Of the five stories in the January 1994 issue of SCIENCE FICTION AGE, more than half of them are stories that would not, under most circumstances, be considered science fiction. Three of the five stories are fantasies of one kind or another, and as I’ve stated before, I will take science fiction over fantasy any time. (I make an exception for contemporary fantasy; in reality, I am not a fan of epic fantasy, sword and sorcery, that kind of thing, but it is to my discredit, and says nothing of the genre.) I said from the outset that I might not comment on every story in every issue, and there have been a few stories I’ve missed. This is not meant as commentary on the story, simply a lack of time (or lack of time management skills) on my part. In the case of this issue, I focused on four of the five stories, three of which are some form of fantasy. It is therefore ironic that the story that I consider to be one of the best stories ever to appear in SCIENCE FICTION AGE through out its entire run is a fantasy that appears in this issue. Don’t worry, you’ll know it when you see it.
“Encore” by Mary A. Turzillo
Mary Turzillo’s story of transmigrating souls is the first of the fantasy stories that appear in this issue, and while the trappings of science fiction appear in the last of the four parts of the story, I would categorize the story as fantasy. But I liked it despite myself.
It is a relatively short story, and short stories always impress me because they seem to be (at least for me) the hardest to write. It is the story of two lovers whose love transcends the bonds of time. As we move further and further into the future, the two souls continue to find one another, and each time they are torn away from each other. In some ways, it is the retelling of the same story four times, as if to say, love has been like this for thousands of years; we are no different today.
What I really liked about the story was how none of this was forced down the readers throat (a mistake I often make). You are never told, as the story progresses, that in each new time period, these are the same souls trying for yet another “encore” of their love. And perhaps these are not the same souls, but there are subtle hints. In each of the four time periods, our lady lover’s name always starts with a B and her hero’s name begins with an M. It is a good example of story-telling technique, and a good example of a story that covers thousands of years of time in the space of a few thousand words.
Plato would have us believe that perfection only takes place within the mind. But I believe that there is evidence to the contrary. There is, for instance, the “perfect game” in baseball. I don’t know that I’ve ever read the “perfect” novel, but I have read what I consider to be perfect short stories. I’m sure everyone has their own notions of what makes up a perfect story. In my mind, it is the perfect balance of writing, style, plot, character, theme. A perfect story has a clearly defined beginning, middle and end; it has a balance to it that you recognize once you read it; it has those “intangibles” that count for so much but are so hard to define. Just as in baseball, a perfect game is incredibly hard to come by, so it is in short fiction. In my mind, I can think of only a handful of what I would consider to be “perfect” stories: Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall”, Ray Bradbury’s “The Rocket Man”, Robert Heinlein’s “Lifeline”, Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star”, Alfred Bester’s “They Don’t Make Life Like They Used To”, Harlan Ellison’s, “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore.”
And to this list I would add Bill Shunn’s “Two Paths in the Forest Toulemonde”.
(I told you that you’d know it when you see it.)
Unlike a perfect game, the criteria for a perfect story are a little harder to define, but I will try and explain why I think this story is so outstanding. A perfect story must continue to meet or exceed your expectations upon re-reading. I can pickup “Nightfall” or “The Rocket Man” and I am just as blown away reading it the fifth time as I was the first. I first read Bill’s story sometime in early 1994 and at the time (busy as I was with school), it was the only story in this issue that I read. Years later, I remembering the story, I pulled out the magazine and read it again, and again it blew me away. Finally, I read it once more while re-reading this issue and the effect on me was still the same. But why? What makes this such a good story?
