SF AGE: Volume 2, Issue 1 (November 1993)

Set aside for the moment Scott Edelman’s editorial on “recursive” science fiction, or Norman Spinrad’s controversial essay on how fantasy has infected science fiction. The table of contents for this issue includes 7 stories because, as the magazine cover indicates, “Now: More Pages! More Stories!” And among the stories included in this issue are back-to-back tales by Barry Malzberg and Harlan Ellison. Why don’t we see these guys showing up in Asimov’s Analog, or F&SF as much today as they did in SF AGE 14 years ago?

“Earl’s Snack Shop” by Robert A. Metzger

Once in a while, a story takes you by surprise. What starts out as one thing, ends up as something completely unexpected. Philip K. Dick was famous for this. And this is the effect that “Earl’s Snack Shop” had on me. It is the story of a man who is shot in head working in his snack shop, transported hundreds of millions of years into the future, only to find himself working in his snack shop and serving insect-like customers who call themselves the “Lesser People”.

The effect that this story had on me was similar to the effect of one of those rooms which are tilted at just such an angle so that it give the illusion of balls rolling uphill, or couches stuck firmly to the wall. I loved it! And it’s difficult to talk about it without giving too much away (and I don’t want to give too much away because it is well worth reading, if you can find it).

The entire story is a metaphor for bureaucracy, but it is the most clever metaphor for bureaucracy that I have yet come across. The story also has a surreal feeling about it. In fact, in some ways, it is similar to Damon Knight’s Humpty Dumpty: An Oval: both stories feature characters shot in the head, who then go onto experience bizarre events. As bizarre as it gets, however, there is still an element of humor to what is happening to our narrator.

And then there is the ending! You see–

No, I can’t! You’ll just have to find a copy for yourself. I’m telling you, it really is worth it.

“Freaks” by James David Audlin

I sometimes play this game where I try to guess the idea that spurred a particular story. With “Freaks”, I thought that perhaps the idea might have come from a stray line thought that went something like this: “Suppose those circus freaks aren’t really twisted humans, but instead aliens from another world?” It seems like a simple enough idea, and one that could be executed in a humorous, almost tongue-in-cheek fashion. That may be the evolution of “Freaks”, I don’t know. But I’ll tell you this, whatever the evolution of the story, this one is outstanding!

Once is a rare while, there is a story that just blows you away. It has got everything you like in a story: strong characters, a good plot, an interesting setting, big ideas, and writing that quite simply blows your mind. “Freaks” is a story like that. Interestingly enough, from what I could find (at ISFDB, and other sources) this was James David Audlin’s debut fiction.

The story is set among carnivals at the time of the Great Depression. There is a magic realism to the story that reminds one of Something Wicked This Way Comes and the reference is no accident. This guy Audlin can write like Bradbury! Strong images, and emotion and a good use of the language help pull the reader down into the dark depths of this story about what ultimately is not your typical carnival freak story, but is much, much more. There is an anonymity to the story that counterbalances the specificity of the images conveyed in the writing:

At last only one fire still burned, the Lady Acrobat still refusing to sleep, tossing all her jagged bits of anger and pain into the fire one by one, in the form of single shards of coal.

The story captured me and held onto me. I felt like I was inside the mind of the hideous narrator, seeing what she was seeing, but more feeling what she was feeling.

At least in the stories that I have read thus far in my travels back through SCIENCE FICTION AGE, this story quickly jumped high up in the list of the best stories to appear thus far.

“Off to See the Wizard” by Thomas F. Monteleone

If there is a theme in this issue, it is “recursive” or self-referential fiction. Scott Edelman’s editorial was all about recursive science fiction. And of course, Barry Malzberg is a master of this. But at least three other stories have some amount of, if not recursion, cleverly wielded intertextuality woven into their plots. “Off to See the Wizard” is one the three, as obvious from the title. The story is about a pair of survivors of some terrible disaster on earth who meet and then travel together in search of Oz and the Wizard there who can help them.

What struck me about the story almost at once was the feeling of desolation it portrayed across the devastated planet. There was an eerie familiarity to the opening scene where Taggert and Peregrine first meet. The scene haunted me for days until I finally realized what made it so familiar: it reminded me very much of the opening scene of Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz.

This is a story that is good at toying with your emotions. At first you are skeptical of the stranger and his rumors of the city of Oz. As Taggert grows to believe him, so do we, secretly hoping the whole time that he’s not making it all up. When they find the domed city, we are filled with glee and at the same time relieved. And ultimately, we are saddened for this turns out to be a sad story, one which captures, through the magic of science fiction, the old adage, “You can’t go home again.”

“The Passage of the Light” by Barry N. Malzberg

If you’ve been following along with these posts then you already know that I think Barry Malzberg is one of the best writers in the world. This story, which is actually a sequel to his 1983 Nebula-nominated short story “Corridors” and features the morbidly introspective science fiction writer Henry Martin Ruthven. As usual, it is brilliant.

