Art Director, Andrea Leavitt
All individual reviews and articles and artwork in this magazine are copyright 1994 by their respective authors and artists. One time (English-language) rights only have been acquired by Omphalos. All other rights, including translation rights, are hereby assigned to the authors and artists.
Permission is given to reproduce or duplicate Omphalos in its entirety for non-commercial uses as long as all associated copyright notices and bylines are left intact. Re-use, reproduction, reprinting or republication of an individual article in any way or on any media, printed or electronic, is forbidden without permission of the author or rights holder.
As this is the first issue, it seems appropriate to address the question: why Omphalos? This is a helpfully simple phrasing that allows me to answer in a variety of ways.
First, why start a new zine? I first worked on a zine in 1983. This was back in prep school and, of course, we had never heard the term "zine", so we called Cintax (pronounced "syntax") an on-line literary magazine. I was one of several editors, and, as it happened, we got very few submissions (although it did pick up with time) and so we ended up writing much of the magazine ourselves. We had satire in the serial "The Adventures of Alpha Joe", social commentary in the column "The Erewhon Breach", random poetry and prose tidbits, and an occasional poorly written short short story by yours truly. And we had an audience. The official literary magazine never managed to produce even one issue that year and we had novelty on our side. We managed to get a special account set up for Cintax and the next thing we knew people were actually reading it. It was work, but it was fun. Now, 11 years later and feeling many times more computer savvy, I feel like going after some of that fun again.
Of course, a better question might be why start this zine?
I started Omphalos because I wanted to be able to read it. When I
receive my various science fiction and fantasy magazines each month,
almost invariably the first section I read is the book reviews. I
love these columns. I don't always agree with the reviewers, but I
don't always disagree. I like reading what different reviewers
thought of the same book. Et cetera. Similarly, one of the
newsgroups I subscribe to on internet is
rec.arts.sf.reviews, and every day if there are new
reviews, I'll most likely dive in and read them (and work will get put
off a little longer).
There are, however, inadequacies to these forums. The magazines columns rarely review more than three books and they often include several pages of irrelevant, albeit quite interesting, lead-in material. In addition, they naturally focus only on new books. Well, there are dozens of new books out each months and thousands that have been out in the past, so three new ones per month per magazine is obviously a bit limiting. On- line this is less of a problem, especially with people like Dani Zweig writing specialized reviews of past works, but despite these fine efforts and those of others like Evelyn Leeper (who I hope will finally get her Hugo this year), there seem to be no more reviews on-line than in the magazines. Finally, there is the problem of the magazines themselves. I do not have time to read every story in every magazine I subscribe to. I wish I did, but the fact is that I read rather slowly. I am sure that over the years I have missed some gems because of this, which frustrates me. Reviews of the magazines themselves would help me and others to know what deserves a look if everything can't be read. I would love to be able to get a magazine every now and then that was just packed wall-to-wall with reviews. I hope that someday, with your help, Omphalos will be that magazine.
So, what's with the funny name? Ah. Actually, I think Omphalos is a perfect name for this, since it has both serious and light connotations. On the serious side, it means "focal point", which is certainly was a review zine should be. In addition, however, this name helps to cut through the pretensions of a "literary review" in that it also means "navel". That's right; you're reading a magazine named after the silliest part of the human body, the belly button.
If all that makes it sound as if you are reading a poorly named rag that is the combined result of nostalgia and attempted wish-fulfillment on the editor's part, I stand before you, guilty, and I'm going to try to make it happen anyway. If you want to help, submissions are always welcome, and artist's and writer's guidelines are available. I would much rather publish reviews by people other than myself (if only because it makes a better read for me). If you have suggestions, please send them in. This will only work if we make it work. If you just want to subscribe and read, that's great too. At least, I'll know that I'm not wasting my time.
On that note, I'll leave you to enjoy--I hope--the rest of this first issue. If all goes well, I'll be back in July with the second issue. Cheers.
Broken Moon Press, 0-913089-40-0, $13.95, 149pp (trade), 1992.
Let's get right to the point: read this book. This collection of six stories and a novella is perhaps the best I have read. The stories are richly detailed and quietly spooky, while still possessing a rustic simplicity. The voices used are so authentically American that I found myself constantly imagining an old man sitting by a fire in the Catskills, telling ghost stories to his grandchildren.
The title story is a powerful cautionary tale, in which the technological world tries to invade a rustic community, never expecting to meet any resistance, let alone what they actually encounter. "Tinker" is a subtle story of rural "justice" and the unearthly response, when the local tinker, a repairer of pots and pans and shoes, comes riding by on his patchwork wagon. "The Patriarch" shows us a view of friendship and duty that people are rarely willing to speak of, even when experienced directly. "Now We Are Fifty" was a disturbing story, through which I was constantly expecting something more to happen. In a way, I feel that this was the point, that sometimes things just go along and, although you know there is something deeper and darker going on, you never quite get a fix on it.
The novella "By Reason of Darkness" is a terrifying post-Vietnam ghost story about old friends, old debts, and the blurry line between insanity and reason, offering a deeply affecting counterpoint to Joe Haldeman's "Graves." Between them, Haldeman and Cady are reminding us that even in war, there is more to this world than we know. It is interesting to note that both this collection and "Graves" were winners of the World Fantasy Award this past year.
In my opinion, the masterpiece of the collection was "Resurrection." This piece is quiet and unassuming in its testament to the existence of ghosts, much as Carrie Richerson's stories do for zombies. The result is a bittersweet reality that I could not help but believe.
The last and shortest story in the collection, "The Curious Candy Store", did not really work for me. The basic premise of an eternal candy store with balloons that determine (or merely reveal?) your destiny was powerful, but the dialog seemed stilted and the story rushed. In another context, I might not have noticed, but in a collection this strong, these weaknesses could not be overlooked.
