Here's my perspective on six standout stories published in 2009. They reflect the diversity and vitality of current short-form SF. The only connection between these pieces is the depth of response they provoked in me as a reader, so in the interest of honesty I won't attempt to impose on them a scheme of artistic or thematic cohesion.
Meet Horacio Gorrión. He is, like Horatio in Shakespeare's Hamlet, logical-minded and skeptical. And his last name—the Spanish for "sparrow"—may put us in a biblical frame of mind. (Matthew 10:29 and Luke 12:6: "Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.") He stands at the center of Steven Utley and Michael Bishop's "The City Quiet as Death" (Tor.com, June 2009), impervious to the human suffering around him, but suffering a great private torment. Surely this is no coincidence; without empathy there can be no happiness. But Horacio, no matter how determined he may be to apply the methods of Reason in his battle of wills against the universe, can never escape the attention of the God he denies.
He is devastated by this inner conflict, by the central dilemma of one who wishes to be alone but cannot escape "the unbearable nightly clamor of the stars." Don Horacio Gorrión seeks to deny or perhaps transcend his human nature, and his life consists of endless distancing and repression. The more evident God's attention to the "sparrow" in Horacio's nature, the more the "Horatio" component of Horacio's identity fights back with philosophical deconstructions and chilly contempt. Horacio Gorrión cannot be cured. He is destined to suffer a great deal. It's in his name.
Short fiction editors have often noted that a great story is not one that many readers like, but one to which many readers respond strongly—both favorably and unfavorably. The reader responses to "The City Quiet as Death," available for perusal right under the story at Tor.com, are extreme, ranging from "almost unbearably perfect and painfully delightful," "intricately woven, beautifully written . . . with incredible layers of meaning," "gorgeous," all the way to "metaphysical twaddle." This could be a great story.
Horacio Gorrión doesn't fear death, but his inability to shut out "the vastness of the universe" causes him tremors, apparently hereditary for "almost every male Gorrión in his años de oro." He jokes to his housekeeper Adelaida, whose superstitious and religious inclinations he mocks, that rather than him taking her hands and praying to Christ Jesus she might prefer to season his chickpeas with arsenic and end his misery. Concerned at Gorrión's precarious state, Adelaida calls in Doctor Ezequiel Vega and Father Reinaldo Casares for something akin to an intervention on two metaphysical fronts. In both conversations Horacio implacably dispenses with niceties and reduces everything to absurdity. Vega offers various investment schemes, culminating in a proposal involving creating "baby universes" from the "false vacuum" and deeding them out to prospective customers, who will then christen and rule over them. Horacio will not be satisfied unless he can be guaranteed the impossible: to "set foot in a bubble universe, find it to my liking, and then live in it with the aloof insouciance of a god." In conversation with Casares, meanwhile, the traditional "problems" of suffering and evil quickly come to the fore, and Horacio presses the Father until he draws a confession that God's all-loving spirit can only be defended by denying His omnipotence. Needless to say, the double intervention fails, and Horacio is left once more to fight the crazy-making "endless din of the stars."
Enter Adelaida's unique locket, gifted to Horacio earlier in the story as a "charm" to prevent his suicide. She claims it contains a fifteen-meter long squid, compressed beyond all reason; Horacio naturally disbelieves this. But now, in the frenzy of the stars' mounting frequencies, the squid seems to want to get out of its locket, and instructs Horacio to run. The final few startling paragraphs of the story depict Horacio's Lovecraftian transformation in full sensory fashion, and the narrative literally ends poised on a plunge into the depths. What are we to make of this ending? Horacio's existence, it seems, has been a cruel joke, a cosmic misfire. He has devoted his life to the pursuit of a stillness as "quiet as death" and it has led to his demise. Art, science, and religion have all failed to get through to him, leaving him "hollow." The sea is the personification of "patience," for no matter how much Horacio has attempted to divorce himself from the world, he is a part of it, and the world need only wait until he dissolves back into the fold. The locket, originally intended to save him, proves the instrument of his death.