Would be writers are frequently told, “Show, don’t tell,” which for someone who is trying to learn is easier said than done. Malzberg is a master of this. He get show you more about a character in one long sentence than most other authors could do in paragraphs or even pages (perhaps this explains why his stories are so short: they are also as dense as a neutron star). Case in point:

Later, at the reception after the first complete day of the conference, one which has invited the widowed Ruthven, all expenses plus a $150 honorarium, to offer his own remembrances and recollections of 1950s fabulation as part of an early post-millennial survey of fabulation, Ruthven has been backed against an open window on this first floor by a blonde moderator, who in close-up and in the extremity of Ruthven’s regret, now looks less like the college sophomore and more like a blunter and more achieved version of his late wife, Sandra.

It’s phrases like “the widowed Ruthven”, “the extremity of Ruthven’s regret” that do the “showing” brilliantly. It’s the confusion and melding of the moderator and Ruthven’s dead wife that add to details that could otherwise take paragraphs.

Stylistically, this story had some interesting features. Like paragraphs that ran nearly whole column lengths, a voice that was breathless yet subdued, bored almost. And then there is Malzberg’s unique way with dialog that almost always has me cracking up, whether it was intended or not. There is a blunt honesty and detachment to the words Ruthven speak. When posed with a question about the issue of heroism in his stories, Ruthven responds as follows:

“No,” Ruthven says, “No, I haven’t though of the issue. I don’t think of anything these days much, it’s easier that way. In fact,” he says, “I’m really a rather superficial person. Writing for the cent-a-word markets in your developing years will do that to you if you’re not careful, and then if you get locked into formulaic writing, it becomes even grimmer.”

Cracks me up!

Barry Malzberg is like the Woody Allan of science fiction. His characters are similar in their neuroses. His stories fall into sets of themes. But his writing is brilliant and I’ve like “The Passage of the Light” more each time I read it.

“Eruption” by Harlan Ellison

You know that you have a good issue of a magazine when two of your three favorite writers have stories in the issue and the only reason the third does not is because he is dead. Along with Isaac Asimov and Barry Malzberg, Harlan Ellison is in my Top Three.

“Eruption” is interesting in that the story was written for a painting by the artist Jacek Yerka. In fact, when Yerka had a book of fantastic art and asked Ellison to write an introduction, Ellison instead wrote a short short story for each painting. “Eruption” is based on the painting of a volcano with a city built into it’s cone, and which appears to be about to erupt.

This story is the second story, not counting Malzberg’s, where intertextuality plays a role. There are prominent references to the Seven Dwarves, and Sodom and Gomorrah through out the short piece.

There is a clever ambiguity to Ellison’s writing that I have rarely seen in other writers, exemplified by lines such as:

“There didn’t used to be just one moon up there,” said very possibly the oldest and wisest human being on the weary, lined, wen-laden face of the earth.

I love it: very possibly the oldest.

I love the idea of writing a story based on a painting. I’ve tried this twice before and was moderately pleased with the results. Of course, Harlan Ellison puts to shame my efforts, but it was fun to see him in this issue. The double-barrel action of Malzberg/Ellison is a force to be reckoned with.

“Among You” by Phyllis Gotlieb

Two things stand out to me regarding “Among You”, a story of a shape-shifting alien (Thorbian) living on earth and are worth brief discussion.

FIrst, I really liked the idea behind the profession that Rain, the Thorbian featured in the story, had taken up. Thorbians are shape-shifters and Rain was a therapist who would shaped shift into, for instance, dead loved ones so that his clients could resolve the issues they had with that person.

The second thing I liked about the story was it’s internal consistency. It is told in third person, but from the point of view of Rain. Recall that Rain is an alien on earth, but he refers to Earth natives as “aliens” which I think was a nice touch and helps to convey some of the isolation that Rain must feel living on this world as he does.

“The Wealth of Kingdoms (An Inflationary Tale)” by Daniel Hood

The third and final story that has a great deal of intertextuality is Daniel Hood’s hilarious pastiche of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. This is also one of those stories that I mentioned in an earlier post, that relies on fairy tales or mythology to carry out it’s ploy.

The story is written as though it is a “lessons-learned” paper on the subject of economics with specific respect to how Jack’s climbing of the beanstalk, killing the giant, and obtaining the Golden Goose, wreaked havoc with the macro and microeconomics of his local kingdom.

To give you an idea of just how funny it is, and just how much intertextuality plays a role, I give you a list of “references” culled from within the story:

  • Grimm & Grimm’s Yokes, Yolks, and Yokels: The Carter’s Guild in the Eastern Provinces
  • Grimm & Grimm’s Huffing and Puffing and Building Your Economy Up
  • Baum’s Imports and Exports and Tariffs–Oh My!
  • Prime Minister Riding Hood’s What Big Expectations You Have

This story is about the funniest I have read thus far in SF AGE, and based on what I remember of the stories in future issues, it is one of the funniest stories ever published in life of the magazine.

I’m just about halfway through volume 2, issue 2. It’s taking me a little longer because I have been extremely busy with work, but I did a little catching up today. The next issues includes stories by Mary Turzillo, James Morrow, Bruce Boston, and it includes my favorite story by shunn. I’m hoping to have my thoughts posted before the weekend.