On the whole, Cady is a potent storyteller, with a voice that creeps out of the soil of the Cascade mountains and the blooms into eerily beautiful images. I'll say it again: read this book.
Bantam Spectra, 0-553-29319-2, $3.99, 136pp (paper), 1989.
Over the past several years, I have heard all sorts of good things about John Crowley, many of them proclaiming his novel Little, Big to the be-all end-all of modern fantasy. Unfortunately, I have had almost no luck finding Crowley's books in local bookstores, a problem I expect will be alleviated later this year when much of his work will be reissued. Recently, however, I did happen across a copy of Great Work of Time and decided it was time to give Crowley a shot. I was not disappointed.
Great Work of Time is an odd little novel, in that it plays with time manipulation to a much greater degree than any other book I've read. In fact, it is difficult to determine exactly which, if any portions of the book actually occurred until the very end. That being said, let me try to give a rough synopsis. This is the story of Denys Winterset, a native of the nineteenth century and his indoctrination and work within a secret brotherhood set up by the estate of the dead-before-his-time Cecil Rhodes, the purpose of which is to protect and preserve the British empire. Alternatively, this is the story of this organization's president pro tem (all their presidents are pro tem) and his encounter with an angel and a draconion, strange creatures who are able to perceive the changes wrought by the brotherhood. Then again, it is the story of Caspar Last and his single journey through time with the sole purpose of making himself rich. And these are all the same story. As I said, it is an odd book.
The holistic effect created by this patchwork of alternative pasts, presents, and futures is remarkable. It is important for a novel to create a believable closure, in which the different parts of the story culminate into a cohesive whole. If a novel fails to create this feeling, then the reader is left feeling that something was withheld. Conversely, if the closure is forced, the reader can feel cheated by a seeming deus ex machina ending. Not only does this novel give a sense of closure which fits with the rest of the story, but it is all-encompassing; all the different planes of the story manage to fold in on themselves in a complex metaphysical origami. If you've read Tim Powers's The Anubis Gates, then you can understand the sort of beautiful web I am talking about, in which each thread of the story is inextricably linked to the others by the end in ways that are inevitable without being predictable.
There are places where the writing is a little heavy-handed (in particular, the beginning of the second chapter), but even so, this little book is well worth the read.
Bantam Spectra, 0-553-26872-4, $4.50, 248pp (paper), 1987.
Strange Toys left me with very mixed impressions. On one hand, the overall effect was powerful and left me thinking about the book for days afterwards, which is always a good sign. On the other hand, in terms of the story itself, I couldn't shake a feeling of dissatisfaction.
The book is divided into three sections, corresponding to the experiences of the main character, a woman named Pet, at ages nine, sixteen, and thirty. The first is the longest and richest. It is a dark and strange fantasy, made all the spookier by being seen through the eyes of a young girl. Pet has stolen her older sister Deanne's magic book and her family is on the run from Deanne's cohorts. On the road, they stop at every roadside attraction from Disneyland to the Ripley's Museum before ending up in New Orleans. On the way, Pet discovers that a man called Sammy very much wants Deanne's book. As Pet slowly realizes what the book's prophesies contain and tries to discover what, if anything, she can do to about it, each encounter with Sammy becomes a darker experience.
The remaining two sections show Pet returning to the world of magic at ages sixteen and thirty. It would be difficult to give any description about these sections without revealing too much of the plot, but suffice it to say that Pet continues to try to assert herself in a domain over which she has almost no control.
The three sections show a definite development in Pet's character, although I confess to liking her at nine best. This is not the typical growth wherein a helpless apprentice becomes master (or mistress) of her own destiny. Rather, it is a more natural growth, with Pet becoming more confident and stoic, without necessarily discovering all there is know about the events that have affected her life. Unfortunately, this leads directly to my one real problem with this book. Since the book is told from Pet's point of view and Pet never finds out all there is to know, neither does the reader. This is the dissatisfaction I mentioned at the start of this review. There are many issues left unresolved, not the least of which are the subconscious link between Deanne and Pet and the relationships between the various men (always men) she meets with knowledge of the magic she is dealing with. I'm sure some would argue that this is more realistic fiction in that everything does not reveal itself. Fine. Even true, I suppose. Nevertheless, I was left wanting more of a sense of closure.
In all, the book is quite powerful and will leave you with plenty to think about, despite the lingering questions. Geary has created one of the most realistic child characters I have ever read and unfolds a truly eerie plot in a seemingly effortless way. If you'd like to read a cross between Blaylock and Shepard with a female touch, read this book.
Bantam Spectra, 0-553-56116-2, $3.99, 133pp (paper), 1994.
I don't know what I was expecting from this book, but I am reasonably sure I did not get it. It is not a simplistic cyberpunk romp, a satisfyingly deep philosophical character study, or a short lyrically-rich, well-told story. Although, in a way, it is all three. Artist Ethan Ring discovered a series of primally powerful images, patterns that can kill or heal, elicit awe or orgasm, or erase memory. Guaranteed. As a result, he has been blackmailed into being a reluctant super-assassin for the European government, and his former lover Luka Casipriadin has lost all respect, if not all love, for him. To work his way through this ethical dilemma, Ethan has joined a friend Masahiko--creator of Danjuro I9: Kabukiman!--on the Shikoku pilgrimage, a thousand mile eighty-eight temple journey in the footsteps on the Buddhist saint Kobo Daishi.
