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Monthly Archives: January 2016

“The Narrator” by Michael Cisco

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Michael Cisco first came to the notice of weird fiction readers for his novel The Divinity Student, which received an award from the International Horror Guild. His new book, The Narrator, deals with a similar theme of the power of words, but is also a powerful look at the senselessness of war.

The main character, Low, is a Narrator, whose job is to document and record events as they happen. Having been drafted to fight in an ongoing war, he finds himself with a relatively high position in his unit due to his ability to speak and read multiple languages and his medical training. Their mission is to travel to the ruins of a lost civilization, at the center of which lies a source of power that could change the course of the war.

The battle scenes are presented in a way that highlights the “fog of war”: Low rushes from one wounded comrade to another, and whenever he isn’t treating someone, he’s hiding behind rocks or dodging from one position of cover to another. He rarely gets a look at the overall scope of a battle, and fighting both starts and stops without warning or apparent reason.

Cisco’s worldbuilding gives us a fascinating setting that mixes fantastical and technological elements. There are seemingly supernatural creatures like the one that Low and his friend Jil Punkinflake accidentally create, sleepwalkers who have a mystical effect on their surroundings, and magic charms. But at the same time, some of the defenses in the “lost city” appear to be technological in nature, as does a ghost ship that passes within close proximity to the main characters at one point.

The one weakness of the novel, in my mind, was pacing. Some parts of the story dragged on too long and weren’t able to fully hold my interest. I appreciate that Cisco wanted to convey a more realistic atmosphere than most war stories do, regardless of genre—instead of constant action, the characters spend a lot of time planning, gathering supplies, or just plain waiting for the enemy to attack—but I felt that the effect was sometimes overdone. But despite that, there’s a lot to like in this book.

“The October Country” by Ray Bradbury

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I read The October Country as a child, and was particularly entranced by “Uncle Einar” and “The Homecoming”—two stories centering around a family reminiscent of the Addams Family. “The Emissary,” about a dog that tries a little too hard to comfort a bedridden child after his tutor dies in a car crash, has remained one of my favorite horror stories to this day. I recently purchased my own copy of the book and was excited to revisit it.

I still enjoyed the stories I remembered from my first reading, but I also gained a new appreciation for stories that hadn’t particularly appealed to me the first time around. One connection I hadn’t made previously is that in two of the stories—“The Next in Line” and “The Skeleton”—a main character’s irrational (or at least out-of-proportion) fear leads directly or indirectly to their death.

Bradbury is best-known for his Martian Chronicles, but this collection showcases his talent in genres other than sci-fi. Two of the pieces (“The Lake” and “The Emissary”) are ghost stories, while many of the others fall into the realm of magical realism. Overall, I found that I enjoyed them just as much now as I did when I was younger.

Lightspeed, John Joseph Adams (editor), July 2015

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The first story in this issue, Carrie Vaughn’s “Crazy Rhythm,” might be classed as a science-fictional equivalent to magical realism. It’s just barely possible that the machine created by one of the main characters could have been built out of spare parts by a single man…and yet it’s improbable enough to make you wonder. While I do like stories where the speculative element is uncertain or understated, I found it too slight here. It’s an excellent tale—and one that, despite being set in the 1920’s, is highly relevant to today’s world—but it felt like one that could have been published in a mainstream literary journal.

In “Life on the Moon,” Tony Daniel does something quite impressive: he pairs a great story with several great poems. Several sections of the piece are headed by poems written by one of the main characters—and they’re evocative, lyrical poetry that could easily be published on their own. While poems often tell a story, they do so in a much different way than prose, and in my experience it’s rare to find an author who’s so skilled at both forms.

Mary Robinette Kowal’s “The Consciousness Problem” is a surreal, creepy sci-fi story that keeps the reader guessing about the true nature of what’s going on. The main character, Elise, is recovering from a traumatic brain injury that has left her prone to hallucinations. Her husband Myung, meanwhile, has just cloned himself as part of a scientific project. There are several moments throughout the story where it’s not clear whether the clone has replaced the original or if Elise is hallucinating. The questions Elise faces about herself as she tries to cope with the changes to her thoughts, memories, and perceptions echo the questions about the nature of the self that are raised by the clone. It’s an interesting twist on an old sci-fi trope.

“Adventures in the Ghost Trade,” by Liz Williams, is a fun story, mingling urban fantasy with a traditional detective yarn. I was happy to see in the author interview that Williams has written other stories about the main character and his investigations.

I loved William Alexander’s novelette, “Ana’s Tag.” Like “Adventures in the Ghost Trade,” this piece has a fun, adventure-story feel to it. My one quibble is that I expected Ana’s wandering backpack to play more of a pivotal role in the climax of the story than it did.

Eleanor Arnason’s novella “Dapple” stands alongside “The Consciousness Problem” as one of my favorite stories in this issue. The author does a great job of creating a vibrant, detailed culture. Ahl/Dapple was an interesting protagonist, and I found myself engaged with her quest to become an actor.

The issue’s fiction selection is rounded off by two novel excerpts, from Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall and Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Dark Orbit. Wylding Hall seems to have an interesting format: it alternates between the points-of-view of several band members and their manager, hinting at mysterious happenings during a summer-long retreat to write and record an album. The excerpt from Dark Orbit presents an interesting sci-fi setting with a character I wanted to read more about.

Finally, the issue contains several interviews and book reviews. These provide interesting insights into the creative process of writers and artists in the speculative fiction field, as well as introductions to recently-published works.

Overall, this is a great issue with a wide variety of interesting content. My one complaint is about the balance between new work and reprints: of the eight complete stories in this issue, five are reprints. I would have preferred a greater emphasis on new work.