Is this ironic? I don't think so. Bishop and Utley's tale is cautionary, deeply felt, passionate. The locket is the instrument of Horacio's salvation; and since he refuses to be saved, the next best possible fate for him is an end to his pain. Horacio, recall, hates physical reality, and "sees through" all beauty. He is fundamentally distressed by "the notion that he represented the pinnacle of evolution attained by the offspring of some anonymous sea-dwelling creature." This is untenable; he must in the end devolve and return to the source.
The story's extraordinary journey wouldn't be possible without writing of the highest quality. Note that I don't mean by this that it is beautiful or pretty. In fact, it is deadening, an assault, grinding in its rhythm, oppressive. (This becomes even clearer if one listens to Bishop's podcast of the story). Sentences are long and somewhat breathless, images are dramatically reiterated ("the din," "the clamor," the "engine-like crosstalk," the "ululations," the "overlapping arias" of the stars); verbs multiply ("This star ruckus jangled, purred, droned, hissed, and screeched"). This is all as it should be, for what better way to capture the very cacophony of the stars by which Horacio is constantly battered?
Then, too, he is highly educated, an intellectual hermit, and the language reflects this through its formal elevation and coldness. Combined with a proliferation of lists (invoking canonical writers, philosophers, and classical music), wrapped around impossible happenings, the narrative achieves in a short space the texture one often associates with longer magical realist texts. We have here finely honed craft in service of story. I'd also like to suggest that amidst the profound existential reflections and prolonged tête-à-tête's there is deliberate humor. Horacio's self-aggrandizing statements and exaggerations make him a target of parody. Just how seriously should we take someone who eats chickpeas like candy, and who while listening to Mahler demands he be served "goddamned beef and garbanzos" with the impetuousness of a tyrant?
Here at last, a story that fucks with our expectations about the role of sex in SF, a story that backs its convictions with technical execution, a piece that combats with us for meaning and ultimately permits a hard-earned victory: "Spar" (Clarkesworld #37, October 2009) by Kij Johnson.
Density is the first word that comes to mind on re-reading "Spar." Sentences are short and packed with meaning. Paragraphs are short, too (less than five sentences long, on average). The story is just over 2,000 words long, something I found almost impossible to believe, given how meaty it feels. And even at this length it is cut into sections, themselves perforce brief. Given the story's intensity, attempting to use longer structures would cause swelling. Johnson's protagonist experiences here an amplified physical analog, if you will, of Horacio's spiritual torture in the above piece.
Her predicament: she is trapped in a claustrophobic lifeboat in space with a non-bipedal, dusk-colored, slime-and-cilia-coated alien. No linguistic exchange is possible; there are no common cultural or shared species referents. Everything must be expressed physically. But how? What communication can arise in the context of this unbearable intimacy across a gulf? "Spar" chronicles the transformation of sex from an expression of emotion and a wish for connection into an exalted, doomed semiosis, an attempt to imbue Meaning in, and wrestle it from, Penetration.
The character's emotional landscape is fractured and saturated with sensation. As a result, the narrative itself is broken and recursive. There is an almost masochistic sense of violence inflicted on us by the clinical ("a clear thin slime that tastes of snot"), perversely recombinant descriptions of aggression ("She forces her hands into it, kicks it, tries to tears its cilia free with her teeth, claws its skin with her ragged, filthy fingernails"), failed exchange ("She tries to teach it words" . . . "Does it even have ears?" . . . "It learns no lessons about pleasing her. She does not learn anything about pleasing it either" . . . "She cannot communicate") and self-mutilation ("For a while, she measures time by bruises she gives herself" . . . "She slams her shin against the feeding tube"). Urgent, loud desperation permeates the story from start to finish.
