, stated so explicitly that the mood is nearly spoiled. Nearly. "My name is Jim", despite that last-minute peek behind the curtain, earns my thumb's up.
Teresa Howard offers an imaginative and heartfelt story, "A Forest of One." This tale is told from the POV of a transplanted, and I mean transplanted tree. Some nice sub-plotting with Mother Earth and particularly forgivable "parasites", that is homo-sapiens, help coax this warm-spirited tale from a simple lesson on ecology to a more primal lesson about the reciprocity of Nature and humankind, wherever our strange race shall travel. A very good story written with tenderness and sincerity.
By way of contrast, a pair of short-shorts, "Deep Freeze" by Brian C. Petroziello and "Mars was Made for Winter" by Steve Massart, deal with cold realities: the ethical fallout of cryogenics, and the ethical implications of profound scientific ... miscalculation.
Petroziello's piece takes up euthanasia from a chilling (pun intended) perspective: what would happen if a cryogenically preserved person awakened in a future where the diseases they suffered from were long ago cured, so long ago in fact, the vaccines and cures have been forgotten? From that premise, Petroziello sculpts a relatively predictable tale along the "one life in exchange for billion" scenario. Still, an engaging short read.
Steve Massart deals out a story of Mars terraforming gone wrong and the return-to-earth schemes of the meteorologist who failed to see that melting the ice-caps on Mars would bring the planet into a continual winter-storm. Perhaps the science is a bit fuzzy in this piece, or perhaps I am just a bit too fuzzy on certain scientific topics myself, but I found it difficult to concentrate on the plight of Massart's characters while mulling over the scientific backdrop. Good science-fiction should make you consider such things, however, so score a success for this story at least on that account.
Donnie Clemons offers a tale of dastardly sneezes, "Arizona Joe and the Demon." This piece employs extensive dialogue and, as such, reads a little bit rough around the edges. If you're familiar with the reason why we all say "God Bless you," or "Bless you" when somebody sneezes, you'll enjoy the conceit here, and if you aren't familiar with the Lore of Sneezes, you will be after you read this story. Add a dash of ironic realism and/or realistic delusion and you'll get a recipe for one offbeat tale that also includes a recipe for "Demon's brew."
"Home De-Offense" an A.I. house-gone-berserk story, extends a riff on this common SF-nal theme, popular in the SF small press and beyond. I may have encountered this theme once too often in the recent past to fully score this story; that, however, shouldn't prevent others from enjoying Terofil Alexander Gizelbach's lucid bit of satire which bristles with as much energy and dark humor as the majority of these house-as-ironic enemy stories. Score another one for Jung.
The AJM 1st Anniversary issue closes with a very warm and hopeful story, "The Fluffy" by Michael Morris. What can you say about this piece other than: what a great gesture by both writer and editor Edward Knight, to close the anniversary issue of AJM with a story so poetically sincere and simple that it defies the cynical reader to deride it for it's optimism. Go ahead and brush this one off as Pollyanna, but we could all use the thematic energy represented in this tale right now, and then some. Hats off to AJM for a great close to the issue.
This is the only copy of Amazing Journeys Magazine that I've had the good fortune to read. The pub is certainly worth the price of a subscription. I think a pub's anniversary editions are good indicators of the pub's vision and general state-of-soul. AJM seems to be shining bright and hopeful and rather quietly publishing stories many readers would enjoy. Get yourself a sample copy or subscription today and let Edward Knight know Firebrand Fiction sent you his way. AJM also hosts a quite active discussion forum here at SFReader.com.
Over the past couple of columns, we've spent some space discussing some of the better SF poems we've encountered. The 2004 Rhysling Anthology for "The Best Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Horror Poetry of 2003" snuck in with our mail a few weeks ago - a very welcome surprise.
