BSFA nominee: “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment”

Or to give it its full title, “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment: One Daughter’s Personal Account”, also now nominated for a Stoker Award. You know the drill by now — read (or listen), survey the opinions collected below, then give your own. First up, Nader Elhefnawy in The Fix:

M. Rickert’s “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment: One Daughter’s Personal Account” is written from the point of view of a girl whose mother has “disappeared” in a theocratic future America reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It is, however, not a simple redo of that earlier story, and if anything, this piece struck me as being creepier than Atwood’s book, partly because of the use of the perspective of a child who has never known any other world; and partly because of Rickert’s subtler worldbuilding (though admittedly, it also has the advantage of being more recent, enabling it to exploit more immediate sources of anxiety). While there certainly are politics here, Rickert succeeds in crafting a very personal (and devastating) tale.

Lois Tilton:

A dystopian vision of how it would be to live in such a country, with Taliban-style public executions in football stadiums. The narrator is a young girl whose mother has fled to avoid execution for an earlier abortion, and she wrestles with her conflicted feelings, missing her mother and hating her for the stigma her actions have inflicted on her family.

With the example of the Taliban before us, no one can really say anymore: This couldn’t happen. Yet it is up to the author to convince us that it could have actually happened, or at least to willingly suspend disbelief and enter into the mutual pact between author and reader in which we accept the scenario for the sake of the message the story is meant to deliver. The problem with such fiction, however, is that the Message can outweigh the story, and I think that in this case it has done so, going too close to the line between chilling and absurd.

Abigail Nussbaum:

More disappointing is M. Rickert’s “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment: One Daughter’s Personal Account,” but then I expect a great deal from Rickert, who has a knack for combining present day events with SFnal speculation and a possibly unhealthy dollop of cynicism about human nature. She does all that here, imagining a world in which abortion has been made retroactively punishable by death, and in which women are rounded up by the hundreds and thousands to pay for abortions performed years or even decades ago. As the title indicates, the story is narrated by the daughter of one of these condemned women, who has fled rather than face her punishment, to her family’s everlasting shame. It’s an effective piece, as, indeed, how could it help being? Mass executions! Gross miscarriages of justice! Institutionalized misogyny! Young women brainwashed into a Handmaid’s Tale-esque attitude of seeing themselves as nothing but walking wombs! It is also, however, shamelessly manipulative and unsubtle, a piece aimed only at people who agree with its politics, and one which encourages them to sneer rather than think.

James Bloomer:

This story is a harrowing extrapolation what might happen if fundamentalist anti-abortion laws are pursued. It reminded me of The Handmaiden’s Tale or The Carhullan Army. It’s undoubtedly designed as a warning to US citizens and the right wing religious tendencies. The extrapolation is taken to a horrible future conclusion. It’s emotional and well written, but it’s hard to love a story that makes me feel like that. You should read it, but it isn’t fun.

Michael J DeLuca:

Mary Rickert, as far as I’m aware, is incapable of writing a less than phenomenal story. “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment: One Daughter’s Personal Account” freaked me the hell out. A totalitarian future USA in which abortion is not only illegal, but punishable by death. Profoundly unsettling. Somebody should give this lady a Tiptree.

Russ Allberry:

This is one of the creepiest stories that I’ve ever read. It’s set in a nasty 1984-style dystopia built by fundamentalists around the punishment of anyone who has gotten an abortion. Both the effectiveness and the terrifying creepiness are hightened by a thoroughly brainwashed first-person narrator who believes every word of it. Rickert pulls no punches in portraying the anti-abortion horror show, complete with execution of women as mass spectacle. Like all dystopias, it’s an extrapolation of a position to extremes that probably would never occur, but I found it chillingly effective. I’m not sure I really wanted to read it, though. (6)

Martin Lewis:

Like ‘Exhalation’ it is a well executed take on an extremely unlikely and not very interesting idea. The only thing that bumps it up over Chiang and Egan is that contains characters who are recognisably human. Niall Harrison has a typically lengthy, articulate and wrong review. God knows how he managed to write for so long about a story that, as others have pointed out, is like a modern version ‘The Lottery’ by Shelley Jackson. That isn’t a good thing, by the way.

As Martin points out, I actually already wrote about this one at some length. Can I possibly have anything left to say?

Story Notes 2

Apologies for the quietude around these parts at the moment; I’m going through another busy period at work. I actually have a fair few posts in the half-written or draft-that-needs-polishing stage, though, and hopefully I’ll get some of them up next week. In the meantime, have some more brief short fiction reviews.

“Greenland” by Chris Beckett (IZ 218)
A bleak story, and one which both revisits a familiar Beckett theme (identity) as well as extending into new territory, in that (as he notes in the story’s introduction) it’s one of his few tales to feature climate change as a significant background element. A solidly rendered sub-tropical Oxford is the primary location, with a dystopic background in which “Old Brits” defend the borders of their country with machine guns on the beaches. The narrator, Juan, is a refugee from a fractured Spain, and early in the story he loses his menial job at Magdalen college due to competition from newer — for which read “cheaper” — immigrants. In order to make ends meet, Juan takes up an ostensibly friendly professor’s offer of participation in an experiment for cash. But the bleakest aspect of the story is the depiction of Juan’s dysfunctional relationship with another immigrant, a French graduate called Suzanne; both have been damaged and deformed by the un-person treatment they receive from the population around them, despite the fact that immigrants now represent the majority of the population. When Juan tells Suzanne that he has a way to perhaps make enough money to get them to Greenland (a fabled refuge), her thought is not of the potential risk to him, her eyes just light up. “Here,” Juan thinks, “was the evidence of how much poverty and fear and hopelessness had coarsened and corrupted her. But I was coarsened and corrupted too.” The experiment itself turns out to be a less mundane kind of science fiction, although in Beckett’s hands it doesn’t feel incongruous, and it provides Beckett the opportunity to make some strong points about the moral value of any kind of sentence. In that, the story of Beckett’s which it most closely echoes is “Karel’s Prayer”, though it is to my mind the more effective of the two pieces; worth reading for its detail, and for the cumulative power of its voice.