The story's assembly requires decoding. We need to read sentences over again, to go back and forth through a text that knots around us twenty times. We are hypnotized by tantalizing parallelisms: "Making spaces. Making space." Or "she and the alien fuck endlessly, relentlessly" / "Her anger is endless, relentless". We become enmeshed with the strangeness: "There are dark slashes and permanent knobs that sometimes distend, but it is always growing new Outs, hollowing new Ins" . . . "When she reaches farther in to grasp the broken piece, a sphincter snaps shut on her wrist". We hope for release.
The story, appropriately, hovers in the present tense, capturing the uncertainty of the future and the persistence of the protagonist's imprisonment. Another of the story's successes is its lack of redundancy within a context of repetition. We learn new and essential things even when it seems there's no possibility of growth because the protagonist is shut off from the universe outside the lifepod. She is vaguely aware of her own situation, at least in one way: she remembers the experience of poetry, and the experience of SF. However, I'd argue that a more substantial reason for the story's involvement is the semiotic dimension of the text I alluded to above.
This is established in the story's second line: "They each have Ins and Outs." That same paragraph details what these Ins and Outs are for the human character, and how the equivalence fails to hold for the alien. It is the first clear indication that no information is being successfully exchanged via sender and receiver. Note that this revelation is especially dramatic because it violates the expectations created by the use of the word "fuck" in the opening line. The human and the alien are not "fucking" in the habitual sense: they are prodding one another with Ins and Outs. Johnson realizes that there is little in the form of conventional linear action or plot that, realistically, could emerge within the strict confines of her premise. So we move to a generalization of what flesh is, without ever losing the flesh itself.
Now consider these two specific traits of "Spar" in combination: first, an almost-hallucinatory portrayal of biological functions and violence some readers may consider "shocking"; second, the motif of Ins and Outs, entries and exits into Meaning and the body, with a concentration on the erogenous zones. This brings to mind William S. Burrough's Naked Lunch. Analysis of Burrough's novel has led Arnold Weinstein, a Professor of Comparative Literature, to conclude the following:
Naked Lunch seems like a surreal, hallucinatory carnival . . . but there is a grisly structure in all this turbulence: the opening of the body by a foreign object. [ . . . ] Reading Burroughs, we understand that all bodies are porous, all bodies are the sites on which stuff (whether material or mental) goes in and out. [ . . . ] Burroughs picks up one of the oldest motifs of American thinking, the frontier [ . . . ], but he locates it where no one else has thought (or dared) to: on the body. Burroughs is our cartographer who maps the new world of the body, and he makes us see that the body's traffic is an affair of entries and exits ..." (A Scream Goes Through the House, Arnold Weinstein, pp. 116-117).
These comments could apply to Johnson's piece without alteration, illuminating the quality of her craft and the force of her vision. Weinstein quotes a supporting passage from the novel itself, which I repeat here in truncated fashion: "Through the orifices transmute your body . . . The way OUT is the way IN . . . " (Naked Lunch, p. 229)
Johnson's story begins where the quote ends: her character must transmute not only her body, but her very situation, through the orifices. There seems to be more at stake than simple endurance—there is the question of her remaining human, for instance. Does she succeed?
The story's last section describes her rescue by another craft. We know, at least, that the protagonist, despite the impairment of her faculties, has preserved sufficient volition to make a choice (italics mine): "Nothing changes. No." That is to say, things do change. An affirmation of will; the deliberate end of victim-status as soon as it within grasp. And the story's ending in the very next two sentences reinforces this shift, this triumph. It relinquishes us from the vicious entrapment; we've survived. But the final sentence, simply "Out.", is more ambivalent if we remember to look beyond the literal. The fineness of the story behooves us to be sensitive to these added connotations, as established throughout the earlier sections. An Out is more than egress from the lifeboat. An Out is a thing "that can be thrust into other things." Further, "there is always an Out in an In". And, in its limit, an Out represents a cessation of being: "Gary is dead. He got Out." Her last "Out," therefore, must be all of these things at once; given the simultaneity of contradictory experiences that have led her to up this moment, it would be naïve to think otherwise.
She's abandoning the lifepod, but only to enter the In of the world, to thrust herself into it and have it be thrust into her.
