Jeffrey Ford's "Daltharee," one of the most original and thoughtful stories in Ellen Datlow's latest outing as an anthology editor, The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, begins with a brief introduction to the nature of bottled cities, "stoppered at the top to keep reality both in and out. Those microscopic lives, striking glass at the edge of things, believed themselves gigantic, their dilemmas universal" (p. 300). The story of a scientist who has created a city in a bottle, who then goes on to inhabit his city and build another city in a bottle inside his previous city in a bottle, "Daltharee" reads as a parable of the creative process, mimicking the way artists and writers funnel pieces of themselves into tangible forms and hope that they can be appreciated before they are inevitably broken, their creators cruelly trapped inside. One can imagine an anthology of original short fiction to be a row of bottles on a somewhat shaky shelf, each containing "microscopic lives, striking glass at the edge of things," but not all built upon a foundation solid enough to handle their weight. But many of the stories in Datlow's anthology are admirably ambitious and far-reaching, and are certainly sturdy enough to stand upright. The book's title invokes a sense of authority—as though this is what science fiction and fantasy is, and not that—but what comes through is an abundance of different styles and points-of-view, muddling the notion that genre is a tangible, definable label, and promoting quality fiction rather than restricting the offerings to specific types of content.
Although not aggressively so. The opening novella, Jason Stoddard's "The Elephant Ironclads," is a perfect opening: an example of a good story that is a fairly typical choice for an anthology of this kind, and thus serving to settle the reader. A thoughtfully written alternate history about the importance of national identity in conversations about global politics, the story addresses the circumstantial nature of cultural history and the things different groups of people hold sacred. This coming-of-age story is reminiscent, at least to me, of the feeling of adventure and wonder associated with Golden Age science fiction; the world presented here is entirely new to me, entirely full of imagined histories and possible futures.
"Ardent Clouds" by Lucy Sussex is an extraordinary piece of fiction about the consequences of obsession which feels, in comparison to the nostalgic tone of the Stoddard story, utterly modern. Bet is a "groupie for danger," a documentarian who gets her kicks chasing volcanoes. Spider, a European professor and theorist of volcanology who is confined to a wheelchair, is Bet's source for information about which volcanoes are going to erupt next, and while rarely questioning the source of Spider's uncanny knowledge, she trusts it completely, going wherever he tells her to go. This particular story sends her to Chillipepper, a volcano in South America, where she engages with a motley cast of characters in her efforts to film the actual eruption. While the plot itself is only functional, personal narration is beautifully layered and the reader ultimately engages most strongly with the nuances of Bet's character.
The ardent clouds of the story's title are more commonly known as nuee ardente: fast-moving, often incandescent, clouds of hot ash and other material produced by a volcanic eruption. We are first introduced to the idea of this cloud as Bet recounts the story of Pliny the Younger, an eyewitness to the eruption of Vesuvius:
I thought of how Pliny the Younger had stayed behind but nearly got killed anyway. He saw a terrifying black cloud, torn as if by giant lightning, with massing flames at its centre. It sank down from the volcano, onto the sea, and rolled the twenty miles across the bay. Darkness came with it, like a light going out in a closed room. Ash began to fall on young Pliny, a teenager, and his mother. They thought the world was ending. (p. 61)
Unsurprisingly, Sussex draws parallels between the idea of the ardent clouds and the effects of Bet's obsession on other areas of her life. Bet's unrequited love interest falls victim to tragedy at the story's climax, and she is forced to consciously consider her prior actions: "Could I ever look through a lens again, after filming the fiery death of someone I had only just begun to realise I loved?" (p. 74) The ardent cloud as a literary device, then—the fiery remnants of an eruption—serves to foreshadow the harsh post-traumatic reality that Bet must face as she reevaluates her life in the wake of disaster.
By the end of "Ardent Clouds," Bet is attempting to construct the narrative of what exactly had happened to her—"What was the best form for my truth?" (p. 74)—and she imagines an alternate ending to her experience, one that offers more closure. Earlier in the story, Bet hears a retelling of a fable involving a Catholic priest, Don Nestor, who "cut a deal" atop the volcano with "a god, woken from a long sleep, hundreds of years, and mad as hell to find that in the meantime all his temples had been razed" (p. 65). On first appearance, the relevance of this fable to Sussex's larger themes seems to be to highlight the question of accountability for history and our ever-shifting relationship with the sacred, but it becomes more poignant by the end of "Ardent Clouds" as Bet argues for her imagined end to her story: "... then consider Don Nestor and the volcano, the tales told inside and outside the church. Both have equal validity" (p. 75).