Most of the book is a philosophical character study, with the pilgrimage and the past filling out the background as we learn more about Ethan. And this story is told in a wonderfully poetic way, with charming and clever touches added in equal measure, such as a girl "who looked as if her name should end with 'y', but in fact it didn't" and the technological realization of Shinto ancestor worship, in which memory-dumped ancestors can "shovel a truly cosmic amount of shit your way" if you fail to show the proper respect. The idea of the primal images, and the thoughts and actions that led to their discovery are brilliant, (aside from the technical flaws in the method of generation). The notion of such inherently powerful icons fits so well with so many different cultures that I never questioned its credibility. The stories and poems of the Kobo Daishi mesh tightly with Ethan's own situation, and the pilgrimage is more spiritual than physical, as you'd expect.
Unfortunately, MacDonald apparently wanted something more--or at least something different--from this book, and so included sections of seemingly pointless violent action. During most of the book, the world is viewed as being neither black nor white, but at crucial moments, this analog view of the world is dropped for the simpler good-evil dichotomy. One scene is particularly grating, in that the way they escape from a gang of Yamaha-riding Akiras was already old and corny when used in Romancing the Stone. And the finale of the book seems completely artificial, an intrusion of modern-day Rambo mentality into this otherwise quietly magical book.
This is not a bad book, but it is uneven and it seems rushed in places, which is completely unnecessary in a book this short. There are images and conversations that scream "foreshadowing!" that are never brought up again, even in Ethan's thoughts. There are opportunities for a sort of Kharmic pay-back for good deeds that are left unexplored. And the end, after the jarringly dissonant battle scene, seems merely tacked on. Given its size, reading this book does not require a large time investment, but even so, I would recommend it only with the caveat that by the end it is something less than it could have--and perhaps should have--been.
Buy Yourself Press (William L. Ramseyer, P.O. Box 2885, Atascadero, CA 93423-2885), $9.95, paperback, 1992. Illustrated by Kathryn Otoshi.
The reviewers on the back cover include Sigmund Freud ("The book of my dreams. I bought one for my Mommy."), Franz Kafka ("Cheered me up."), and Mao Tse-Tung ("You've got to pick up this book, before you can put down this book.") When you first approach this book, it looks like a graphic novel, a trade paperback with a full color graphic on the front cover. But it is actually a collection of short shorts, twelve stories, each no more than a few hundred words long. The interior is beautifully designed, with a glossy, slick paper that shows off graphics best, the pages alternating in color between black and white with red, black and white type. Facing the beginning of each story is a full page illustration by Kathryn Otoshi. I found myself studying each illustration before reading the accompanying story, then returning to it after finishing the story.
The stories, written by William L. Ramseyer, mainly have a science fiction theme. Usually, I don't like stories this short, but most of these are well-written and engaging. Each story is like an extended joke, and the fun in reading them comes with the punchline or twist at the end. They are too short to really develop characters or plot, so Ramseyer relies on new concepts, psychological quirks, and surprising twists, and he is very good at it. The stories range in concept from a casino where people gamble for time instead of money in "A Matter of Time" to a pound where you adopt people instead of dogs or cats in "People Pound". My favorites are "Zero Sum Game" and "Lifeguard", both of which deal with medical developments that end up making the reality perceived by the mind untrustworthy and changing. The common theme of all of Ramseyer's stories is that they turn reality on itself, taking normal subjects, like a pet dog, and making them new and strange. The only story I didn't like was "Nuts", which had a predictable end and was an ironic joke I'd heard many times before. For the most part, though, I enjoyed the stories, and most succeeded in surprising me in some way.
Pairing the short shorts with the surreal illustrations makes reading the book different from any other--not quite a graphic novel, not quite a mere collection of stories, but something more than both. The book itself is beautiful to look at, and the stories invite a second reading, and a third, and even more. Jellyfish Mask would be a unique addition to any eclectic book collector's shelf.
Bantam Spectra, 0-553-09640-0, $22.95, 535pp (hardcover), 1994.
In 1988, I picked up a used copy of Icehenge by an author I'd never heard of named Kim Stanley Robinson. Since then, I have done my best to read everything he has written, with only his thesis on Philip K. Dick and his collection Remaking History to go. I am reading the collection now; the thesis can wait for the moment. Throughout this time, I and other Robinson fans have been tantalized by little glimpses of his future (or rather his set of similar futures) of the solar system. Novels like Icehenge and The Memory of Whiteness, short stories like "Mercurial", the novella "Green Mars"--all have offered brief forays into these futures. Now, with the Mars trilogy, Robinson is finally giving us at least one of these futures in vivid detail. (If anyone really want to know why I say there is more than one future, let me know.)
I am going to assume that you've read Red Mars, so if you haven't go do so and come back. Green Mars(not to be confused with the identically named novella) picks up several decades after Red Mars ends. What is left of the first hundred is in hiding under the southern ice cap. Hiroko has become a full fledged nature goddess. Maya is still a self-centered bitchy flake. Nadia is still trying to build something solid. The Coyote is still up to his tricks. And Sax is still Sax, and Ann is still Ann.
The events of the book, as it follows the next six or so decades of Martian history, are too varied to describe here, but I can give some highlights. We have some wonderful new characters in the forms of Hiroko's tank-grown descendants, including a pair that seem to be the next generation's answer to John Boone and Maya. Also new is an immigrant from earth who shows us that the transnationals aren't all bad, although the political infighting between them remains a major problem for Mars. Ann's latent militancy is finally realized, as she becomes the leader of the conservationist Reds (but, of course, you saw that coming).