She is alive again, and also dead.
Robert Reed had another fantastic year in 2009, publishing nine original and very different stories. "Castle in the Sky," which compellingly pairs conceptual suspense with intimate character development, appeared in the Mike Ashley-edited anthology The Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF; as a result, more readers may have missed it than some of Reed's magazine appearances such as the excellent "True Fame" (Asimov's, April/May 2009), "Firehorn" (F&SF, June/July 2009), and "Before My Last Breath" (Asimov's, October/November 2009).
The two narrative strands, winding around one another like a double helix, are interesting separately and even more so in combination. One strand begins with a first person recollection by the narrator, Craig, of his best friend when he was eight years old, Donnie. By the end of the first scene, tragedy has struck, and we're left to wonder how what follows can possibly not be anti-climactic.
Skip to the present. Craig, now financially secure as a result of his practical skills in "designing castles and other fortifications," is approached by one Colonel Sutter, soon to be more personably referred to as Katherine. Katherine recruits him to work on a project on the Moon, where rather than building something his structural engineering expertise is to be applied to "gaining access to a particularly difficult structure." We can't be blamed for envisioning Moon monoliths. With this whiff of Clarkean grandeur in the air, we sniff on. (An explicit reference is made later on, when Craig jokingly asks if the structure they're studying is designated "The Sentinel.")
Back to Craig's youth. We're shown his religious upbringing, his sister's change of spiritual course during her freshman year, Donnie's dad continuing to live on in the house where Terrible Things happened. Craig recalls his sad and frightening interaction with Donnie's father, who gives him some of his dead son's toys and asks him to pray and "accept our Savior into your life." We begin to understand this thread of story is about wounds. More generally, it is about the Past and, in the cosmic sense, God. Meanwhile, high-energy physics drama unfolds. A group of scientists led by the brilliant Dr. Nathan Peck have subjected the object known as Castle Rock to a battery of tests and forces, including laser and plasma beams, attempting to induce a reaction that will reveal its nature. Castle Rock begins to produce minuscule amounts of energy. Or does it? Peck recants the results shortly after announcing them, which makes Craig suspicious. As the exact scope of Castle Rock is revealed, we learn that this second thread is also about the Past and God. The thematic convergence is clever and polished, leading to questions of faith and our perceptions about what constitutes the truly significant moments of our lives.
The allusion to Clarke, it turns out, is well-justified in that it doubles as foreshadowing. The story's last sections summons an idea developed at novel-length in the collaborative novel by Clarke and Stephen Baxter, The Light of Other Days. The following should be praise enough to give you an idea of the command and storytelling vigor on display in Reed's story: despite the fact that its idea is not original, and is indeed a rather old speculative staple, the last few pages make "Castle in the Sky" more fresh and interesting than the Baxter/Clarke novel ever managed over its four-hundred-plus disjointed pages.
There's a lot to admire in this story. Our curiosity at understanding the connection between both storylines is certainly a factor, creating synergistic suspense that is fully satisfied by the ending. And even though there are several scenes that could comfortably sit in a mainstream literary story, with no SF element whatsoever, there's never a lag in the pacing or the suspicion of unfair manipulation in our expectations. The choice of first person viewpoint grounds us: by being allowed an interior look into Craig's formative experiences as a human being, we have a firm anchor supporting the headier philosophical/space-time meditations.
Reed's descriptive passages are engrossing without indulging in heavy exposition. His writing is assured and confident. Even when there is little external action, there is the sensation of swiftness to each new development. The Moon setting is developed functionally and somewhat sparsely, without frills or elaborate background. The implications of the story's end, with its reference to Believers with a capital "b," raises additional questions for us to ponder. Each of these elements contributes to a greater whole, a smoothly assembled fictional unit that appears effortless in its construction, and almost inevitable in an after-the-fact way. This level of professionalism and imaginative fecundity is one we've come to expect from the prolific Reed, but we shouldn't take it for granted.