“Crystal Nights” by Greg Egan (IZ 215)
Charles Stross with the lobsters filed off. This is a story about evolving AI by darwinian selection — crab-shaped AI with control of their own physiology, in fact — and the ethical pitfalls thereof. As with Beckett’s story, in fact, the deeply felt and convincingly articulated ethical concern for other forms of sentience is one of the most satisfying aspects of the story. It comes in this story from the author, not the protagonist; Daniel Cliff thinks himself not an unkind god, just one who is prepared to make some sacrifices, cause some suffering, to promote the development of the kind of intelligence he wants. The story accelerates nicely, in a “Sandkings” direction, with some welcome flashes of wit (how Daniel made his money, for instance, or what the crabs find when they reach their simulated moon), and an ending that is apt, if not completely satisfying.

“Traitor” by M. Rickert (F&SF, May)
I don’t know, you wait years for an M. Rickert science fiction story, and then … this is another near-future piece and, as with “Bread and Bombs” and “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment” (a) it derives quite a lot of its power from revealing exactly how the world in which it is set has changed from our own time, (b) the change is dystopic in nature, and (c) the viewpoint of a child is central. Where “Traitor” goes further than either of the others is the elliptical manner in which the world is described; a scene in which a mother and daughter visit an ice-cream parlour verges on true surrealism, and a several-page digression into another story (another familiar Rickert trick, admittedly) successfully obscures precisely how the relationship between that mother and daughter is developing until the final page of the story. I have to admit that I found “Traitor” a bit less organic than the best of Rickert’s stories, but it still achieves a commendable intensity.

“Shad’s Mess” by Alex Irvine (Postscripts 15)
Irvine strikes me above all as a competent writer; everything in his stories always fits together with a pleasing clockwork deftness. This one is about a blue-collar teleport repairman who, after a somewhat grisly transporter malfunction, gets sued by some Christian missionaries and starts seeing something he refers to as the Entropy Gremlin. You might think that the satiric/fantastic elements wouldn’t mesh with the down-to-Earth grubby space life aspects, yet they do. What it lacks, perhaps, is the ability to inspire a particularly strong emotional or intellectual connection in the reader; I’m left with a sense that as well-executed as it is, it’s a story that doesn’t add up to much more than the description I’ve just given it.

“Africa” by Karen Fishler (IZ 217)
I’ve enjoyed Fishler’s previous Interzone stories, and I enjoyed “Africa”; like the majority of modern Interzone‘s stories, it seems to me, it aspires to craft rather than innovation, but like Irvine’s story it is a good, solid piece, even if that means I’m damning it with faint praise. The set-up is this: at some point in the future, humanity is expelled from Earth by an alien race, probably (though I don’t think it is explicitly specified) for incompetent planetary stewardship, bound never to return or indeed to land on any other planet. A barrier was constructed around the Earth, with a station that travels on its surface to meet and interrogate any intruders; it is manned by long-lived Guardians, although their numbers have dwindled such that there are now only two of them, Tomeer and his clone-father. A ship approaches, which also appears to be carrying only two people, this time a daughter and her natural father, who is dying. The daughter, Ainkia, tells Tomeer that they are all that is left of Expelled humanity, the rest having died of age and sadness. Youthful, innocent Tomeer is touched by her request to bury her father in the Earth’s soil, but his father is less than impressed by the idea. What’s most satisfying about “Africa” is that, though hardly action-packed, it never feels as though it is treading water – indeed, as usual with Fishler the character relationships are well defined, such that when the inevitable hard choices come (and this is where it scores slightly over “Shad’s Mess”) they mean something. It is not an extraordinary story; but it is an admirable one.

Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment

Fantasy and Science Fiction Oct-Nov 08 cover

The problem is under control now. No one would think of getting an abortion. There’s already talk about cutting back the program in a few years and I feel kind of sentimental about it. I’ve grown up with executions and can’t imagine what kids will watch instead. Not that I would wish this on anyone. It’s a miserable thing to be in my situation.

So speaks Lisle, the young narrator of M. Rickert’s most recent story, “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment: One Daughter’s Personal Account“, published in this year’s October/November double issue of F&SF. The sentences above are fairly typical of Lisle’s style and tone; what’s significant about them, I think, is where they place their emotional weight, and which emotions they invoke. By this point in the story, for example, we know that “the program” is the systematic capture and public execution of any American woman who has ever had an abortion, but it’s still a shock to realise that Lisle is so used to it as a background fact of her life that she would miss it if it were gone, and still hard to imagine anything so brutal as entertainment for children. We also know that, as the daughter of a “disappeared” mother, Lisle is something of a social pariah. Having an executed mother is “not necessarily that bad”, purely because it’s so common; “a lot of women of my mother’s generation,” Lisle explains, “were swayed by the evil propaganda of their youth, had abortions and careers even, before coming back to the light of righteous behaviour.” A missing mother, on the other hand, is cause for suspicion: where has she gone, and what is she doing? So Lisle resents her mother’s perceived selfishness in leaving, which explains the miserableness, even if it’s difficult for us to accept.

I start with Lisle because, although her worldview is not the first indication we get that the world has gone wrong, it’s the most enduring testament the story offers to the way in which it has gone wrong. Lois Tilton, at the Internet Review of SF, argued that for her, Rickert doesn’t do enough to make the setting plausible:

With the example of the Taliban before us, no one can really say anymore: This couldn’t happen. Yet it is up to the author to convince us that it could have actually happened, or at least to willingly suspend disbelief and enter into the mutual pact between author and reader in which we accept the scenario for the sake of the message the story is meant to deliver. The problem with such fiction, however, is that the Message can outweigh the story, and I think that in this case it has done so, going too close to the line between chilling and absurd.