The most remarkable and to me heartwarming part of this book, however, is what happens with Sax. Finally, we get a section that follows Sax and we get to know how this enigmatic gnome works. I'm sure that this is not a common reaction, but I love Sax's character. I love his quirky movements, his determination to make Mars liveable, his passion for knowledge. Unlike the others, for whom terraforming--or areoforming as some would have it--is a political move or an engineering problem or just something that would make life easier, Sax is obsessed with creating a viable biosphere on Mars. Sax undergoes some significant changes in this book, but the result, while deeper and more human, maintains this single-mindedness that is his trademark. I could not get through the section "Social Engineering" without cheering.
Overall, this is a strong book, although not as strong as the Orange County books or even as Red Mars. To be fair, however, it is the middle book of the trilogy, and as such lacks the anchoring that the first and last books naturally possess. This volume bridges an important part of Martian history and provides insights that only a participant in history would have. Robinson's feel for the interrelations between characters and events makes this a wonderful read, and when Blue Mars completes the story, I know I will be sorry to say good-bye to these characters. Even to Maya.
Mercury House, $12.95, paperback, 1993. Illustrated by Jill McElmurry.
The Hieroglyphic Tales were first composed between 1766 and 1772 by Horace Walpole, perhaps better known for writing the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto. Until the 20th century, there had only been one printing of these stories, by Walpole himself, of six or seven copies. This edition is the first publication of the tales for the general trade market.
The seven short stories are based on fairy tales, but what sets them apart is a liberal amount of absurdity and exaggeration that even modern readers would find bizarre. For example, in "The King and His Three Daughters", the king wishes to marry off his eldest daughter first, which is difficult because she never existed. She then falls in love with a prince who "would have been the most accomplished hero of the age, if he had not been dead, and had spoken any language but the Egyptian, and had not had three legs". As in all fairy tales, though, there is a happy ending.
Each story is characterized by an outlandish series of events, each one more difficult to swallow than the last. In "The Dice-Box: A Fairy Tale", an enchantress locks herself in a tower with 17,000 husbands. The series of events that follows is like an increasingly worsening acid dream. Walpole's sentences are long, twisted, and often contradictory, bringing the reader up short with every other word. Some stories do have a measure of satire, and Walpole's writing is characterized by witty turns of phrase, but mostly they seem devised to stretch the limits of absurdity.
As a result, these "fairy tales" may not appeal to everyone. But they are fun and fast to read, and come packaged in a handsome trade paperback edition with interesting illustrations by Jill McElmurry. Not great literature perhaps, but Walpole's Hieroglyphic Tales can make a unique gift or a fun addition to a fantasy lover's bookshelf.
Tor, 0-312-85202-9, $12.95, trade paperback, 1993.
Elvissey is the fourth book in a projected six-book sequence about the future of America. The earlier books are Ambient, Terraplane, and Heathern. Central to all the books is a corporation cum government called Dryco, which ruthlessly runs as much of the world as it can from its New York headquarters. But these books are not typical cyberpunk tales of corporate America run amok at all. Instead they focus on very real feeling characters trying to get by in a world much colder and harsher than those of Sterling, Gibson, or Kadrey.
Elvissey revolves around Isabel Bonnie and her husband John. Dryco has embarked on a plan to "regood" the world and in conflict with this plan is the growing power of the Church of E, who worship Elvis. Dryco is, as always, a resourceful company, and they decide the best course of action is to get an honest-to-goodness Elvis of their own from a parallel universe and use him to turn the Church of E to their cause. Isabel and John are chosen to perform the abduction.
That's the surface thread of the story, but there is much more, from the internal politics at Dryco and the fact that Elvis doesn't want to be a puppet to the strain put on Isabel and John's marriage by the Elvis mission and by the regooding process, which prohibits the acts of violence that John was trained by Dryco to commit, to a very interesting mirroring of art and life. Womack's fiction looks straight-forward at first glance, but there is a rich interaction between the story lines, not only in Elvissey itself, but between all of the books in the series. Each one sheds new light not only on the world Womack has created but on the events of the earlier books as well.
There is one facet of Womack's writing that may throw some people off, and that is the use of language by the characters. It is the future and English has changed a bit, largely by nouns and adjectives serving regularly as verbs (hence the term "regooding" above). And, because all of the books are written in the first person, this language is not limited to dialogue. Personally, I have found this altered language fairly natural sounding after a short adjustment period, and in fact it can be almost lyrical at times (personal favorite: Thatcher Dryden's speech of page 43 of Ambient).
I very much suggest Elvissey, although I recommend reading the earlier books first. Many of the little ironies in Elvissey will be lost if you do not know some of the history of Dryco and its key players. Do not read Womack expecting a pleasant book; the future is not pretty, not kind. But it is a place where people are still human and searching for stability and comfort is still a main concern.
"Waterworld" by Lee Goodloe and Jerry Oltion
"We Three" by Rick Shelly
"To Change a Memory" by Hayford Peirce
"Negative Feedback" by Christopher Anvil
"Blinker" by Jack McDevitt
"The Loophole" by David J. Creek
Although "Waterworld" is an interesting story about a damaged spaceship which needs to gain water from a nearby system in order to carry out its mission, It raises some questions. The first concerns how the crew of the spaceship was initially selected. All I can assume is that the selection committee was a rival to whomever sent off the spaceship and chose people on the basis of personalities which would not get along well under the best of conditions. That aside, the clash in personalities does provide a reasonable good, if irritating, conflict for the crew to resolve in addition to their more mechanical conflict with the forces of Waterworld (a.k.a. Theresa). At times the story drags, although it would have been interesting to see what had occurred prior to the opening of the story (before and during the disaster which is briefly discussed).
Rick Shelley turned out a much better novelette in his "We Three." This tells of humanity's first representative to meet with alien races. Shelley's two alien races, the elvirti and the camsofetu, are quite different from humans in their basic philosophies as the only three forms of sentient beings so far discovered in the galaxy (although there are signs of four extinct races). The story of Ben Gerkel's visit to the camsofetu planet of Bekkai clearly paints a picture of three races, forming a tie based on their sentience.