The last line, about humanity's "ignorance and idiocy," provides an unsentimental ending that is true to the rest of the story's tone. But let me be clear, it is not fatalistic; simply hard-earned perspective. Reed has provided us with reflections of this sort on the human condition before, in his vast-scale Marrow sequence and in stories like "Coelacanths" (F&SF, March 2002). The musing is more subtle here. It closes the journey started in the story's six opening words: "When I was eight years old . . . "
Craig initiates his almost confessional story as a boy and ends it as an adult. He is skeptical all throughout—a specific character trait that makes him valuable to Peck—but never nihilistic. The chronological play allows us to witness the evolution of Craig's convictions, and we realize that even when what he says or does is uncomfortable, he is always honest about his—and all of humanity's—flaws.
Tim Pratt is at the height of his considerable, inimitably charming powers in "Her Voice in a Bottle" (Subterranean, Winter 2009). The simple title is evocative and poetic, as is the voice of Pratt's narrator, Tim Pratt (hereafter, just Tim). It is also, in the best possible way, misleading. Sure, the story is about a woman's voice in a bottle. It starts with an enigma: as Tim sits on a driftwood log in a Santa Cruz beach in February, his lover Meredith disappears. Her form literally dissolves from his sight. Where has she gone? Why would she leave? Will she return? But in the end, this may not be the story's central mystery, the one that matters most.
On my first reading of the story I was struck by Pratt's delicate stylistic balancing act. Tim manages to stir in us melancholy without ever falling into bathetic self-pity. He admits to his weaknesses, as well to his insights, without dwelling on them. His longing for connection is raw and recognizable; there's no pretense or melodrama. He is sensitive, but refreshingly unjaded in proportion to his sensitivity. He is a romantic who tempers his expectations, but he's also a realist with romantic flights of fancy. He's somewhere in between the various ways in which he perceives himself to be, and that in-between space accommodates us readers so that we can identify not just with particular traits but with the emergent totality of his character.
More equipoise: Tim has little patience for wish-fulfillment, but is aware that all fiction is imaginary and wish-fulfillment, "even this story, which is filled with true stories of my life, is to some extent imaginary, whether I want it to be or not." He dislikes the trick of narrators externalizing a part of their characters as a separate being, but realizes the absurdity and arbitrariness of where he's drawing the line between imaginary and real.
Setting and narrative rhythm support this fragile and elegant arrangement of forces. Real places are described in detail; names, places, times are significant. The season of the year, the name of a band, the address of a café; everything evokes something else. The luxuriousness of these descriptions and the unhurried pace create ample, open stages upon which are set multiple intersections with Meredith. There is another opposition at work here: Aristotelian unity of action, for the encounters are at the heart of everything, in contrast to a lack of unities of place and time. The absence of the latter permits more illumination of the psychological consequences of the former.
Another key to the story's sophisticated gambit is the first person narration. We saw how in Reed's story the first person rooted our perspective across separate timelines; it does so here, too. It also immediately creates intimacy and presents us with an unadorned, easygoing style. As Tim recounts his various encounters with Meredith over the years, and the various emotional phases directly resulting from those meetings or acting as context for them, we are taken in by his candidness and essential lack of bullshit.
His observations are often mundane, but there's something genuinely heartwarming about his choice to share them with us, the readers. It is narrative kinship. Tim exposes his innermost self, and when the layer of metafiction is lifted, or at least laterally displaced, we're left with a genuine person in a heartrending situation. But of course, there's always another level; this too is part of the expert artifice, for Tim is not a person, but a character. The ease with which we forget this is a testament to Pratt's storytelling skill.
Beyond its surface meaning, "Her Voice in a Bottle" is an eloquent reminder that all "I"s are creations to some extent, whether captured in the technical devices of a story or in the necessary and often humbling presentation of our own identities to others around us. When we speak, we create ourselves. Memories are fragile, unreliable, always luring us to the past. What is adulthood, what is maturity? In the story's final moment Tim's reflections provide possible answers:
Growing up may be sparing other's feelings but not withholding the truth (italics are mine): "If Heather asks me why I moved it, I'll tell her I like the way the sunlight from the tall window catches the blue glass, which is true."