While I can take issue with various bits of this assessment, I do think the question of plausibility is hard to avoid when talking about “Evidence of Love”. The idea of an authoritarian, theocratic government presiding over the continental United States is, at this point, something close to a cliché, but even so – and despite the fact that the magazine blurb introduces Rickert’s story as “a chilling glimpse of how the near future might be” – this version of this future is not one I can believe in, Taliban or no. It goes too far, too fast. I can believe (with depressing ease, in fact) in the advent of an American government that criminalizes abortion, even to the point of enforcing the ban with the death penalty. And I recognise that there are people who would like to go as far as the story does, and kill everyone who’s ever had an abortion; one of them provides the story’s epigraph, taken from a 1995 speech: “When I, or people like me, are running the country, you’d better flee, because we will find you, we will try you, and we’ll execute you.” You don’t need to know who Randall Terry is (I’d never heard of him) to understand that “Evidence of Love” is a story where he, or someone like him, has made good on his promise. My difficulty is in believing that a regime capable of enforcing a retrospective ban could arise in the United States within (as “Evidence of Love” must be) a generation. The distance between Randall Terry’s current residence and the White House seems too great to cover in that time, never mind that – so far as I’m aware – there has never been a retrospective act of criminalization on such a scale, and with such severe consequences for those convicted. So I can’t see “Evidence of Love” as a story about “how the near future might be” in anything more than a technical sense and – to return to Tilton’s criticism – I don’t think any writer could have rendered the story’s world convincingly enough to withstand post-reading reflection.

I wouldn’t normally spend this much time discussing whether or not I found a story’s premises plausible, because for an awful lot of science fiction the question is something of a blind alley: execution is all. (And in twenty-five years, when “Evidence of Love” is just one more of yesterday’s tomorrows, the question will be all but irrelevant.) I’ve spent some time on the issue here because, as I indicated, I think you can’t not. “Evidence of Love” gives every impression of being an Awful Warning, which is probably one of the exception categories where plausibility is concerned. If it’s not likely, after all, how urgently can we need to be warned against it? But in both “Evidence of Love” and Rickert’s only other straight sf story (so far as I’m aware), “Bread and Bombs“, the future is presented to us as a fait accompli. Both stories, in fact, draw their power from a gradual accretion of detail, not about the world, but about its inhabitants.

Which leaves us back where I started, with Lisle. Rickert, it seems to me, is intensely interested in subjective experience; a story like last year’s “Holiday” succeeds because it makes its narrator’s worldview both convincing and absorbing, and I think “Evidence of Love” pursues the same goal. (This view of the story means that, for example, I find Chris Barzak’s comparison of the story to “The Lottery” somewhat odd; Shirley Jackson’s story is third-person, and much more interested in a group dynamic than in an individual.) Here too the story has been criticized. Abigail Nussbaum wrote that “Evidence of Love” is “shamelessly manipulative and unsubtle, a piece aimed only at people who agree with its politics, and one which encourages them to sneer rather than think”, and attributed this in part to the setting, but in part to Lisle:

there’s also the fact that the narrator is so clearly brainwashed. She’s someone we can pity, but not sympathize with, because her reactions are so obviously wrong and twisted. Rather than putting us in her head and inviting us to feel her pain (and there is real pain there – this is a child who has lost her mother and been raised to believe that that mother is a horrible person), the narrative stands apart from her and regards her – or rather, what’s been done to her – with disgust.

I read the story differently. I don’t think, for example, that it’s accurate to describe Lisle as brainwashed, since she had no original convictions to destroy and replace. Rather, her personality and beliefs are the result of simply growing up in this future. As indicated in the quotes above, Lisle’s worldview has been shaped by the regime under which she has been raised: she talks of “righteous behaviour” entirely without irony, and resentfully assumes, as the title suggests, that she has been abandoned — the possibility that her mother has been taken never seriously crosses her mind.

What we pity her for is not the pain in her life, but the absence of pain. Here’s what she recalls of a time when her mother caught her with a list of boys’ names, and asked if they were boys Lisle had crushes on:

I don’t know what she was thinking to say such a thing because there were seven names on that list and I am not a slut, but anyhow, I explained that they were baby names I was considering for when my time came and she got this look on her face like maybe she’d been a hologram all along and was just going to fade away and then she said, “When I was your age, I planned on being an astronaut.”

My cheeks turned bright red, of course. I was embarrassed for her to talk like that. She tried to make light of it by looking over the list, letting me know which names she liked (Liam and Jack) and which she didn’t (Paul and Luke). If the time ever comes (and I am beginning to have my doubts that it will) I’m going to choose one of the names she hated. It’s not much, but it’s all I have. There’s only so much you can do to a mother who is missing.

This, to me, is heartbreaking. Nothing in the passage stretches beyond what it is conceivable for Lisle to have noticed or for her to be describing, yet it evokes so much in subtle ways: the long run-on sentence indicating how much the memory troubles her, the mother’s simple statement indicating how bad things have got, the choice of names extremely suggestive of the type of people who are responsible. There is, I think, just a hint in her final sentence that her feelings about her mother’s absence may come from more than one source; a suggestion that, however much she professes to be angry, knows she should be angry, Lisle misses her mother. But that’s powerful precisely because Lisle herself is unaware of it, and for Rickert to make more of it would be to betray her character’s integrity.

So I don’t know that I can agree with the idea that we should be able to sympathize with Lisle. It seems to me that the distance we are kept from Lisle is the major source of the story’s strength, since it enables the emotional misplacement I talked about at the start of this post, and the feeling of hopeless dislocation it engenders in the reader (or, at least, me). When it is strongly implied that, as the daughter of a disappeared mother, the best Lisle can expect later in life is to be a “breeder”, we should indeed pity her; but we should also notice that the problem with being a breeder (for Lisle) is not the idea of being forced to have children per se (since what could be more natural?) but the idea of having to give those children up to other people, every time; the idea of never being allowed to be a mother.