"Ardent Clouds" is a short story of the highest order, and its inclusion in this volume is a brave choice by Ellen Datlow because of its apparent lack of a speculative element. The source of Spider's mysterious knowledge could perhaps be supernatural, but this possibility is never explored—nor does it really need to be. Some stories are just worth reading, regardless of the forum.
There are plenty of other brave choices by Ellen Datlow in The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Most notable is the inclusion of Margo Lanagan's "The Goosle," an update to the Hansel and Gretel story which has generated a fair amount of controversy, for example from Dave Truesdale at SF Site, who goes so far as to say that the simple depiction of abusive acts which take place in the story is "crossing the line," regardless of how or why they are included. (We might wonder why stories about uncomfortable subjects always labeled "controversial" by someone who would prefer the conversation never be broached—shouldn't fiction try, with all its might, to explore the things which give us pause?) The subject here is child abuse, and the power dynamics of abuse in general, during an apparent sequel to what is already a retelling of the Hansel and Gretel story, one in which Hansel has escaped the witch's evil intentions but his sister (Kirtle, not Gretel, in Lanagan's telling) has, alas, been consumed. During his post-escape wanderings, Hansel is picked up by a man named Grinnan who proceeds to rape him repeatedly while seemingly protecting him from the dangerous and plague-ridden world around them. Hansel imagines a "safe, sweet-sodden place" that he will ultimately reach, even as he travels through "the real and dangerous one" (p. 205). These places, then, are the boundaries of the abusive relationship in Lanagan's story, and Hansel, having already escaped from a witch who murdered his sister prior to the story's beginning, knows a little something about the cost of safety. His journey has, alas, been a series of escapes, each of which exacts its cost; before ever encountering the witch with his sister, the rest of his family fell victim to a plague that seems to follow him everywhere, always reminding us of the necessity of protection. He dreams of returning to his mother's touch:
She cannot have gone forever, can she, if I can remember this feeling so clearly? But, ah, to get back to her, so much would have to be undone! So much would have to un-happen: all of Grinnan's and my wanderings, all the witch-time ... would have to become a nightmare, from which my father would shake me awake with the news that the baby came out just as Kirtle and I did, just as easily. And our mother would rise from her bed with the baby; we would all rise into the baby's first morning, and begin. (p. 206)
The fantasy, then—literally fantastic, but also a childhood fantasy born from inexperience and naiveté—is that there is a safe place (or a safe time) to return to; that such a place or time actually exists. And this is always in question. Hansel is thus uniquely prone to the pitfalls of the give-and-take of an abusive relationship based on protection, as he feels that he has nowhere else to turn. This is perhaps what troubles Truesdale the most when discussing the abuse presented in "The Goosle," as he states that young Hansel actually enjoys the acts to which he is subjected and that the story invokes the idea of "homosexual child rape for shock value" rather than, as I would claim it does, positioning the idea of abuse within the framework of a character's personal development. This sounds callous, but it follows the framework of the plot itself; Hansel's seeming enjoyment—or at least tolerance—of the way he has been treated is a direct result of his hopeless circumstances, and the story's turning point involves him learning more about the world and developing a sense of himself within it, effectively ending the cycle of abuse. Earlier in the story he notes that "I don't want to hear or see or know" (p. 207), implying an inability to do what is necessary to survive, but the discovery of star navigation as a means of forging one's own path through the world functions rather poetically as his acquisition of agency:
... it was new for me still ... this knowing where we were ... It was even newer how the star pattern and the moon movements had steadied out of their meaningless whirling and begun to tell me whereabouts I was in the wide world. All my life I had been stupid, trying to mark the things around me on the ground, leaving myself trails to get home by because every tree looked the same to me, every knoll and declivity, when all the time the directions were hammered hard into their system up there, pointing and changing-but-never-completely-changing. (p. 208)
"The Goosle" is not an easy story, and Margo Lanagan is not a writer who makes easy choices. Aversions to certain pieces of fiction, however, should be based on the quality of the writing and the effectiveness of the storytelling rather than knee-jerk reactions to particularities of troublesome content, and Lanagan has imbued a straightforward narrative—boy escapes capture, boy is captured again and abused, boy escapes again with newfound conviction and hope—with a significant amount of complexity. "The Goosle" is one of the strongest stories in this anthology, and to overlook this fact because of its exploration of abusive relationships (and, of course, the necessity of detail when explaining the nuances of those relationships) is, to my mind, a very unfortunate error in judgment.