Growing may be acknowledging the contradictory desires we harbor. "Part of me wants to open the bottle [ . . . ] Another part of me wants to throw the bottle into the ocean [ . . . ]"
Growing up may be honestly facing the potential intensity of our emotions: "The things I might feel for her could ruin a world."
Growing up may, impossibly, be telling the facts from the lies: " . . . just because I write fantasy doesn't mean I believe that stuff. I'm a skeptic."
Growing up may be living up to the commitments and relationships in our present, rather than succumbing to patterns of past behavior: "I'm not alone anymore. Hell, I'm not twenty or even twenty-four anymore."
Finally, growing up may be letting go of the need for closure, as evidenced by Tim's bittersweet musing that the "real secret to happy endings is simply choosing the right moment to look away."
At the start of this review I said that Meredith's disappearance might not be the story's central conundrum. Instead, it may be the deeper mystery of learning how to make sense of lives with "two acts already staged" and no third act ever to follow.
Meredith's voice in a bottle is Tim's voice in the story—and, by immediate extension, it is the sound of all of us in our own invisible glass chambers.
Richard Foss's gently told, highly-entertaining "Incarnation In The Delta" (Abyss & Apex, 1st Quarter 2009) is memorable and perhaps "quieter" than my other choices. It offers a set of pleasures too rich to be ignored: sensitivity, humor, and wonderful atmosphere. The first sentence not only sparks our curiosity but reflects all three of these qualities in abundance:
"I think the gods are embarrassed that they created me," mused Buddha's twin brother Larry as he walked past the sign that read Welcome to Coahoma County, Mississippi.
The tone in what follows is as disarming as in that opening line, but that's not to say that the narrative is breezy or superficial. Indeed, this is a thoughtful exploration of one of the oldest metaphysical tropes of all, immortality.
Larry, short for Lalitchandra, is indeed Siddhartha's brother. His origin story is provided within the first few paragraphs, throughout which his black companion and blues player Robert Johnson asks all the questions we would ask to situate ourselves. This is a good example of a story that does something stories supposedly shouldn't do: it starts off with extended exposition disguised as dialog. And it doesn't suffer one bit for it: the exposition is intriguing and unusual enough to hold our interest, and the exchange between Larry and Robert is peppered with historical details and telling character trademarks that add additional layers to what we're learning.
The story continues along in talkative fashion for about three quarters of its length, barely stopping for the odd situational or scene-shifting sentence. We're propelled along what appear to be mostly amusing incidents, rather than a chain of cause and effect determined by the protagonist's decisions. This is a successful gambit, because it generates a sense of Larry's detachment, as would only befit someone in his circumstances. The pacing changes when events demand it. Indeed, the longest paragraphs occur right at the end, and successfully build up to a poignant climax.
Foss's attention to garb and food establish a loving verisimilitude throughout. Without these underpinnings in specificity the tale could come across as simply glib or unrealistic. For example, when Larry meets Sarah, the story's central romantic interest and a character that draws out Larry's more meditative qualities, we're told she was a "dark skinned girl wearing a ragged but clean gingham dress and a colorful cotton headband." Later, Robert appears "on the unsteady arm of a plump but pretty woman wearing a calico dress and a dazzling red scarf." Larry "raised his eyes to see Sarah wearing an old smock with muddy stains at the knees."
Larry and Robert are not precisely men of wealth, so the references to food have added importance beyond historical setting; they provide shared experiences, triggers for memories and associations, as in "'Remember that girl in Morgan City that shared her lunch with us? Best greens and yams I can remember.'" When, after a performance, they "found a diner that offered griddlecakes, sausage, and coffee with chickory for five cents, and in the way of Southern breakfasts, it was all the two could eat without bursting" this too drives home their station in life. After Larry's intentions towards Sarah have become clear, cuisine is once again utilized to convey social status: "Sarah's mother even went so far as to invite him to dinner, a simple meal of vegetables that he ate hungrily and praised excessively."