This was the first edition of the annual anthology I've had the pleasure to read. The saddle-stapled, nicely edited antho is a review of speculative poetry nominees for the titular Rhysling Awards, which are bestowed annually by the Science Fiction Poetry Association. Quoting from SFPA Treasurer, Bruce Boston's reprinted introduction: "The anthology allows the membership to easily review and consider all of the nominated works without the necessity of obtaining the diverse number of publications in which the nominated works first appeared. The Rhysling Anthology is also made available to anyone with an interest in the unique compilation of verse from some of the finest poets working in the field of science fiction/fantasy/horror poetry."
This year's winners and other info here http://www.sfpoetry.com/archive/rhysling04.htm
One might anticipate a good deal of wacky experimentation with form in a collection of speculative poetry; in the case of The Rhysling Anthology readers are spared radical experiments with form and are instead presented with a set of poems whose titles and forms (and for many, themes) would be at home in myriad Academic and small press poetry journals, of the mainstream literary variety.
Poems like "Basement World" by L.A. Story Houry or "Warm, Thick Beer" by Jeremy Gottwig are pretty light on speculative content. These are poems you might find in The Plastic Tower.
Cable knit sweaters;
So, my initial impression of the antho was one of mild surprise. I expected to see more oddity, I suppose, though I'm not sure exactly what I mean by that.
Giggles and Bob Seger.
The opening poem, "Cranial Sacral" by Diane Ackerman struck me as very reminiscent of Sylvia Plath's juvenilia or early, rhetorically baroque poems.
Peering into the sea's glass paperweight
A lyrical tone which spins toward a haunting surrealism in places. One nitpick, the closing couplet of the poem is printed atop page two, just above the next poem in the antho and seems in danger of being accidently overlooked with this placement.
At silver-plated moonfish, glistening blades.
"Where She Dances" is a fine Anima poem by G.O. Clark with an especially pleasing third stanza. "To Feel Cold" by Bruce Boston offers some solid SF-nal content on a lyrical bedrock. Very good second stanza:
language chips implanted,
This is what I expected when I cracked open the antho, diction like: "wrench a moment/ from its socket."
we descend into
the density of the past,
mingling with primitives,
seeking to wrench a moment
from its socket that
could send time traveling
down a different track.
Other good poems in the "short poem" section were: "The Length of a Candle" by David C. Kopaska-Merkel, "What It Comes Down To" by David Lunde, a quantum couplet that, thankfully, provides the antho's only instance of end-stop rhyme, here quite effective. "Nursery Ghosts" by Sarah Lindow, which slants childhood terrors toward social-protest. One of my favorite short poems was "Alternate History" by Maureen McHugh which unfurls a Dickeyian logopoeia and word-pallette to spin a short lyric about American complacency and ... ironic good fortune.
The last short poem I want to mention is Ian Watson's "Memory Man", a well-wrought piece in sextets. Of all the short poems in the anthology, Watson's strikes me as the most purely speculative, the most unique of tone and prosecution. Interestingly enough, the language of the poem is conversational and the imagery quite plebeian:
When I hail our taxi the driver's
But the theme of the poem is profound; indeed, it is haunting, and I commend Watson for his echoic refrain at the poem's close, a plastic extension of the horror of self-proliferation and ... alienation, even under a placid, jovial exterior.
Delighted to see me again.
Pretending to retie my shoelace,
I let you announce the address.
Bruce Boston's "The Crow is Dismantled in Flight" embraces Wallace Stevens' form and diction with open arms, in a sequence that can be viewed as nothing short of an homage to that great poet's idiom. It's an ambitious sequence that builds on an ironic use of Coleridge's "pleasure dome" or Shelley's (and Amy Lowell's) "dome of many colored glass" to construct a heavyweight "mobile" in seven parts. A typically Stevensesque venture; Boston extends such sympathetic lines as:
Acrylic droplets sprouting like fungi
"The Crow is Dismantled in Flight" is one of the most technically accomplished long poems in the anthology; it is also one of the most allusive and I rather pity the reader who isn't familiar with the correspondences here. Boston in another bow to Stevens, titles one of the subsections of this sophisticated sequence "Not an Idiom." A few sample lines reveal the great irony, and therefore poetic substance, of this subtitle:
on the rough terrain of each canvas.
