Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Short Fiction Wednesday

Welcome to the second short fiction Wednesday here at Pointless Philosophical Asides! So, it's just a week and I've read a couple more stories around my usual reading. It's been easy this week cos I did not enjoy the novel I was reading (I'll post about that tonight or tomorrow). I'll almost certainly be back next week, too, as I'm now I'm waiting for an amazon order that was delivered on Monday and so I have to wait for the weekend before I can go to the post office and collect it. What a pain! And by the way, why is the universe so arranged that the very week I order Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel, it is serialised on Radio 4 in the regular tea time serial slot? Why is that, eh?

Anyway, a couple of interesting stories this week and i urge you to check them out for yourself, plus of course all the other fine stuff at Fantasy Magazine and Abyss & Apex!

A Stray by Scott William Carter and Ray Vukcevich
This is one of those stories that makes me wonder if I really know what fantasy is. At one end of the field you have bookshop genre fantasy – long series of epic tales in secondary worlds - and at the other you have something bleeds into mainstream literature. It's to this second sort of fantasy that A Stray belongs. It's the story of Jim, a rather troubled man who retreats to the house in which his father killed himself thirty years before. While he tries to come to grips with his numerous problems, he adopts a local cat and, well, things kind of kick off from there. The witty style nicely captures Jim's neuroses and nervous disposition and sketches in his background with deft efficiency. As with any story of madness and psychic collapse, the narrator is notoriously unreliable and all the moments of overt weirdness could be products of Jim's mind. I particularly admired the switch in point of view in the last few paragraphs, which was extremely effective.

However, I felt that the actual matter of the ending perhaps betrayed an uncertainty of purpose. The authors deliberately swerved aside from the more obvious ending heavily hinted at elsewhere, but I don't think they offer up something better than the familiar but emotionally satisfying conclusion they identify. As ever, though, the journey is just as important as the destination, and here the journey is a masterful display of literary madness.

The Tortuous Path by Bud Sparhawk
Abyss & Apex seem to deal in a very traditional style of SF tale that appeals to me very much. I've been following them for a few years, and you can depend on them when you crave some good old sensawunda SF. The Tortuous Route is very much in that mould. It's the story of Alessandro, a novice in a holy order that pilots interstellar space ships by “twisting” space in some kind of religious ritual. The future of the order is under threat, however, because of new computerised ships that can do the same thing and because of the secret behind the Order's initiation rituals. I really loved the setting of this story, wilfully improbable and contingent on assumptions designed to justify the drama rather than worry too much about actual plausibility.

By drawing on real-world analogies Sparhawk is able to sketch in the background quickly, but of course those real world analogies come at a cost: if you follow the story's holy orders metaphor through to the real world, it's an excoriating critique of organised religion! However, it's easy to miss this in the charming coming of age tale of Alessandro and the story leaves a very sweet taste despite the bitter ramifications of the subject matter.

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