One of the most challenging aspects of portraying a reincarnated being must be providing a measure of the being's accumulated plethora of memories. Foss tackles this early on in the form of anecdotal remembrances. We do receive concrete details and dates, such as Larry's memory of "when I was a tavern owner in a place called Hakodate. I was jamming with a biwa player on the night I died in 1792," his learning the habit of kissing a girl's hand "in the court of Charles the Bald in 844" or how "he tuned for a moment and then started playing a lively piece that was popular in Aksum in the third century AD." But it's the manner in which Larry relates his past lives to his friend that instantly makes him likeable and tells us he doesn't take himself seriously. Indeed, Larry's being interrogated on whether he "knows Jesus" leads to:
Larry had in fact actually seen Jesus, though since he was a mosquito at the time and compound eyes don't show much detail, he couldn't describe much.
The easy, almost whimsical nature of Larry's memories belies a philosophy of lack of attachment to physical possessions and the realization of ever-looming mortality. This is a touching contrast, again rendering Larry more complex and believable than he might have been in a lesser writer's hands. Engaging characters live in each of the stories under review, but in this case there is the added fascination of the protagonist not being human. When asked by Sarah if he is an orphan Larry responds that "'Everybody becomes one sooner or later, in the course of things. Bodies wear out, children go on.'" And when he and Sarah plan to set off to California together he advises : "You won't need more than you can carry." Nothing inherently funny about that.
The story's concluding line, with its sharp juxtaposition of mature resignation and even hopeful romanticism against the Ku Klux Klan's snapping violence, is ironically surprising. This is a sophisticated, subtle effect, redirecting our gaze away from the immediate and back towards the long-term nature of reincarnation.
On the whole, Foss's take is more vibrant jazz than stately string quartet, but he proves than even a simple banjo can sing compassion and insight.
Karen Joy Fowler's "The Pelican Bar" (Eclipse 3) is, simply, devastating.
Fowler employs her veteran skills to produce a story that starts innocuously, even hopefully, as a chronicle of teenage rebellion with just a hint of strangeness. The tension builds throughout a series of shattering, psychologically rending experiences, until the unforgettable implications of its last three paragraphs. More than any other of the stories discussed here, including Pratt's, "The Pelican Bar" is a conjuring trick. It keeps misdirecting us until it's almost too late, and then wrenches our heads in a new direction. That said, if all of its effect were tied up in its finale it might be deemed forgettable or gimmicky—but cut out the concluding revelation and you still have a marvelous piece of dread on your hands. The question of genre is linked to the ending, I must admit: as written, the story qualifies as SF. Remove those last few lines and you're left with slipstream. The level of maturity and quality of the prose are so good, though, that questions of genre become incidental.
The setup: Norah, a problematic teen who takes drugs etc., is hoisted from her home and dragged off to what she initially assumes is the boarding school with which her much-concerned parents have oft threatened her. They're sending her away, they explain, because "we love you" and "you were on a really dangerous path." Ironic foreshadowing notwithstanding, Norah finds her new residence infinitely harsher and more nightmarish than any regular boarding school.
Daily life becomes excruciating, as Norah must negotiate a seemingly endless series of breaking tests. Mama Strong, the ruthless, whimsical dictator in charge, seems oddly fascinated with pushing the girl's limits. Norah's life becomes ruled by a Pavlovian system of "points" rewarding certain behaviors and punishing others; everyday activities like brushing one's teeth become privileges that must be earned, and the slightest deviations from the rules result in the most severe reductions in points. But the Kafkaesque dimensions of Norah's plight quickly become clear; there is no possibility of victory in the system, which appears designed merely to inspire hopes it can then better crush. Life is an exercise in futility. The assignation of points, for instance, is often revealed when it's too late. There is no recourse to authority, even in the face of injustices such as this:
One day the lesson was the Frost poem 'The Road Not Taken,' which was not a hard lesson, but Norah got almost everything wrong because the staff member was using the wrong key. Norah said so and she lost points for her poor score, but also for talking.