The manager eats crow. This is not an idiom.
One thought: this sequence might have been improved through the employment of a stricter prosody, that is, a singular meter or mode for the variations of lines like: "no gourmet but a man dear to the flesh of things" to play against. Most of the lines are shy a foot or too long by a foot or two to satisfy pentameter, but the poem employs a necessarily iambic rhythm throughout in any case; therefore, the irregular line-lengths and plentiful enjambments seem rather arbitrary. This, incidentally, is never the case with Stevens himself. Nor often Shelley, whose variations in pentameter are sure.
The bird is crucified on the altar of his table,
geometrically perfect in the symmetry of night,
A delicacy prepared by the rarest of chefs.
Life, like a dome of many-colored glass,
Despite this nag, I feel Boston's poem is largely successful and deserves praise for its scope and enterprising energy.
Stains the white radiance of eternity.
- - - -Percy Bysshe Shelley "Adonais"
Another interesting long poem, "Octavia is Lost in the Hall of Masks" by Theodora Goss takes its cue, not from Stevens, but from Rimbaud, recalling his Illuminations. prose poems with likewise commendable energy and imagination. This poem was an Award winner for long poems.
Two of the better long poems in the anthology are by Sonya Toffe. "Harlequin, Lonely" is, oddly enough, a narrative poem that I feel would have worked better as a prose poem. Nevertheless, it's lyric form provides a worthy enough vessel for evocative language and imagery of a decidedly fantastic or phantasmagoric variety. A good Trickster lyric.
Toffe's other contribution, "Green Fuses" is a complex, extended symbolist poem with ecological shades. A logging magnate becomes fodder for trees.... The extended meditation provides genuine poetic inquiry and a passionate animism to boot. A very nice pair of poems.
My overall verdict onThe Rhysling Anthology is that the poems included probably do represent the most technically accomplished SF poems of the year. That means, you are getting grade-A quality with this collection and the Awards are going to deserving writers, but to my mind, there are creepier, more science-fictional, more heroic, more squarely speculative poems being published, and some of these should be included in the anthology, as well. After all, the academic and small press literary journals are chock-full of lyric poems in the manner of Stevens, Plath, Rimbaud, Pound and the Imagists, and even ... Bukowski. The SF field for poetry, as for fiction, isn't limited by literary tradition; we're the makers of new traditions, so that's my very subjective and possibly naive take on the Rhysling Anthology, at least this time around. It's a very fine collection of speculative poems with the emphasis here on poems.
For free fiction this month, check out Deep Magic a site that features book reviews, discussion forums, interviews, articles, artist profiles and more. Deep Magic like Amazing Journeys Magazine offers SF from a spiritually Christian perspective. The e-pub is very cleanly presented and edited. I really wish DM was a print pub rather than a downloadable e-zine. It's as nicely presented as any print pub and offers plentiful and diverse content. My guess is that if DM were a print pub with national distribution, the 'zines format alone would attract considerable subscribers.
This site and downloadable e-pub deserve more than a cursory mention; unfortunately, we're out of space. So look for a more comprehensive review of Deep Magic in our next column. Meanwhile, click over and explore the site and pub for yourselves.
This month's Great Fiction Award goes to any of you dear readers who have or will be purchasing a subscription to any small press SF pub or a book from a small press publisher. That's right, I'm giving the G.F. Award to readers instead of a writer. If you've bought a subscription to any SF pub over the past year or a book from a small press publisher, you deserve to be included in the equation of what makes Great Fiction. After all, without you, there wouldn't be any point in telling stories at all. For those of you who haven't earned your G.F. Award, try purchasing one of the three print products mentioned in this column.
Congratulations to you, SF readers!!! May your ranks swell and prosperity visit your locality as a just reward for your well-spent dollars.
And please, visit us at the SFReader.com discussion forums where your opinions, insights, and observations are always welcome!
Until Next Time,
Daniel E. Blackston
Firebrand Fiction Reviews: all content © 2004, Dan Blackston