Again, although Shelley tries to explain why Gerkel was selected for this mission, it makes one wonder about his self-description as a loner. Furthermore, perhaps it is my own innate cynicism, but the humans (in general) respond too peacefully to the existence of these two alien races. However, this may be due to the fact that Shelley begins the story after first contact has been made. This universe, however, is one in which I would like to see more stories set.
Peirce's "To Change a Memory" is a sequel to "Under the Wings of Owls" (Analog, 1/94), and evidently part of an ongoing series. Although I've enjoyed Peirce's novels, I was unable to get through "Under the Wings of Owls" and elected to give "To Change a Memory" a pass until I do.
Anvil's "Negative Feedback" could just as easily be set in a modern company, and is something that should be considered as an additional step to R&D. However, it would have been nice to see him advance an alternative to oil consumption other than coal or wood. After all, there are many renewable sources which mankind can move towards (wind/solar/water) whose incorporation would have given the story more of an SF feel to it.
Creek's "The Loophole" and McDevitt's "Blinker" were something of letdowns. With the Creek, my mind continued to wander through three readings, and the solution to the problem in McDevitt's "Blinker" was obvious pages before the characters realized it. Furthermore in "Blinker", the situation should never have arisen since I presume any lunar observatory would have taken more precautions. Also, the idea of a series of lunar quakes seems a bit farfetched.
"Climb the Wind" by Pamela Sargent
"Selkies" by Mary Rosenblum
"Good With Rice" by John Brunner
"Full Circle" by John Alfred Taylor
"Rites of Spring" by Lisa Goldstein
"What Can Chloe Want?" by Brian Stableford
"The Day of Their Coming" by G. David Nordley
"Angel from Budapest" by Daniel Marcus
Sargent returns to Mongolia in her story "Climb the Wind". In this tale of ghostriders, Sargent ties herself to a single viewpoint character stuck on a tour of Mongolia when everything shuts down because ghostly Mongols come riding out of Orion. We only learn via the BBC that similar appearances have been occurring throughout the world. In the aftermath of these manifestations, Ulan Bator takes on the semblance of a city stricken by war. Although a good and rewarding story, Sargent could have done more with the idea, possibly by examining (however briefly) the responses of other regions to their ghostriders (which appear as native Americans in Western America, aborigines in Australia, &c.)
Taylor's "Full Circle" was also an interesting story of an X-15 test pilot, although the opening section seems to be rendered anachronistic by the ending, which shouldn't have been the case given the solution of the "aliens" who kidnapped the main character. Taylor's version of H. sapiens proteus is interesting, but their culture is only briefly explained.
Goldstein makes use of a famous, ancient story in her "Rites of Spring", although I was disturbed by the fact that most of the characters acting out their roles are aware of themselves and their identities. A stronger story would have left the actors in this tale with amnesia which the detective hired to solve the mystery had to discover on her own without being told.
In "What Can Chloe Want?", Stableford examines the life-prolonging surgery of a little girl who is caught between two domineering parents, both of whom she wishes to please. Because the story is told from the daughter's point of view, many adult themes, which are hinted at, aren't revealed as Chloe refuses to pick a side against either parent, or rather, waffles between the wishes of her father, who wants to give Chloe all the data available, even if she can't process it, and her mother, who seems extremely overprotective.
Nordley's "The Day of Their Coming" was another strong story in this issue, although I would have liked to have seen Nordley spend more time fleshing out the details of his Martian government and the group of religious fanatics who have managed to gain a hold over its operation. As with Shelley's "We Three", Nordley creates a Mars which I would like to see explored more fully. This story examines the day aliens first arrived in our solar system from the viewpoint of a teenage boy. His parents, and their houseguests, with whose daughter the main character is infatuated/in love, are primary actors in the humans' attempts to understand the messages being broadcast from the aliens. At the same time they are dealing with the aliens, who do not wish to disrupt human civilization any more than necessary, the family must also deal with the religious fanatics who are trying to force the aliens to leave so their existence needn't be explained.
"The Memory Seller" by T. Jackson King
"Tombe" by Howard V. Hendrix
"A Martian Odyssey" by Stanley G. Weinbaum
"In the Still of the Night" by Michael Bracken
"Grounded" by Herb Kauderer
"The Disease" by David J. Adams
"Prisoner's of War" by Ryck Neube
interviews with Larry Niven and Paula Downing
One of the things that Expanse does that I particularly like is to reprint stories from the Golden Age of SF. These are selected by Forrest J. Ackerman, who also provides a short remembrance of the story. His selection for the second issue of Expanse, Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey" (1934) stands up extremely well after sixty years. Although suffering from many of the problems that sixty years of technology will bring to a story, Weinbaum has some interesting ideas in this tale of a man who must cross miles of Martian terrain after his survey craft crashed. Although the ending won't necessarily cause as great a reaction now as Ackerman says it caused when he first read it, this is definitely a story to read, even after sixty years.
Bracken's "In the Still of the Night" only suffered from a small case of predictability. To give Bracken credit, I didn't see the end coming until it was nearly upon me (although I feel I should have). This is the story of three soldiers stationed at a very out of the way post on a desolate, hostile planet dealing with the accidental death of one of their number.
Although King's "The Memory Seller" begins with a great deal of potential, he continues the story past its natural ending by adding late details to the story. I would have liked to have seen it end about two pages earlier than it did. In the first half of the story, the main character, Jamie, visits to title character who sells memories. However, although King implies that the memories must be drained from the recently deceased or still living, he doesn't explain how Jamie can relive the memories of Thermopylae or the Mongol Hulagu at Baghdad.