Surely, the allusion to Frost's famous poem isn't accidental: Norah is certainly taking the "one less travelled by," and we grow uneasy that her final destination will resound with the irony of it being the road "that has made all the difference." It seems the purpose of Norah's imprisonment is not so much to break her bad patterns of behavior and replace them with healthy ones, but rather to test her sanity. The mystery of this dehumanization becomes more ominous as the horrors escalate.
Fowler has previously written of cults, of life amidst groups alienated from society, like in "Always" (Asimov's, April/May 2007). But this story goes much farther. Girls, arranged in "families" with chillingly satirical names like Power, begin to vanish: "The night Jetta disappeared there was a bloody towel in the corner of the shower. Not just stained with blood, soaked with it. It stayed in the corner for three days until someone finally took it away." Norah's physical condition deteriorates through enforced hygienic negligence ("She was all surface—skin rashes, eye infections, aching teeth, constant hunger, stomach cramps") and then further through prolonged sessions of stretching and immobilization torture in Room 303, the TAP or Think Again Position room. Years go by.
One day, Norah has an alluring vision of the titular "Pelican Bar." After increasingly cryptic exchanges with Mama Strong she is, against all odds, allowed to leave. In a passage we can't be accused of suspecting may be imaginary, Norah makes her way to the Pelican Bar, about twenty feet off the coast on a sandbar, and on returning has one last conversation with Mama Strong.
Fowler deploys run on sentences and a detached voice to establish the disorienting atmosphere and horror of Norah's situation, especially in the first half of the story. (The sentences become shorter later on, as the momentum increases). The point of view always remains with the girl, and though her own perceptions of what is happening are unreliable due to the extreme pressures to which she's subjected, Fowler plays "fair" in this regard: we experience everything Norah experiences. Description, therefore, tends to produce unexpected juxtapositions and associations; if not quite stream-of-consciousness, it is certainly more fluid than conventional past tense third person narration. There are further storytelling sleight of hands, such as the sudden and isolated use of present tense in a section depicting what may or may not be Norah's dream about the magnetic Pelican Bar.
Another remarkable achievement is to make us invested in Norah's fate from the outset. If this were a satirical or moral torture story involving an unrealized or archetypical "representative" character it would be only a fraction as potent as it is. But, though Norah is troubled, her experiences are conveyed without judgment, and increasingly deeper layers of her psyche are revealed as she is brutalized. Given the richness of detail and the almost mundane believability of the initial situation we grow to care about the outcome of her "programming" quickly indeed.
I find that Norah's odyssey is, in a sense, replicated by the reading experience itself. She is removed from her habitual, comfortable environment. We, in turn, are transported into a difficult place, the state of failing to understand what is happening to her. In empathizing with her, we inevitably wonder how we ourselves would react in her situation. But, beyond that immediate dimension of "vicarious learning," Norah's outcome forces us to re-examine our assumptions not only about specific ideas such as resilience, but, more subtly, about our own expectations of fiction.
"She didn't know who she was anymore. She didn't know anything at all." For a few priceless moments, we're right there with her, and we're not sure what this story is, what it's supposed to do or tell us. We know nothing. And in that uncertainty blossoms possibility. For not knowing frees us, so that a story can once again be anything at all, if only it is impressed with the creativity and technique of "The Pelican Bar."
Alvaro Zinos-Amaro grew up in Europe, mostly, and despite the advice of his betters he was crazy enough to earn a B.S. in Theoretical Physics and study creative writing. His fiction has appeared in Atomjack Magazine, Labyrinth Inhabitant Magazine, and Farrago's Wainscot. Alvaro's reviews of speculative fiction and poetry appear regularly at The Fix, and critical reviews and essays have also appeared in Fruitless Recursion and the Internet Review of Science Fiction. Visit him at his blog, Waiting for My Aineko.