Perhaps most striking are Lisle’s reactions to the public execution she attends with her father. Her depiction of the event itself is unsentimental. It is implied that Lisle’s father takes her in an attempt to show her how horrific it really is — since her mother’s disappearance, Lisle has been obsessed with watching executions on television — but all the trip does is reveal that her desensitization is complete. “It’s way more powerful,” Lisle tells us, “than how it seems on screen”; but her descriptions of the fear and nervousness of the convicts are for the most part those of a person enamoured of a spectacle, detached and dispassionate. “No one wants to be away from his seat when the criminal gets close to the red circle at the center of the field”, she says. And if one of the criminals looks like not breaking down, and not giving Lisle (and presumably the rest of the audience) the emotional catharsis they crave, this is her reaction:

Occasionally there is a stoic one, but there aren’t many of these, and when there is, it’s easy enough to look away from the screen and focus on the big picture. What had she been thinking? How could she murder someone so tiny, so innocent, and not know she’d have to pay? When I think of what the time from before was like I shudder and thank God for being born in the Holy Times. In spite of my mother, I am blessed. I know this, even though I sometimes forget. Right there, in the football field bleachers, I fold my hands and bow my head. When I am finished my father is giving me a strange look. “If this is too upsetting we can leave,” he says. He constantly makes mistakes like this. Sometimes I just ignore him, but this time I try to explain. “I just realized how lucky I am.” I can’t think of what else to say, how to make him understand, so I simply smile.

We stand with her father here: we expect Lisle to be upset by what she’s watching, but of course, believing as she does in the rightness of what is occurring, she finds it reassuring, draws strength from the ways in which (she thinks) it keeps her safe. It’s all the more disturbing because her thoughts are clearly those of youth, and unconsidered. After the shot, this is her reaction: “I see the gaping maw that was her head, right where that evil thought was first conceived to destroy the innocent life that grew inside her. Now she is neither stoic nor alive. She lies in a heap, twitching for a while, but those are just nerves.” It is, to Lisle, justice.

To me, what ultimately makes “Evidence of Love” a success is that we never doubt Lisle. She makes the world real, which is to say that the tale gains what power it has not from the abhorrence of the society in which it is set, but from the shock of what that society has done to Lisle; and the trick at the tale’s heart is that if the society in which it is set were more plausible, Lisle would be less shocking. Put another way, if “Evidence of Love” were merely an Awful Warning against the rhetoric of anti-choice positions, if it were merely a Message story, it would be somewhat facile. The awfulness is fairly obvious. We would indeed, as Abigail puts it, be being invited to sneer. But I don’t think the same follows from the fact that we’re held apart from Lisle. We may not be able to fully sympathise with her, but I think we can certainly understand her, and most particularly we can understand that she doesn’t understand herself. After all, the only certain evidence of love that Lisle displays comes in the very last line of the story, and is its final sting: it reframes everything that came before as a denial.

Subterranean 7

Subterranean magazine is a plain Jane. It has a straightforward and unfussy layout — not for Subterranean the glamour stylings of an Interzone. Issue 7 has an introduction by guest editor Ellen Datlow, but it’s brief, to-the-point, and assumes the reader already knows what they’re reading. It doesn’t tell you what Subterranean is, or why it is. It does tell you what Datlow’s remit for the issue was, but since that’s “anything you want”, it’s less helpful than it might otherwise be. (“Anything” turns out to be, as you may expect, a novella and six stories that are all, to some extent, engaged with both fantasy and darkness.) Moreover, and unlike the magazine’s online incarnation, there’s no other non-fiction content: no columns, no reviews. So there are just the stories — which, given the rather abstract recent brouhaha about the triumph of competence, makes the magazine an interesting test case. (I wish people would get down to specifics more, when this debate rolls around.) An Interzone could be bought by someone solely for the non-fiction content. (I know, because if it wasn’t for the non-fiction content I’d have stopped buying Interzone a couple of years ago.) Subterranean doesn’t have that get-out. It stands or falls on the stories.

So anchoring the issue with a novella by Lucius Shepard is a smart move, even if it was a last-minute substitution, since Shepard is regularly more than competent and rarely, if ever, less. The competition for “best Shepard story of the year” may not be as stiff now as it was a few years ago, but it’s still a tough race — which is to say that although “Vacancy” isn’t going to take the crown, it’s still worth your time. The tale of Cliff Coria, fifty-something ex-small time actor, having now carved out “the most satisfying of dissatisfying lives” as a used car salesman, is big, solid stuff, and similar in a couple of interesting ways to “Stars Seen Through Stone”, another Shepard story published earlier this year in F&SF. In both stories, the protagonist is a knowledgeable guide to some of the low-rent districts of a relentlessly capitalist entertainment industry, both stories are bedded in a particularly American kind of grubby existence (is it my imagination, or is Shepard writing more directly about America than he used to?), and in both stories there is some of Shepard’s most heartening writing about the ways men can relate to women. The protagonists of both “Vacancy” and “Stars Seen Through Stone” — and, indeed, the women with whom they form relationships — are people who have lived lives, and arrived at some measure of self-awareness. Enough, at least, for them to fumble towards an accommodation that we as readers can actually believe in, which is not always a given in Shepard’s stories.