Kauderer's "Grounded" seems to be a fluff piece that doesn't really go anywhere, and although Hendrix's "Tombe" could have been a nice piece of social commentary on the herd mentality of modern America, Hendrix tried to be a little too subtle in exploring his theme which warranted a longer story than the three pages he devoted to it.
"A Marathon Runner in the Human Race" by Dave Smeds
"Doing Alien" by Gregory Benford
"Second Contact" by Gary Couzens
"Director's Cut" by James Morrow
"Two Lovers, Two Gods, and a Fable" by Esther M. Friesner
"Sous La Mer" by Carrie Richerson
"The Convertible Coven" by Susan Wade
"Brixtow White Lady" by Felicity Savage
"The Wild Ships of Fairny" by Carolyn Ives Gilman
By far the strongest piece in this issue is the cover novelet "The Wild Ships of Fairny" by Carolyn Ives Gilman. (The cover itself is simply beautiful.) The island of Fairny is a depressed backwater ever since the herds of wild ships that made Fairny famous died off from overhunting. Then, to try to cure the melancholia, Larkin and her brother set off in search of new ships. To tell any more would ruin this truly wonderful and touching story. Suffice it to say that love and freedom are often at odds with each other.
Dave Smeds's "A Marathon Runner in the Human Race" is impressive in that it is romantic, without being sentimental. "Second Contact" by Gary Couzens is a quite well written slice-of-life story about a total solar eclipse visible in England, although I was left wondering both what the point was and by what definition was this either science fiction or fantasy. "Director's Cut" is a scrap cut from the final draft of James Morrow's forthcoming novel Towing Jehovah. This tongue-in-cheek interview with Moses and various Egyptian workers about the filming of DeMille's The Ten Commandments is reminiscent of Monty Python at its finest and is the funniest short story I've read in a some time.
"Brixtow White Lady" by Felicity Savage follows the flight of a woman disguised as a man. It turns out that she possesses the eerie ability to mold flesh and bone and has used it to murder an old friend when he discovered her true gender. Her actions throughout the story seem haphazard and at one point decidedly cruel. I found this story to be clumsy at best. By comparison, "The Convertible Coven" by Susan Wade was a cheerfully light piece which shows a different side to paganism (although I'm sure most readers, like me, saw the end coming by the third page).
This issue also included several disappointments from writers who can do better. First, there is Gregory Benford's "Doing Alien", which focuses on a seduction of an alien and the surprising consequences for the backwoods Romeo. Unfortunately, the chain from cause to consequence is not explained and the story felt unfinished. Next is "Two Lovers, Two Gods, and a Fable" by Esther M. Friesner. Friesner has been writing brilliant short fiction for quite some time now (my favorite remains "A Friendly Game of Crola" from Amazing way back in September 1985), but this particular story I feel fell short. It centers around a doomed love between mortals manipulated by gods, but the ending, while truly inspired in its own right seemed to belong to a different story entirely. The last is in a way the most disappointing. I have only read two stories by Carrie Richerson ("A Dying Breed" and "The Light at the End of the Day" both in F&SF), but I have been amazed by how fluid and real her stories and characters can be. I wish I could say the same for "Sous La Mer." The largest problem with this story is that the exact nature of the main characters is withheld until the end. By itself, this gives the reader a sense that the author has not played straight with them, but in this case, it causes many of the earlier events in the story to seem awkward and unreasonable.
"Inspiration" by Ben Bova
"Hanging by a Thread" by Leslie What
"Coyote Ugly" by Pati Nagle
"Sarah at the Tide Pool" by Marina Fitch
"Without End" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
"Natulife™" by David Brin
"Epiphany Beach" by Steven R. Boyett
"Wendy Darling, RFC" by R. Garcia y Robertson
I was all set to say "Wendy Darling, RFC" was the strongest piece in this issue, until I read "Epiphany Beach". This warm-hearted look at one of our favorite cold-blooded movie monsters and his not-so-quiet life in the black lagoon was at once hilarious and touching. His almost childlike nature makes you want to reach out and hug him, until you notice the pulsing gills and seaweed. And best of all, this story is apparently an excerpt from Boyett's forthcoming novel, Green. All that being said, the cover novelet "Wendy Darling, RFC" was quite good in its own right. Garcia paints a vivid picture of World War I England through the eyes of Wendy Darling, formerly of Neverland. While Wendy's actions were a bit far-fetched at times, I found the innocence regarding the realities of war quite familiar, as a member of the first generation this century that has made it to 25 without facing a draft. In all honesty, I do not know what it is like to face that sort of situation, and neither did Wendy. I can only hope that I would have reacted to it as bravely.
"Coyote Ugly" was another wonderful story in this issue. I have not read anything else by Fitch, but if this imaginative story of artwork and cultural collision in the southwest is indicative, I'll have to watch for more of her work in the future. "Sarah at the Tide Pool" was a solid story about genetic engineering and revenge, although I did not find the ending at all believable.
"Inspiration" by Ben Bova was a cute little piece about a carefully arranged meeting between Albert Einstein, H. G. Wells, and Lord Kelvin. In "Without End", Rusch has finally written a story that I can enjoy. Her last few stories have seemed a bit flat to me, but this nostalgic piece about the nature of time and dealing with the loss of a loved one was different. The characters felt natural and their relationship was comfortable in a way that good marriages tend to be.
And, as with the March issue, there are a couple of pieces that aren't quite there, including another by someone who is capable of better. David Brin's "Natulife (TM)" is, frankly, corny. The sequences spent in "Virtuality" are fine to a point, but having the artificial characters understand and attempt to explain in terms of primitive religion that the system needs more memory struck me as hokey. I did, however, like the termites. Finally, there is "Hanging by a Thread" by Leslie What. This story was remarkably uneven. The main character was well-drawn in her reactions to her visions, but her relationship with her mother and the climax and denouement seemed forced and unnatural.
