Nick Gevers reviews
Being Gardner Dozois
Monday 10 September 2001
Sci Fiction August & September 2001, edited by Ellen Datlow
Reviewed by Nick Gevers
(Special to Locus Online)
Original fiction on the Web remains an uncertain enterprise, but Sci Fiction is, increasingly, lending the concept a reassuring solidity. With firm financial backing, and with an expert editorial eye, Ellen Datlow is publishing stories that range from the good to the superb; her August and September selections are perhaps her most consistent yet. Tall tales consort with nightmares; genres wait in playful ambush on each other; andmost breathtaking of allLucius Shepard writes a happy ending. This last prodigy deserves especial, and respectful, notice.
Shepard’s new novella, “AZTECHS”, dominates the September line-up, split into several episodes. Three previous short novels, “Crocodile Rock” (1999), “Radiant Green Star” (2000), and “Eternity and Afterward” (2001), signaled Shepard’s return to full form and focus after an hiatus of several years; now, in bold maturity, he anatomizes his early career with eloquence and candor, returning to his original literary stamping grounds in a spirit of wry revisionism. For “AZTECHS” inhabits a land familiar from “On The Border” (1987), Northern Mexico made an infinite barrio, its impoverished millions crammed in squalor south of “El Rayo”, America’s lethal frontier fence of (literal) lasers and (symbolic) hellfire. And not too far off, in Guatemala and
Shooting the Moon
by Geoffrey A. Landis
The Black Heart
by Patrick O'Leary
by Terry Bisson
by Paul Di Filippo
AZTECHS (part 1)
by Lucius Shepard
Not yet posted:
AZTECHS (parts 2-4)
“Non Disclosure Agreement”
by Scott Westerfeld
by James P. Blaylock
Yucatan, the surreal jungle war of many other of Shepard’s Eighties stories apparently rages yet, compounded of fabulous hallucination and thoughtless atrocity; its veterans, drugged and scoured into derelict elemental warriorhood, have become the mercenaries of the El Rayo zone. Shepard would not without profound deliberation resurrect the dire Mesoamerican Vietnam of Life During Wartime (1987) and associated stories, the milieu he so memorably renounced with anger in “Surrender” (1989); he is unburdening himself of something truly significant here. It is perverse, qualified, grudging; but it is optimism all the same.
The soldiers who succumbed to beauty and horror before may still succumb; the false gods and crypto-patriotic teleologies that blistered the Fire Zones of Central America may yet command pathetic or haunted allegiance; but Shepard is saying in retrospect that perhaps life’s blessings are enough, that happiness can conceivably be conjured from the hatred and the napalm. The protagonist of “AZTECHS”, Eddie Poe (a name the irony of which possibly intimates a desire to cheer up all old Gothic miseries), is a freelance security contractor who, employed to protect the avatar of an AI turned desert deity, finds himself dragged, his lover-broadcaster in tow, into the wilderness, the conventional heart of darkness. But darkness can be deceiving; not all gods are comprised of visionary bullshit; the fires of El Rayo exude a suddenly comforting warmth. We are ourselves, and the tequila is flowing. Good. Jolly good.
This could be an illusory consolation. But it does seem that Shepard, who struck tentative notes of existential resignation in “Radiant Green Star” and “Eternity and Afterward”, is moderating at last the fury of his moralism, conceding some legitimacy to the contentedness he once excoriated as complacency. For all that, his fuliginous poetry is as powerful as ever, his prose paintings as radiant with meaning; “AZTECHS” is another triumph for SF’s greatest master of the novella form. In his party mood, Shepard scathes and sears, his supernaturalism wrathful even in its mildness...
As Lucius Shepard looks backward, so may others, and so may weto August, and its slighter, slicker, but highly entertaining short stories. There is indeed a nostalgic mood about the three tall tales that start the month, a relish for the halcyon absurdities of yesterday. Geoffrey A. Landis does his best Heinlein impression in “Shooting the Moon”, an old astronautical engineer’s account of an attempt at a post-Apollo moon landing financed by a porn tycoon. This is fair enough; but Landis’s perhaps uneasy facetiousness suffers by contrast with the sparkling humorous vigor of Paul Di Filippo’s “Neutrino Drag”, a bizarre romp through the world of postwar hotrodding as complicated by an alien visitor (straight out of Alfred Bester) whose competitive behavior is both awkward and automotively augmented to the limits of the imagination; the texture of Henry Kuttner is discernible here, and (nostalgically) welcome. Terry Bisson equals Di Filippo’s brio in a fine recursive gumshoe detection, “Charlie’s Angels”, whose tongue-in-cheek schlock-horror antics segue seamlessly into a distinctly sobering science-fictional political morality tale; in disguising his satirical assault vessel as a bargeload of clichés, Bisson sails serenely and subversively under his reader’s guard, and his admonitions are immediate, and razor sharp.
Bisson’s jaundiced perspective on the reflexive callous machismo of America’s military-industrial enforcers urgently foregrounds concerns that Lucius Shepard to some degree effaces in “AZTECHS”; and Patrick O’Leary forsakes caution further in “The Black Heart”, probably his best story to date. O’Leary’s angle of vision, like that of his mentor Gene Wolfe, is startlingly unordinary; here, he portrays a standard-seeming corporate executive in standard-seeming flight delay in an airport lounge, his briefcase filled with locally-acquired samples whose analysis back at headquarters will prefigure the standard strip-mining of some Third World localebut standard context invoked, O’Leary turns everything upside down, slyly, savagely, forebodingly. This literary sleight of hand is stunning, chastening; in looking backward, we have been looking forward, into the abyss of all present fortunes…
But look forward we must, andamong the rage of portentsSeptember’s final Sci Fiction offerings slip insinuatingly into view. Scott Westerfeld’s “Non Disclosure Agreement” is a clever and stylish satire on the special effects industry, a study, in essence, of how damning a remorseless preoccupation with appearances can become. The Bisson-O’Leary moral is underlined, with gallows humor; and for those rendered fatalistic by such tidings, James P. Blaylock steps in, with “Small Houses”, a systematic fictional disquisition on how decorously to prepare for death, set forthcharacteristicallywith strange impeccable lyricism. An elderly widower wanders his property, haunted by the shadow of his wife, letting go of his worldly possessions and eccentricities one by one. Farewell the tree house and its resident fish. Farewell the old car. Farewell the memory-saturated home. Farewell the toolbox-coffin. It remains astonishing how Blaylock can again and again evoke the perverse romance of suburban domesticity, yet never pall, never yield overmuch to sentiment, never fail to impart his quiet quaint mystery. And Death is almost an idyll in his hands.
Thus the August and September Sci Fiction crop, intense, provocative, idiosyncratic, beguiling. The Internet Economy may have faltered, but not here. Definitely not here…
Nick Gevers is a freelance literary critic and interviewer, whose work appears regularly in Interzone, Infinity Plus (of which he is Associate Editor), SF Site, Nova Express, and Redsine. A resident of Cape Town, South Africa, he has an extensive background in the academic study of SF, and recently was appointed an Acquisitions Editor at Cosmos Books, an imprint of Wildside Press. The anthology Infinity Plus One, co-edited by Gevers and Keith Brooke, appears soon from PS Publishing in the UK.