Short Fiction Reviews by Rich Horton
Edited by Forrest Aguirre and Jeff VanderMeer
Ministry of Whimsy Press/Prime Books, Tallahassee, FL, Madison, WI, Canton, OH, 2002
476 pages, $21.95
One of the more interesting recent anthology series is Leviathan, two issues of which appeared in the late 1990s, each edited by Jeff VanderMeer with a different collaborator, and published by VanderMeer's small press, The Ministry of Whimsy. After a slight delay, Leviathan 3 is out. It's now available directly from The Ministry of Whimsy (www.ministryofwhimsy.com) and will soon be available at other bookstores. VanderMeer's collaborator this time is Forrest Aguirre, and further changes are in the offing Aguirre will take over the series, leaving VanderMeer to concentrate on writing, and The Ministry of Whimsy line is now published by Prime Books.
Leviathan 3, as with its predecessors, seems a "slipstream" anthology, full of stories propelled by fantastical imagery and by unusual narrative strategies, but usually not set in overt or consistent "Fantasy" or "SF" worlds. I think the central image, the central concern, of SF is the encounter with the "alien", (whether the "alien" be an actual alien being, or altered humans, or an alien environment, or simply a different time). SF treats the "alien" in two ways. Some SF is interested in the alien for its own sake as a marvel perhaps, or as a revelation of some feature of the universe. Other SF is interested in the alien as a sort of contrast with humanity or with the present environment. Thus it might exaggerate some human trait, or it might provide a contrast against which human traits are more clearly displayed, or it might provide a testing ground, as it were, in which human traits can be revealed. Slipstream, it seems to me, is mostly work of the second kind, in which the "alien" aspect might be nothing more than unusual narrative techniques, and in which often the "alien" is inserted with little or no explanation into a contemporary setting. Indeed, perhaps that is how we recognize a "slipstream" quality in certain mainstream stories either the imagery or structure are sufficiently unusual as to create the same sense of displacement from the norm that we find in SF.
One valuable place to look for stories with a different sensibility is in the too often unfamiliar fiction of other languages. Here there are several translated stories. Most prominent are six linked stories about libraries by Zoran Živkovic (translated by Alice Copple-Tošic). These also serve as thematic anchors for the various sections of the anthology. These stories are arch and metafictional, very recognizable as Živkovic stories. In each story an unusual library is encountered. One contains all the books to be written, including the author's own future books. Another contains stories of people's lives, including of course the narrator's. And so on. Wry, deadpan, clever, enjoyable stories. There are two stories by 19th Century French writers, Rémy de Gourmont and Théophile Gautier; both translated by Brian Stableford. De Gourmont's "Phocas" is a retelling of the story of the capture of St. Phocas, who fed the poor and even the soldiers sent to kill him. Gautier's "The Divided Knight" is a fairy tale, about a man born with two separate natures. My favorite of the translated stories, though, is a delightful comic story set in the Soviet Union: "The Evenki", by Eugene Dubnov (translated by the author with John Heath-Stubbs), about a man who becomes convinced that the title ethnic group is undermining the Soviet state, and who then becomes head of the Department of Evenkology.
Perhaps inevitably, I found a few of the stories incomprehensible as likely a fault of the reader as of the author. Rikki Ducornet's "Buz" is reasonably intriguing to read, but I failed to understand it it appears to be about adultery. I was less impressed with Michael Moorcock's "The Camus Referendum", a Jerry Cornelius story, to do with future corporatism and war, which frankly reduced me to pretty much reading sentences without assigning them meaning. This happened to me with a similar Jerry Cornelius story in Interzone a couple years back. I can only conclude that I am out of sympathy with Moorcock's aims here. There is also a Moorcock novel excerpt, "The Vengeance of Rome, Chapter 3", which is nicely written but which reads like a novel excerpt and not like a complete story. Michael Cisco's "The Genius of Assassins" is beautifully written, even to the point of bravura technique, and it seems fully comprehensible, but not terribly rewarding it is three narratives about brutal senseless serial murders and their perpetrators, and in the end the point of it all escaped me.
A few more stories can be described as intriguingly weird, but not successful. In each case the very strangeness of the imagination revealed makes the stories worth a look, even if I felt they didn't really work. Jeffrey Thomas' "The Fork" describes a curious individual, injured and apparently trapped in an affectless landscape, who eventually finds his way out. Lance Olsen's "Village of the Mermaids" is about a woman who seems to have become a mermaid, but who is somehow trapped on land, always struggling to reach the water and swim away. This is tied to a real world experience in the end, but rather tenuously. "The Progenitor", by Brian Evenson, might be the strangest story here, about a life form (alien race? mutated humans? who knows?) who live tethered in the air, or working on the ground, in the service of the mysterious huge "Progenitor".