Being a creative person is a strange thing. You want other people to experience your work. You also wouldn't mind a little money for the effort. This hunger for money is closely coupled with the desire to join the community of artists--your peers. The people whose work you have admired.
For the new internet writer, these values are now in direct conflict. The conflict is in fact, driving this writer a little crazy. We'll get back to this.
The internet--the network of all computer networks--is the newest, fastest, best instant publishing medium ever created by the human race. It combines the immediacy and dispersal of broadcast technology with the convenience of being to a large degree asynchronous. But if you don't do internet news, you don't know what I'm talking about. Let me explain.
Imagine broadcasting your own television or radio show, and knowing that everyone's TV or radio had a buffer, a cache that held the last day or weeks worth of shows. And that that buffer was searchable by keyword or name of artist. That's how netnews works. It's a fantastic combination of broadcast and broadcatch.
The net's military/academic/non-profit origins have created a strange, decommercialized space inhabited by millions of people the world over. They live there, work there, play there. An SF writer named it cyberspace, the name stuck, and it as real as New York City or Peoria. It isn't science fiction any more in the slightest. It's old hat. It's Time magazine.
Thousands--millions--of people are becoming writers on the internet. By and large, they don't make any money at it, and the world of commercial publishing, the community of professional writers, has no idea what to make of them.
They see writing--the creation and distribution of fiction and commentary and political opinion--becoming an amateur pastime right before their eyes. So they close them, and pretend it isn't happening.
They don't like it. Why would they?
Some of them are vaguely annoyed at the people who are willing to write for the net. Like prostitutes irritated by promiscuous women who are just giving it away.
I'm discovering I'm one of them--a slut that likes giving it away. I'm tired of the rules of "trying to be a published author", though I follow them like some medieval peasant compelled by tradition to dance around the maypole.
I've been writing genre fiction for five years. I've sold a single story out of my stable of 30 or so completed works to a professional market. Professional defined as paying 3 cents a word or higher and having a circulation of over 10,000 copies. I've sold 3 stories to the small press. The total payment for these four sales was 382 dollars. Total readership, somewhere between 10 and 20 thousand readers for all the stories combined. Of that 382 dollars, 150 was spent on postage, on the over 100 submissions and three years of nail biting required to sell those stories. My experience is not that uncommon.
Selling fiction is a slow, noisy, irritating, and stupid process. The market value of prose is so negligible, quality work so relatively hard to identify, that slush piles are these huge traffic jams, publishing is a bottleneck. Not that this stuff doesn't need to be filtered; I work as an editorial assistant--first reader--for a SF magazine as well. We need filters. We just need better ones. Faster ones based on the new technology. Electric ones, bottom up ones, not top down ones.
Perhaps, some of us will drop the whole profit thing entirely. Payment for short fiction is more or less vestigial at this point anyway. Found money. You write, and every now and then, you find these little pile of twenties in your mailbox. These events are in no way linked in your mind, anymore. You don't write for money. You do want to see your work in big-paying markets--because they'll reach a larger audience. The checks are nice, but certainly not important. "Ohh," you say, "More stamp and envelope money from the publishing fairy..."
Reading and writing fiction is for many who do it a labor of love. The midlist is choked with writers who do not make anything like a living. As is every art gallery, every video show, every comic-book convention. This is ok. We're a rich country. We have the luxury of creating art, and still, somehow, finding food and shelter. Don't cry for us. I'm drying my eyes as we speak!
Its just that we have these ideas, leftover ideas from a generation years ago, when print was a bigger slice of the media pie, that we should write stories and sell them and that would be our job. While this is still true, for some, imagining it for oneself or one's friends is similar to encouraging disadvantaged youth to drop out of school to work on their basketball skills.
On a whim, I took a few stories that had been rejected a few times too many, and posted them to the internet group rec.arts.prose--The rec. prefix means that this group is fairly widely distributed, even in parts of the country where the alt. hierarchies--standing for alternative--are switched off by the local protectors of public morality. You want to put your stuff in a rec. group, if you want readers.
I got feedback from all over the English speaking world. A few dozen readers, who not only enjoyed the work, but who wanted to talk to me about it. Who wanted to critique the work. Who wanted to know me. Far more personal response, in fact, than all my other sales combined.
And I thought, my God, what would happen if I started showing these people the good stuff?
There is no way of knowing how many people those few dozen correspondents represented--there's no money here, remember. I tacked my story up in the public square. How many people glanced at it, and hit the n key when they weren't grabbed by the first few lines? Depending on how you figure it, there were at least as many readers for each rec.arts.prose story as there were for my 'professional' sales. I certainly got a lot more feedback.
All anyone has to do to talk to an author in this new medium is hit the lowercase 'r' key. Imagine. If every story you'd ever read as a child, that moved you deeply, that made you cry or laugh, had a 'r' button. Sure, you could have looked up the writers address, gotten it from the publisher, applied graphite to lined paper, tasted a stamp, walked to a blue metal box and tilted it's lid--but really, did you ever? I didn't, and reading was the only thing that kept me alive through adolescence.
Would you hit 'r'?
Certainly. Lots of people did and do, and I collect their names in a big file--I may one day sully our relationship by asking them to put a small amount of money where their mouths are, and actually purchase some of my stuff--again, through the wire, by credit card, via one of the new on-line text selling services popping up as this space goes commercial.
People have a hard time finding the magazines I sell to.