There’s also an interesting inversion: in “Stars Seen Through Stone”, the protagonist introduces his tale by assuring us that there are strange things happening every day that people don’t notice, while in “Vacancy” Cliff is somehow sensitised to anything out of the ordinary. In the opening pages of the story, mysteries and coincidences dog his steps. What, for instance, is the deal with the multiple checkins to Bungalow 11 at the Celeste motel (across the road from his car dealership) — normal, if illicit, liaisons, or something more sinister? What of the striking similarity between the daughter of the Celeste’s owner, and an actress Cliff worked with (and slept with) years ago, in a low-budget fantasy action film? And what of the disappearance of Marley, the woman Cliff might be falling in love with? The latter two questions have, or appear to have, rational answers that don’t take too long to surface; the first question is the one that haunts the novella, and ultimately provides its horrific (in the bluntest sense) climax. But although it would be too strong to say that the supernatural elements of the story feel tacked-on, “Vacancy” is first a character study. The tentative deepening of the relationship between Cliff and Marley is deeply believable; when Cliff confides in (the much younger) Marley that “it’s like I’m empty, and growing emptier. That’s what I’m scared of” it’s such a startlingly unlikely thing for a Shepard Guy to say out loud, yet so clearly the right thing for him to say, that you nearly want to cheer.

But that quote also points up the main problem with “Vacancy” which is, oddly, that it’s too neat. Shepard has used the fantastic as a backdrop, rather than a subject, before, but this time around the titular absence insinuates itself too smoothly into every aspect of the story: into the disappearances and unsolved mysteries, into the commentary on how what seems to be innocence can be mere superficiality (and vice versa) for which a Hollywood career is the perfect supporting metaphor, and into the hollowness that Cliff feels inside his life. When I first read “Stars Seen Through Stone”, I thought it was less than a complete success for precisely the opposite reason: the elements didn’t fit so neatly. But scenes and images from that story have stayed with me in a way that scenes and images from “Vacancy” just haven’t, and I think it’s something to do with the fact that “Stars” is a messier tale. Put another way, “Vacancy” has both the strengths and the pitfalls of competence. (It also has a separate problem, which is that its portrayal of the Malaysian family that owns the Celeste Motel flirts with both exoticisation and stereotyping, and unfortunately makes it less easy than you’d hope to be confident that Shepard is deliberately pointing out the superficiality of such an approach to immigrant culture.) By the time the climax rolls around, the theme has become almost stifling, and an entire paragraph about Cliff’s uncertainty (“Cliff is astonished by how thoroughly the circumstance has neutralized him. He knows nothing for certain … it’s the very nebulousness of the situation that persuades him that his life has gone and is going horribly wrong”, 76) just seems excessive.

Still, “Vacancy” is not a story that isn’t reaching for something. The same can’t be said of all the stories in Subterranean 7, and in particular it can’t be said of “City of Night”, by Joel Lane and John Pelan, which is a triumph of competence exclusively in the worst sense of the phrase. Our protagonist this time around is Paul, a man who finds himself travelling to the titular city in his dreams, until the dreams become more real than his daily life. His story is filled with paragraphs like this:

Here and there, he thought he could see traces of recent human activity. A blanket had been nailed over a window-frame; the entry to a basement had been swept free of rubble; there were some empty food cartons and bottles in the remains of a bus shelter. But he couldn’t see any people, and knocking and calling met with no response. Sometimes he could see pale jointed creatures crawling among the broken stones like thoughts he couldn’t face; but the only human being he found in hours of searching was a bald man who poked his head out of a window and screamed at Paul until he ran away. (28)

It’s a functional paragraph, in that the sentences are coherent and reading it creates an image in my head (or rather, adds to the image that previous paragraphs have started to create). But nothing in it evokes any feeling beyond boredom. The details — the blanket, the food cartons, the bus shelter — feel borrowed in the worst way, too familiar to evoke the desolation they so schematically describe. The same is true of the “pale jointed creatures”, or the later description of a larger creature as “a figure from a madman’s delirium” (29). And “like thoughts he couldn’t face”, coming at a point where the reader and Paul both believe he’s in a particularly vivid dream, seems too obvious. Only the screaming bald man is really incongruous enough to make you notice him.

All of which would be permissable in another story with a different focus. But for most of its length “City of Night” seems to be trying hard to be scary, or at least unsettling, and blank description like that above doesn’t cut it. It’s not bad so much as bland; too much light, not enough shadow. Strangely enough, the story works much better when it’s talking about sex, which is fairly often: the protagonist’s sexuality is questioned and answered in a nicely underplayed manner, and the ending has the sort of post-coital glow of understanding more usually associated with science fiction. But it’s a desperate plod to get there.

Terry Bisson’s contribution, “Pirates of the Somali Coast”, is preferable; although it struggles to reach competence, at least it keeps you awake. If there was a fantastic element in the story I blinked and missed it, but that’s not to say the story doesn’t engage with the idea of fantasy, and it’s certainly eager to be about human darkness. The narrator and protagonist is a boy of unspecified age, but probably early teens, on board the South African cruise ship African Princess with his aunt and uncle. He tells his story not to us, but to his mom and his best friend, Bug, through a series of emails; the parallax between the two accounts is interesting, and occasionally amusing, but (warning bell) not an essential part of the story’s construction. The most notable characteristic of both versions of the story is the narrator’s utter inability to distinguish reality from fantasy. When the Princess is attacked and captured by “pirates” — Arab terrorists of some unspecified kind, whose motives may have something to do with diverting the liner from its planned passage through the Suez Canal; I couldn’t tell you how closely this matches up to the real-world pirates of the region — our hero is thrilled. He thinks the whole thing is a staged entertainment. Here’s how he describes part of the aftermath of the capture:

Ali [the “Pirate captain”] let me help with the Pillaging. He likes my hat. They lined up all the ladies and took their rings and jewels. Sometimes they just cut their fingers right off. I helped pick them up like little wurms. They were all begging for mercy, not the Pirates of course, they were laughing. Then they raped some. Ugh. That was like sex fighting. Pirates like the fat ones best. Theres lots of blood, xspecially on the stairs and they dont clean it up. It makes it more realistic. Yo ho ho (47)

Predictably, the attack turns out to be real — the Navy eventually retake the ship and send the narrator to a “greaf countsler”, thus preventing what would have been to me the most disturbing interpretation of the story, that it is some kind of simulation, an utterly debased entertainment. (You could argue that such an interpretation is prevented from the get-go, by the fact that the narrator’s emails are dated between July 20 and August 9 this year; but there are easy ways Bisson could have got round that, so I’d reserved judgment.) What we’re left with is the story of a boy who believes that he’s in the middle of some elaborate, not to mention gratuitously savage, stage show. This belief is strangely innocent — probably the best line in the story comes after the pirates leave, when he tells his mom that “it was kind of sad after all the Plundering and Pillaging, like at the movie when the show is over and everybody stands up” — but never takes on the chilling cast of true indifference because it’s never quite believable.