Perhaps it is the fable-like quality of the story. It is timeless. It is a love story that has been told over and over again by great writers through the ages and yet it still manages to add it’s own voice to the fray. Perhaps it is the setting, within a forest that could be any forest, even the one in your backyard or mine. Perhaps it is the three characters: Etienne, Marie, the Forest Toulemonde, for indeed the forest is as much a character in this story as the two lovers. Perhaps it is the subtle metaphor, lovers moving through life on their own paths, coming together here, separating there, so simple in its telling, but so elegant. Perhaps it is what the reader brings to the story. When I first read this, I was a senior in college, who’d been with my girlfriend for 5 years even though we attended schools several hundred miles apart, coming together at times, being apart at others. I could empathize with the feelings of Etienne and Marie. Perhaps it is the simple innocence of the story, as when the Etienne and Marie are married by the great forest:
When late one morning at the height of spring their paths brought them to opposites sides of a natural cathedral in the heart of Toulemonde, neither Marie nor Etienne could repress the joy of their reunion. They rushed together in the center of the huge clearing, embracing and swinging about each other in a single shaft of light which fell from the canopy of leaves a hundred feet overhead… Then the voice of Toulemonde spoke to them together, for the first and only time, and they sank to their knees and were married in the forest’s great cathedral. The thrushes sang a wedding recessional as the newlyweds departed the clearing.
A less-than-perfect story draws emotion from the reader, poking or prodding until the reader reacts. The perfect story moves the reader to emotion. I was moved to emotion throughout each of my readings of the story, each time thinking it would not move me there again, and each time it did.
“Two Paths In the Forest Toulemonde” is the kind of story that any collection of fiction wants to have and SCIENCE FICTION AGE was lucky to get it. It is no surprise that at this moment, Bill Shunn is a Hugo and Nebula award nominee for a much more recent story. What is surprising is that he wasn’t nominated back in 1994 when this story came out.
“Spice on Hot Steel” by Dana William Paxson
I remember sitting in the dorm cafeteria in the evening before a custodial shift, trying to read Dana William Paxson’s “Spice on Hot Steel” without much success. I was not a big fan of cyberpunk at the time and found that I couldn’t get into it, but additional years and additional experience has changed all that. When I read the story recently, I found I really enjoyed it. There is a cyberpunk element to it, but the story is really a mystery: a race for bounty hunter to seek out a killer in a steamy underworld that resembles, in my imagination, the caves of Mars in the movie Total Recall.
The language helps to make the setting. You get a feel for the grittiness almost at once. The characters add to it; everyone’s got an angle, and not everyone is who or what they seem. And much to my surprise, and very much unlike the first time I read it, the story moves quickly, and looking back on it, I don’t know what it was that prevented me from getting through it all of those years ago, but it was certainly nothing about the story; it had to have been me!
“Bible Stories for Adults No. 46: The Soap Opera” by James Morrow
To say that SCIENCE FICTION AGE was cutting age is one thing, to show it however, is as easy as pointing at something like James Morrow’s “Bible Stories for Adults.” The story is actually a complete one act play, something you rarely find within the covers of a science fiction magazine.
I have been a fan of James Morrow ever since I first became aware of him, which may have been through this story. At about this time, the first book in his Godhead trilogy, Towing Jehovah had come out and I read avidly. I remember having recently read Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father and some of the similarities in cover art. Barthelme’s book may have been there first, but I liked Morrow’s wit and humor much more.
That wit and humor shows up in “Bible Stories For Adults No. 46: The Soap Opera”. It is a retelling of the biblical story of Job in the form of a rematch between God and Job. In this case, Job feels that God owes him an apology, not so much for what he was put through, but for ultimately being bribed into silence.
This is a perfect example of what Robert J. Sawyer would call “Phi Fi”: philosophical fiction. Others might call it satire and it a way, it is satire (and reading through some of the contemporary references was amusing); but there is a lot of philosophy packed into this short piece. I haven’t seen short fiction from James Morrow in quite some time, and it’s too bad, because he’s very good at it.
I didn’t have time to get around to F. Alexander Brejcha’s “The Living God Within”. It was the longest story in the issue and given my time constraints, I had to draw the line somewhere and I apologize for that. I also didn’t get around to Bruce Boston’s poem, “The Curse of the Androids Wife”; that was a case of any lack of critical ability on my part whatsoever when it comes to poetry. (Although I will comment on one of his poems in a future issue for reasons which will be obvious at that time.)
Mainly, I rushed through this issue so as to get something posted in the month of April. I’ll should be back on a more normal schedule in May with respect to my comments on SCIENCE FICTION AGE, beginning with the March 1994 issue. Stay tuned…