These readers, correspondents, are part of my network. For while there is no money here, there is a community. You give your work to them, because the prose posted loses its market value--you've just blown your first north America serial rights, man! You'll never publish that one! Kiss it good-bye! Idiot! Pros with trunks full of stories that will probably never kiss pulp chant this at you as you give away your early, flawed gems on the internet. A netfriend of mine calls it egoboo. Short for egoboost. Well.
For me, it's sacrifice to the muse that gave me these words in the first place. For me, it's reaching readers.
And I wonder why more serious writers aren't doing it.
One simple answer is, they have more faith in their stories than I do. Or they're better than I am. But, oh, I'm tired of editors saying "I have to pass on this, but I'm sure someone else will buy it." This is the editor's way of saying that a story is publishable, but doesn't strike their fancy. Quite simply, I'm discovering it isn't true for me--that they sell elsewhere--though I appreciate the compliment in the spirit in which it is given.
Perhaps those who sneer at the internet writer, die-hard paper junkies, have grown to like the taste of stamps. The endless wait for the mailman to arrive.
My mailman is always late, when he comes at all. And the stamps are beginning to taste like bile.
Another thing happening on the net now is something called digital anonymity. It's creating dialogs the like of which have never been seen in human history. It is, like everything on the net, both something old, and something new--electrified for speed.
Writers have been writing under pseudonyms forever. But two-way communication using these pseudonyms has never been this simple. An anonymous server--a machine that strips a message of its identifying name and address, creates a contact number, and forwards it to another address, allows an author to create multiple personae--tentacles, if you will--and to communicate with a public wearing a variety of masks. You can talk back and forth through this hole in the wall, pass texts back and forth, and both parties remain anonymous but in perfect contact through a series of exchanges.
The ease of digital anonymity is quite simply a new thing under the sun. It's happening on the net. It's another reason to be there now. Obviously, this connection is being taken advantage of in the field of erotic fiction--talk about giving it away free! The net is swimming in the repressed libido of post-sexual revolution America.
There are newsgroups in the alt. hierarchies that one feels one should perhaps wash ones hands after reading. At least, I often have to.
When everyone in this country is fully connected, people will write their own Penthouse letters, and Guccione will be looking for a job. Would you rather a cold printed text, or a hot one with that 'reply' key I was talking about? Oh, people are learning how to write who never dreamed of it before, driven by evolutionary hormonal pressures to learn arcane, command-driven computer languages.
Love is a wonderful thing... It can make lonely undergrads learn Unix.
I have a few digital identities myself. Different ways to explore this space. Different people to be. Our personalities expand through the network, taking on new forms, like William Gibson's Loa from the book Count Zero.
On the net we are as big or as small as we want to be--as we need to be. Writing becomes more personal--fiction and faith and autobiography and confessional and therapists office, all rolled into one.
The only way I've found to stay away from the net is to write on my Powerbook in the coffee shop, where I'm now sipping a latte, watching snow blanket the streets of Cambridge Massachusetts. There's a little hole on the back of my computer though, a phone jack. Soon, there won't be any place to hide. We'll all be plugged in.
And nobody will ever taste stamps again.
I've got 20 stories making their Prosic Bataan Death march as we speak, collecting their rejection slips. I'm pretty good now--though apparently not good enough-- this means it takes longer to get rejected, because the editors feel compelled to give me a little smile and a pat on the rump as they shoe me out the door. This takes three to six months per submission, of course, because editors are busy people, working 100 hour weeks for pretty much no money at all. There's no point being angry with them. They do the best they can, like the rest of us.
But I've got a million people in the other room--on the net. Hundreds of them are asking me for stories. I tell them, "I just finished a good one. Maybe in a year or three, you'll get to see it in a magazine." They say, "Oh."
I've got stamps--75s and 23s, everybody know that's all you need?-- and envelopes and an Excel spreadsheet to log the rejections--and the occasional sale--and three market magazines I devour to help me mail things to the right people at the right time. But all the while I can hear a million people murmuring gently through this twisted pair of wires.
The stuff we net-heads sift through is wildly uneven, of course, a digital slush pile. But in cyberspace, we don't need no stinking editors. We read a paragraph, hit 'n' if we aren't grabbed. We're all first readers. rec.arts.prose could become a fiction cooperative, owned and operated by readers and writers. I'd like to help make it that. Perhaps I will.
And I'm seriously thinking of ending the Bataan death march early, instead sending these stories to their real and final home--to the net, where writing has been enjoyable. Where I have been appreciated and loved rather than treated like a perhaps-trainable retarded child. All these stories are worth a few thousand dollars on the open market, at most, and my lifespan and patience are finite. I'd like my readers. Now. And I know one sure place to get them.
I have plenty to eat, a computer to type on, a nice place to live. Why not?
I'm still trying to figure out the answer to that one.
E. Jay O'Connell is a 30 year old writer living in the Cambridge, MA area. He is married, has two cats, and a gang of colleagues that like to call themselves Critical Mass. He works as an associate editor for Aboriginal Science Fiction, and his own work has, at times in the past, graced the pages of that magazine. He works with Macintoshes for money, writes uncontrollably on the internet, and talks incessantly. He'll be going to Clarion this summer, where he will hopefully learn to stop talking about himself in the third person.
Steven Pitluk was born in Knyszyn, Poland in 1950 and emigrated to Cleveland in 1957. He received a BA from Ohio State University in History and a Masters in Medieval History from Notre Dame. He has worked various odd jobs and is currently trying to get his short stories/novel published.
Shannon Turlington is a modern-day jack-of-all-trades--she writes on a freelance basis, edits her own electronic magazine, Cyberkind, and works for an electronic publishing service, DreamTech Enterprises. She lives in Carrboro, NC, with her fiance, her dog, and her two ferrets.
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