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Richard Chwedyk sold his first story in 1990, won a Nebula in 2002, and has been active in the field for the past thirty-two years.

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LIVING IN AN AGE OF STORIES

It may not seem a great consolation in a world rampant with war, despair, natural disasters, catastrophes, overlords and diminishing liberties, but we are living in a great age of story. Those among you who may not remember the last century well may not understand. The last century, in many ways, was not kind to story, even tried to do away with it. Had it been more successful, our current condition would be intolerable. Story was pushed to the edge of the precipice, but it didn’t fall. Not only did it not fall, it endured. It grew. It changed.

Story is a living thing, and at times we fail to recognize it as we sometimes fail to recognize old school friends whom we haven’t seen in many years. They’re the same, though they’re not. Scholars and critics get hung up trying to explain the ways of story and provide an impressive taxonomy to examine and define it.

Stories aren’t to be defined, though. It works the other way round. They define us.

As the works considered below endeavor to prove.

Moon Witch, Spider King

by Marlon James

Riverhead Books

March 2022

ISBN: 978-0-7352-2020-1

This is the second novel in a trilogy. I always seem to be boarding a train in mid-journey when it comes to these things, but I can’t say I felt lost in the telling at any point. Nevertheless, I wasted no time in purchasing the first volume, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, because I wanted to see how these two novels fit together. That is a great credit to the author. The two novels are distinct and can be read on their own, and leave me all the more curious about the third volume.

There’s been much discussion about what James may be intending with this trilogy. It’s been called an “African Game of Thrones” and an effort to forge an epic fantasy can stand next to Tolkien’s efforts to create a new mythology built from elements of significant, extant models.

Echoes of previous fantasy epics are here: the pursuit of power by dark forces, powerful warriors standing up to the threat, mysterious wielders of magical powers, and a search—a quest—for a child who is most likely the key to the world’s salvation. What’s more, we have maps—lots and lots of maps drawn by the author (how much more Tolkien can you get?), And yet all this is effectively reimagined. It’s not so much matter of what story is being told as how the story is told—and who happens to be telling it.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf was told from the perspective of Tracker, the mercenary hunter hired to find the lost boy. Moon Witch, Spider King is told in the voice of Sogolon, the witch, a significant character in the first novel but for whom Tracker has, to say the least, very little respect. Her version of events described in the first novel are distinctly different, but the heart of the story here has more to do with Sogolon’s early life and upbringing, and how she got to where we find her in the first novel. It wasn’t an easy life, and by no means a short one (she is 177 by some accounts) and James does not spare his readers in presenting the graphic details. In such matters the comparisons with George R. R. Martin’s work make sense. But James has his own way depicting these explosions of violence and sex. They’re hyperactively kinetic in an operatic way. One gets the sense, in both novels, that what we’re seeing is not so much the “real” scenes and events as the emotional landscape of the viewpoint characters. It isn’t the style one expects in epic fantasy, but it hints at a matter that’s been much discussed in fantasy circles of recent: there’s more than one way to see a fantasy epic. The villains in one version may be the heroes in their own version.

Readers of traditional fantasy may find all this disconcerting. They value clarity (if not brevity) in what they are given to see and in how the story progresses. James, in comparison, seems chaotic, with a vision inspired as much by Frank Frazetta and Jack Kirby as by Amos Tutuola. Fragmented as the narrative appears at times, one senses the presence of the story that directs it on its way.

For all the pyrotechnics in his milieu and in his style, it’s the sense of immediacy that energizes James’s story and keeps it compelling. In more traditional fantasy we may have encountered, for all the possibilities magic and the parameters of the “secondary world” have to offer, there’s an implicit understanding that certain things can happen and other things cannot. In the world of Moon Witch, Spider King, all bets are off. From page to page we never know what to expect. This can be off-putting at times, but mostly it’s thrilling.

Does it work in some greater sense? I think we’ll have to wait for the final volume to see if James can bring it all together in a way that will make his trilogy stand out alongside other great fantasy epics. What we have so far makes it well worth the wait to find out.

Goliath

by Tochi Onyebuchi

Tordotcom

Januay 2022

ISBN: 978-1-250-78295-3

Let me get this out of the way up front: this is a science fiction novel. And a very good one.

The reason I say this was that a while back I heard an interview with the author, Tochi Onyebuchi, on a public radio station. Author and interviewer discussed the novel intelligently and perceptively for almost ten minutes, which is a long time on any kind of radio. And for all that time neither author nor interviewer used the phrase with which you out there reading this magazine will be intimately familiar: science fiction.

They didn’t even say “sci-fi.”