The narrator’s capacity for delusion seems too extreme: would any child, no matter how desensitized by contemporary film and video games, fail to notice that severed fingers were the real thing? Or be that blasé about rape? Perhaps such a character could be created, but the flatness of Bisson’s faux-teenage typos prevents this teenager from coming alive in the way that he needs to. (Admittedly, I have basically no communication with teenagers, beyond what I occasionally see on message boards, but the style of “Pirates” reeks to me of trying too hard.) He is an absence of character, rather than a character with an absence. And once you stop believing in the narrator, the rest of the story is too flimsy to stand. A bit of handwaving at the start, for instance, tells us that the email service on board the African Princess is “send only”, which sounds deeply improbable, and the excuses for the pirates to leave the narrator alive are increasingly tenuous, even allowing for the fact that what we’re reading is probably not what actually happened. Moreover, I can’t shake the feeling that a more interesting story would have challenged the narrator’s obliviousness somehow. As it is, “Pirates of the Somali Coast” ends with the narrator heading for the airport to be reunited with his parents, still firm in the belief that he’ll see his murdered aunt and uncle and friends again.

A more complete triumph of voice, but an equally complete failure of story, is Anna Tambour’s “The Jeweller of Second-Hand Roe”, in which a self-described garrulous narrator dribbles incidents at us in the hope that they’ll eventually add up to a whole. They don’t; but the story is short enough that any impatience with this is outweighed by the fact that the incidents are worth the time it takes to read them. Better all around is Lisa Tuttle’s “Mr Boudreaux”, which looks at first to be as traditional as the Lane/Pelan story, but ends up in far more interesting places. The protagonist, returning to her childhood home of Houston, has death on her mind — specifically, the death of her mother, although the two have not been particularly close for some time, a distance imparted (the protagonist feels) by how selfish her own life choices seem compared to those of her parent. Tuttle’s evocation of Houston-that-is and Houston-as-the-protagonist-remembers-it is skilful, and the shifts between the two — such as when the protagonist goes for a walk in the woods, and reflects that, as an adult, she is too aware of the dangers of an insect bite or a poisonous plant to experience wonder, only for something wondrous to intrude on the story — are affecting, but you wonder if the story will ever escape convention (or competence). A deathbed promise to “take care of” the titular character, despite the fact that the protagonist is pretty sure he’s been dead for some time, leaves us expecting a ghost at the family home. What is actually waiting is something stranger; the end of the story is handled with great tenderness, and demonstrates a touching belief in the power of (metaphorically) connecting with another soul, bound up with the protagonist’s acceptance of Houston — somewhere she feels she does not belong “by choice, sensibility, and heritage” — as home.

Equally good at integrating voice, place and story is Richard Bowes’ “The King of the Big Night Hours”, in which the fantastic hovers around an occurrence that might be, as the narrator puts it, “more uncanny than coincidental”. The tale is another of Bowes’ meditations on New York and gay life and past decades (here the seventies), and person and memory are mingled as effectively as ever. The titular King was a Jamaican security guard at the university where the narrator works, and the titular Hours were nine pm to midnight, the shift the King wangled for himself at the university gym. In the story’s present, both are gone, but recalled by a train of thought started by a student suicide. Bowes’ narrator is a working-ish-class guy, having drifted into a library admin job many years earlier. Through his skin we feel the aftershocks of the suicide. We are understanding, and yet are sickened, when, after a second, nearly-identical suicide, the campus response is more coordinated and slick — “an etiquette was being worked out”, he notes — and we think more about the tragedy of memory, what people remember about each other and (more significantly, the story suggests), what they don’t, or what they can’t because they never knew each other in the first place. Like “Pirates of the Somali Coast”, I can’t tell how closely Bowes’ story tracks real events here; but unlike Bisson, Bowes shows he can create fiction around fact that is more than polemic. The memory that the narrator’s recollection eventually uncovers is exactly the combination of place and person that it needs to be, and worth savouring.

Two stories remain, both a cut above the rest. M. Rickert is a writer whose ability to involve the reader is second to none; and in “Holiday”, her penchant for dissecting the darker things in life is as front-and-centre has ever been. The combination makes for a deeply disconcerting experience, as Rickert makes you judge the character she’s created, and then doubt that judgement, and yourself. “Holiday” is the first-person, present-tense story of a man, working-class from his idiom (though I’ll come back to that), who is writing a book about the conviction of his father for child abuse that he didn’t commit — except that actually, the narrator knows full well, probably from personal experience, that his father did commit the crimes he was accused of. The young girl who turns up to haunt him on the first page of the story could, therefore, be an expression of the guilt the narrator feels for not telling the truth. But since she’s a famous, instantly recognisable victim of abuse herself (though she will say only that her name is “Holiday”; if there’s a real headline here, it’s even more buried than in Bowes and Bisson’s stories), she could also be a bona fide restless spirit; or she could be an expression of a more personal guilt for the narrator, which is the oppressive possibility that intensifies as the story develops. Reading the story a second time you can spot all the moments that do double-service, creating either sympathy or horror depending on how you read them. Take this, for instance, when the narrator goes to a park:

They are so young. So perfect, with their perfect skin and little teeth and they are dirty, and bratty, and crying, and laughing and completely absorbed by the sand in the sandbox, or the need to traverse the bars, dangling above the dangerous ground, holding tight, and it’s obvious it hurts, but they are determined, stubborn, wild, beautiful. I could watch them for hours, but instead I just watch for a little while, I know too well what the grownups will think about someone like me, a young man, all alone, watching children play. I turn away, hunched against the sudden cold, walking slowly, soon no longer able to hear the laughter and the sound of their voices, shouting names, or shouting nonsense.
God, how I envy them. (36)

Notice, first, how much more effective this is at creating atmosphere than the Lane/Pelan paragraph quoted above, and how much more a coherent voice it is than the Bisson. And the first time you read it, it might easily strike you (it struck me) as sympathetic. Here is a man, it seems, stuck on the outside, who sees in playing children the emptiness of his own life and who — worse – is too aware of how that emptiness will be perceived by others. We might even take a moment to reflect on the climate our society has created, in which it is not possible to express, or even to hold, an honest appreciation for the joy that children can inspire. But read again. In the context of the rest of his narrative, his eloquence here, particularly in that long second sentence, stands out; and is it just by chance that the children’s appearance — their “perfect skin” — is the first thing he notices? Why does he know “too well” what the grownups (not the other grownups) will think of his observation? And is it ultimately their community he envies, or something else?

It’s not that the narrator doesn’t deserve our sympathy, necessarily. When his brother calls him a pervert, saying that he’s grown up to be just like their father, it stings; and when he utterly fumbles an exchange with a checkout assistant, while buying party supplies for Holiday and her friends, we feel a pang because we believe in his sincerity. This is how he describes the party to Holiday: “It’ll be a holiday party, an every holiday, and I don’t say this part, but you know, for all the ones they’ve missed” (38). We want to believe in his innocence in part because it seems so unfair that he should be guilty. He is not a monster. He is — and it’s the possibility that’s chilling, the combination of a very human darkness with a supernatural one — a man who may have done monstrous things.

Rickert’s story is fine indeed, and the most complete expression of several themes (innocence, emptiness, complicity) that, in one of those coincidences of publication, circle through most of the issue’s other stories like sharks. It is not more challenging, or “edgier” than a story like “Pirates of the Somali Coast”, not in any meaningful sense; nor does it have less of a point to make. But it is better expressed in just about every way. Even so, it’s not the most technically accomplished story in Subterranean 7; for my money, that would be Jeffrey Ford’s offering, which strikes out on a separate trail entirely. “Under the Bottom of the Lake” is not a long story — my guesstimate is a little over 5,000 words — and it’s mostly told simply, without great flights of description or pangs of emotion. But it’s an extraordinary feat of narrative construction, one that grips because of its evident but undistracting complexity. It opens with an instantly evocative glimpse of an artefact in the titular location, “a bubble of rose colored glass, within which swirls a secret story, told once but never heard”. The problem is that the teller of the tale — whose identity remains a mystery until the final sentence, though the clues are laid out in plain sight — can’t himself get any closer to the bubble. “What’s called for,” he tells us, “is someone to discover it”, by which he means a character who can reveal more of the story than the narrator can see. Throughout its length, “Under the Bottom of the Lake” embellishes this idea of the limitations of narration — when describing one of his characters, for instance, he dodges the responsibility of judgement: “I’m no judge of looks” — and the sense is one of revealing what is already there, rather than creating something out of whole cloth, which is a nice trick if you can manage it, and often part of the trick, I think, of effective horror.

Moreover the story being seen (the story within “Under the Bottom of the Lake”) itself contains more stories, accessed through rings or bubbles: of glass, of light, of gum, of smoke. In addition to the initial characters, Emily and Vincent, whose path takes them down under the bottom of the lake and towards the secret, we get glimpses of Vincent’s old man, and of Cassius Cake, patriarch of a local (wealthy) family. At times the stories collide, seeming to be taking place at the same moment (which of course, on the page, they are): “Vincent’s old man turns and runs across the moonlit lawn, Cake wakes in his canopied bed and clutches his chest, Emily calls over her shoulder, “look at this”, and points ahead to a grotto surrounded by stalactites and stalagmites; a dragon’s mouth inviting entry.” Eventually, of course, the glass bubble is broken, revealing the secret story, which folds all the others snugly together. It seems that the story will end in the same way as Tuttle’s, with a moment of strange grace, a new generation redeeming the past: but then that final sentence sneaks up and reveals that the whole story is a trap, another secret to be spirited away. It is, of course, more than competent; it is a triumph.

Hand in hand with the latest iteration of angst about story quality has come the latest iteration of angst about the survival of sf magazines. Warren Ellis posted the 2006 subscription numbers for the “big three” magazines, Analog, Asimov’s and F&SF: they’re down again, sharply. Cory Doctorow suggested some possible publicity strategies, and once again various people have commented. (It’s actually through a publicity strategy of the sort that Doctorow suggested that I ended up with a copy of Subterranean 7, although it was the editor who decided to do a blogger giveaway, rather than the publisher.) For Subterranean that ship has sailed — the next print issue, I believe, will be the last — and I can’t say I’m hugely bothered as long as the online incarnation continues. I would prefer that the Rickert and Ford stories, in particular, were online, because then you could go and read them. But I can see the arguments for print magazines. Where things get a bit hazy for me is when I see people accusing magazines of printing filler, or big names for the sake of it, or whatever. This is largely because I can’t bring myself to expect to like all the stories in every issue of a magazine, or even, necessarily, most of the stories, since the truth is that the only person who’s going to like every story a magazine publishes is the editor.