The overall standard of the anthology being as high as it is, there are a number of competent stories which get buried because their flaws are highlighted by the quality of their company. For example, Nathan Ballingrud's contribution, "North American Lake Monsters," is a fairly simple story of a father's return to his family, bitter and ashamed, after spending time in prison. Grady's return is concurrent with the death of a mysterious monster whose carcass now resides on the lake shore, and while he finds the monster disgusting and hideous, his daughter is intrigued by it, finding it strange and beautiful. The monster is obviously a metaphor for Grady's troubled past, and the ending involving him confronting the dead monster makes this a little bit too clear, as he notes that "Maybe there is beauty in there somewhere. Maybe you just had to look at it the right way" (p. 121). The speculative element of the story actually works to simplify an otherwise quietly meditative story about a family trying to pull itself out of hardship, reducing rather than expanding the story's central themes of reconciliation and redemption.
Conversely, Laird Barron's often-striking "The Lagerstatte," the story of a woman dealing with the sudden and tragic deaths of her husband and young son in an airplane crash, complicates itself unnecessarily. The basic narrative, which investigates the deeply personal nuances of the grieving process, is admirably honest, but although the story's jumps in time are perhaps successful in demonstrating the shaky mental ground of someone suffering a post-traumatic psychological collapse, they primarily serve only to confuse.
For every story that could have been stronger, however, there's one that shocks the system, proving that genre storytelling in the short form is alive and well. Lavie Tidhar's "Shira" is one such piece. The story tells of Nur, an academic who has traveled in search of information about a poet, Lior Tirosh, who she is writing about. While the setting is not of primary interest to the narrative, "Shira" is an alternate history; Tidhar presents a world in which a deeply tragic event has occurred in Israel's past and, subsequently, Jerusalem no longer exists. The people in this world are pained but hopeful that peace can be maintained in the future. Tirosh functions as a kind of prophet, having written poetry about the Small Holocaust (as it is referred to in the story) before it actually happened. He is also a science fiction writer, a fact which Nur discovers on her journey, and when she uncovers a story called "Shira" about a woman arriving in Haifa seeking information about a poet whose book she has found—the story that we are reading in this anthology—Tidhar's narrative folds in upon itself, revealing nuances and layers that were previously invisible. Nur feels herself "disappearing inside Tirosh's fiction" (p. 232), and she remembers a passage from Tirosh's book of poetry: "... like a tourist in Daedalus's maze, I am lost. Still charmed, looking in all directions. Not yet knowing that the thread is missing. And that you are built into the maze, and that there are no exits and no entrances" (p. 232). In making our way through the story, we learn to forget what we think we are beginning to understand, giving ourselves to the words and allowing the magic of uncertainty, the feeling of being suddenly unmoored, to take us over.
Like Jeffrey Ford's "Daltharee," "Shira" speaks directly to the relationship between writer and reader, addressing the implicit trust necessary to successful storytelling. What, if anything, has to be real? And is the writer even relevant to our experience of his narrative, or is he unabashedly our guide, responsible for our safety if we lose our way? Tidhar's protagonist seems to believe that the latter is true: "Nur did not like to travel; she liked to read. And perhaps ... that was why she liked Tirosh: He traveled, she felt, for her sake" (p. 219). Her trust, therefore, is total, which is why the story's climax leaves her so overwhelmed, as though the walls built up around her—literal walls, like the walls of books that she surrounds herself with, but also borders between nations (a subject which Tidhar explores with his rewriting of history) and more theoretical walls such as the idea of true and false history, the wall between the written word and the real world around us—are suddenly crumbling down, leaving her inexplicably lost with no idea how she got that way. "But in her heart she knew that the only way out of the maze is to walk it, until reaching the end" (233), and so we, like Nur, see the story through to its remarkably recursive completion, discovering that the whole time it has really been a story about the idea of stories themselves.
Several other pieces in the anthology are worth noting for their quality and originality. Christopher Rowe offers a look at an imagined Kentucky with "Gather," addressing the elusiveness of religion (and God) almost as a form of magic that can never quite be mastered. Carol Emshwiller doesn't disappoint with "All Washed Up While Looking for a Better World," a surreal travel narrative about a woman who doesn't know what she wants out of life. "Wouldn't you think whatever it is I'm looking for would be found on a beach just like this?" (p. 139) the protagonist wonders, even as she looks to the next place, the next attempt at happiness. It's a lovely story about being in a rut and being brave enough to look for a way out. And Richard Bowes contributes a beautiful story about prophecy and the nature of time and history with "Aka St. Mark's Place," his narrative firmly rooted in the geography of Greenwich Village so as to become a story about how things—and places—undergo irrevocable transformations. The anthology as a whole deserves acclaim for its willingness to take chances by presenting ambitious and complex work that could have failed in the hands of weaker writers. Ellen Datlow's point of view continues to be one of the most relevant and forward-thinking in the field today.
Richard Larson is a graduate student at New York University. His short stories have appeared (or are forthcoming) in ChiZine, Pindeldyboz, Electric Velocipede, Strange Horizons, and others. He blogs at rlarson.typepad.com.