In the category of "really weird, but also successful" I would certainly place Stepan Chapman's "State Secrets of Aphasia", a wild ride about a land of clouds, ruled by the ancient Queen Alba. This strange land, home to ectoids and sneeflers and such aristocrats as King Skronk, High Khan of the Cactus Trolls etc., comes under threat from the Black Glacier, and the Queen is forced to review her own history, and confront the real nature of herself and her kingdom. The resolution is interesting though not very original, but the imagery and the wild ride to the end is, in typical Chapman fashion, absurd and compelling, and the story manages also to be quite moving. Just following it in the book is "Up", by James Sallis, another curious and intriguing story, about a man in a world much like ours, where people are beginning suddenly to go "up" to vanish literally into ashes. This man is dealing with the death of his wife, and his life seems more and more lonely and constrained. Perhaps the story is about his plight only or perhaps the story is about the plight of all of us.
One of the defining features of "slipstream", to my mind, is a deliberate blurring of genre lines, mostly the lines between "mainstream" and the fantastic. To be sure, all such lines are blurry anyway. And so a few of the stories in Leviathan 3 seem to me to be clearly across the vague SF/mainstream border. Still, they are good stories and even if they are set in our world and time (as it seems to me) they are told so that their milieu seems different anyway. They make the real fantastic, as it were. Tamar Yellin's two stories here are examples. "Kafka in Brontëland" is a quiet and evocative story of a woman in North England who imagines that a man she sees in her town is Franz Kafka. "Moonlight" is a striking and moving story about the life of a popular artist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, hinting at a mysterious obsession behind his work. Another story from just across the borderline is "The Swan of Prudence Street" by Scott Thomas. An adolescent becomes infatuated with the beautiful young woman in the upstairs apartment. Familiar stuff, in its basic outline, but well executed and evocative.
"While Wandering a Vanished Sea", by James Bassett is decidedly Ballardian in imagery and affect. The memory artist Mimpi comes to the seaside city Runevan to practice his art, which involves altering people's memories, while claiming that he has been given Runevan's sea. One day he dies, and the sea seems to be gone or was it ever there? Where did all their memories come from? A nice story. Brendan Connell contributes "A Season with Doctor Black", in which the title character, a dwarf and a scientific genius, spends his summer at his country home, and there encounters a beautiful woman, marooned by car trouble, and they enter into a relationship of ambiguous and shifting character. I found it interesting but not exceptional. Carol Emshwiller's "The Prince of Mules" reminded me just a bit of her recent Sci Fiction story "Water Master", in telling of a older single woman living in a dry rural place, who becomes intrigued by an isolated man who has something to do with water distribution. This is quite a different story, though, and it's a neat piece, telling in Emshwiller's characteristic deadpan voice of the woman's rather excessive obsession with Jake Blackthorn, who at least loves his mule.
At last we come to the stories that most impressed me. They do come, I will say, from names I expected a lot from: Brian Stableford, L. Timmel Duchamp, and Jeffrey Ford. Stableford's "The Face of an Angel" tells of a master plastic surgeon, sometime in the near future, who is confronted by a mysterious man with an unusual proposition. The man has a copy of a book created by the "comprachicos", who were notorious in the 17th Century for buying children and surgically deforming them for use as circus freaks. This man asserts that they actually had a more ambitious goal to learn to surgically create a perfect face, the face of an angel. Now, with the modern surgeon's technology, and these old secrets, perhaps this goal can actually be reached but at what costs?
In "The Fool's Tale" Duchamp, as always fascinated by gender roles, purports to present an account of a diary kept by a dwarfish woman employed by the wife of King James I of England as a fool. The diary includes much comment on the position of women in the King's court, but also an extended description of a command performance of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night", complete with much discussion on the curious gender switching of the characters in that play, and on the rather ambiguous future happiness of the women. And, finally, the Fool's abilities extend to something stranger a trip (in some sense) to the "world" of "Twelfth Night", perhaps to hear directly from the characters their real feelings. It's a fascinating and thoughtful story.
Finally, Ford's "The Weight of Words" is, I feel, the standout story of Leviathan 3. The narrator is despondent because his wife left him, and he attends lectures in his loneliness. One lecture is given by an Albert Secmatte. Secmatte advances a theory that the particular arrangement of words in printed matter, including such aspects as the font, influences perceived meaning in a way that can be quantified. (The key equation is given as "Typeface + Meaning x Syllabic Structure Length + Consonantal Profluence / Verbal Timidity x Phonemic Saturation = The Weight of the Word or The Value".) He thinks Secmatte a crackpot, but after a demonstration he becomes convinced that the theory has some value. He asks Secmatte to rewrite his love letters to his departed wife so that they will be especially convincing, and in exchange agrees to help Secmatte with his business, which naturally involves advertising, eventually including some rather slimy political ads. The central idea here is not exactly new, but Ford's working out of it is intriguing, and the writing is beautiful, particularly the lovely closing. We are left thinking not just about subliminal advertising, but about good writing, and love.
Leviathan 3 promises to be perhaps the outstanding original anthology of 2002. Its focus, from a genre reader's point of view, may be a bit narrow there is no hard SF here, and only the occasional story would readily fit even traditional "soft SF" or "fantasy" categories. But what the anthology promises it delivers, and story after story is intriguing reading.