Maybe I read short fiction magazines in a different way to most people. What I don’t do is read magazines — or, in fact, any anthology of short stories — with the expectation of constant satisfaction. I read magazines in part to keep up with new material by authors whose work I know I enjoy, and in part for the undiscovered, the unpredictable, the unexpected. I’m not saying the magazines we have are well-adapted to the market we have, because that’s clearly not the case. I’d be as happy as anyone if the physical incarnation of Asimov’s wasn’t so ugly as to be bordering on the offensive, and I’d prefer Fantasy to have covers that don’t make people on the tube think I’m reading porn. (True story, although a bit of a moot point, since Fantasy, like Subterranean, is heading online.) Nor am I saying we should expect bad stories, or that we should ignore bad stories. Quite the opposite: as I said way back at the start, I think specifics are vital in any discussion of this kind. But if we have to talk about “value for money”, which is what one strand of the discussion seems to come down to, I don’t need to like that high a proportion of stories to justify my subscription; what’s good about a subscription is that I get many more stories to sample for my pound than I would buying the equivalent value of no-more-reliable (although admittedly more durable) anthologies. In fact, if I liked everything I’d be worried, because it would suggest to me that the magazine was in a rut, not trying new things or trying to reach different audiences. So I expect variability; embrace it, even. It seems to me it goes with the terrain. Satisfaction isn’t measured in page count, and stories like “Holiday” and “Under the Bottom of the Lake” make everything worth it.

Have You Ever Been Here?

This train of thought originally started life as a comment responding to something Matt Cheney said in the thread on this post, but it seems to have gone walkabout, so I’m redirecting it over here. Of M. Rickert’s work, he said:

… in general I’d say what has most impressed me is the complexity of the narratives, the openness to ambiguity within them, which, when it works, creates a rich reading experience (at least for me). […] In her best stories, the prose is not sloppy at all, but it can feel that way if you’re only looking at one of the levels of the story–every sentence does have a purpose, every word a function, but the purposes and functions are often toward different goals.

This isn’t quite what does it for me. I come to this just having read Rickert’s “You Have Never Been Here” in James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel’s Feeling Very Strange anthology, and on my way to the conclusion that it’s one of my favourite Rickert stories to date. It’s told in the second person, and “you” find yourself disconnected from reality: looking around, you don’t see people, you just see bodies. You’re on a train, and then you’re in a mysterious hospital, on the waiting list for an ambiguous operation. It could be a dream, or a delusion, or real–it’s a fantasy of equipoise, then, although a fantasy about a science fictional possibility, which adds a distinctive zing to the proceedings. But that’s not what makes the story so impressive to me.

I’m not saying that ambiguity can’t be impressive: either ambiguity of plot–the surreal resolution of, say, “Stone Animals” by Kelly Link–or ambiguity of setting–such as is found in many of Margo Lanagan’s or Carol Emshwiller’s stories, where nothing overtly fantastic takes place, but there’s a strong sense that it could–can be extremely powerful. These are stories that cannot be resolved; they exist in balance.

And you could certainly read Rickert’s stories in that way. But for me, crucially, they’re often not so much in balance as in tension, and that, I think, is down to the emotional weight placed on the presence or absence of the fantastic. A story like Lanagan’s “Wooden Bride” is unerringly strange because it keeps threatening to turn into a fantasy, but in a sense it doesn’t actually matter whether it does or not. In Rickert’s stories, it matters, often hugely. In “Anyway“, the fate of the world depends on it.

More overtly fantastic stories that ask us what we want to believe in are relatively common. Lucius Shepard’s “Trujillo“, for example, is a story about demonic possession, but stops short of confirming that that’s actually what’s happened. We are left wanting desperately to believe in the supernatural explanation–to believe that something terrible has been done to the likeable protagonist, that it wasn’t simply something black and rotten in him–but with the nagging doubt that to do so would be an act of denial. Similarly in “Foundation”, China Mieville tells the story of a town built on the corpses of murdered soldiers: we don’t have to read the story as fantasy, but we want to. We want to believe that the soldiers are reaching out from beyond the grave, because we are angry on their behalf; we want them to have a voice. Much, or perhaps even most, supernatural horror takes the opposite tack, of course, leaving us wanting to believe that the supernatural is not real, that the nightmares will go away.

At the end of “You Have Never Been Here”, we are left wondering which level of the fantastic we want to believe in. Do we want to believe that the entire story is a dream? That the dream-within-the-dream is real? Or would that, we wonder, be an abdication of responsibility? This is ambiguity, yes, but it’s not the sort you can mine limitlessly; rather, it’s a series of carefully constructed choices, under tension, pulling against each other.

Of all things, I find that this reminds me of a moment in a recent episode of Doctor Who. Specifically, the moment in Steven Moffatt’s “The Girl in the Fireplace” where the Doctor, having frozen one of the bad guys, starts to examine it. He is astonished and enchanted by what he finds under the shabby disguise:

Field trip to France, some kind of basic camouflage protocol … nice needlework. Shame about the face.
[pulls off the mask]
Oh! You. Are. Beautiful!
[puts on glasses, peers at the revealed robot]
No, really, you are, you’re gorgeous!
[to Rose and Mickey]
Look at that! Space-age clockwork, I love it! I’ve got chills!
[to the robot]
Listen, seriously, I mean this from the heart–and, by the way, count those–it would be a crime, it would be an act of vandalism to disassemble you …
[beat, holds up sonic screwdriver, serious]
… but that won’t stop me.

Because, of course, Matt’s right that every part of an M. Rickert story is essential. They are marvels of 21st-century clockwork. Clearly no good writing can truly be summarised–if what a story does can be achieved in some shorter way just as effectively, it’s not much of a story–but there’s a difference between describing the arc of The Sparrow and trying to write about a story like “You Have Never Been”. In the former case, it’s possible to comfortably convey the feeling that Russell’s novel is a perfect crescendo, knowing that you won’t diminish the effectiveness of that crescendo when actually read; in the latter, it almost feels as though to write about the story is not just to somehow flatten it, but to actively violate it. It is to dismantle an artifact of dark beauty, wondering if the damage is irreparable.

The miracle of the story, of course, is that on re-reading it’s as good as new.