I found that interesting. I was neither displeased nor relieved in some positive way. Just “interested.”

It wasn’t that Onyebuchi was claiming literary creds high above the categorical crudities and saying, “Please, don’t confuse my novel with that other stuff!” Not at all. In other places, I discovered, he has no trouble with the term. Tor is his publisher. How much more “science fiction” can you get?

What struck me, I guess, was that it is possible yet in this so-messed-up-world of ours that we can talk about science fiction novels and science-fictional subject matter without resorting to the label “science fiction.” Is this a good thing? Possibly. Any time we can talk about serious stuff and overlook conventional labels, it may mean we’re perceived as being grown up enough as to be taken for granted. We can sit at the grownups table without everyone pointing out that we’re sitting at the gownups table. Though I admit that when you put it that way, it doesn’t sound so good after all. But that may be the strangeness of the thing. “Science fiction” sounds different when you remove the stigma.

But back to Goliath. It is good science fiction. Not so much for its “speculative” premises as for its extrapolative rigors. At its heart is a simple story about a couple trying to make a life for themselves in a strange world.

Strange—but not unfamiliar. It’s possible to describe this novel as a story about the gentrification of the solar system. People in major U. S. urban areas have been familiar with the term “white flight” for over a century. A significant number of affluent families, mostly but not exclusively white, moved farther and farther out from the urban centers. Suburbs were apparently not far away enough, so we invented the term “exurbs.”

When the exurbs weren’t far enough, why not move entirely off planet? That’s where the “colonies” come in.

The neat thing, for a “literary” science fiction novel, is that the tech that runs the colonies is fairly plausible. Onyebuchi has done his homework as well as any other science fiction writer I can think of, and that includes, with all due respect, Kim Stanley Robinson. Not only is the world building plausible, it is vivid. So vivid, in fact, that I must inform those who need “trigger warnings” that they will encounter much in this novel that isn’t pleasant to read about. But to exclude those things would be untruthful to its vision.

The next thing that urban dwellers like me will find familiar but makes perfect sense in the world of this novel is that Earth, although wasted and polluted and plundered and ultimately abandoned by the “one percent” who can afford to move, it still contains salvageable bits and pieces, which enterprising folks on Earth and on the colonies are willing to exploit. There’s a racked-up version of gentrification going on—ornaments and facades of torn-down buildings being salvaged and shipped off to adorn new structures, but at a colossal scale. One of the inspirations for this story, I think, comes from a Chicago practice of contractors buying up distinctive styles of brick from torn-down houses to use for new ones. It’s grisly and macabre, sort of like building a suit of armor from the bones of your enemies, but in a world where most natural resources have already been depleted or rendered toxic, what else is left to be exploited for the remaining residents of Earth needing to make a living?

Some readers will think the story isn’t “linear,” and therefore hard to follow. In fact, the story is very linear. It’s just not chronological. It is detailed. It is sharp and clear. It is passionate. It is human. What may strike some readers as difficult or hard to follow isn’t necessarily the fault of its author. It’s a new voice. Even for readers of Onyebuchi’s YA work, this isn’t the same voice they’ve come to expect. And that’s good. It compels us to look at our world, and the world we’re soon approaching, in a new way, which is exactly what we should be looking for in a science fiction novel.

Those sincerely looking for that new way will find it here.

A Mirror Mended

by Alix E. Harrow

Tordotcom

June 2022

ISBN: 978-1-250-76664-9

I have found myself awaiting every new work by Alix E. Harrow ever since I first encountered her short story “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” in a year’s best anthology. It spoke to a number of issues concerning fantasy, fantasy writing and its appreciation by readers. It also cast its protagonist as a librarian and a witch, and in Harrow’s world it only makes sense.

I have written on numerous occasions about the importance of voice in fiction. Not only do Harrow’s works have great voices, but just the right pitch. When I first read “A Witch’s Guide …” I immediately brought it to my fantasy writing class and there we read it aloud. Since then, I’ve been slipping it to other teachers and they have been passing it on to their own classes. It’s a quiet conspiracy. It’s what we who teach should be doing all the time.

And then The Ten Thousand Doors of January and The Once and Future Witches came out to great acclaim and award nominations. But what caught my attention was the novella published by Tordotcom, A Spindle Splintered, which has her protagonist Zinnia Gray, take on all the idiosyncrasies and inanities of the many legends and fairytales about Sleeping Beauty.

A Mirror Mended finds her taking on a similar quest with Snow White. Up to now, Zinnia has spent her time rescuing sleeping beauties from eternal repose. Now, she has been enlisted by the evil queen who was Snow White’s nemesis. The queen’s mirror has revealed her horrible end, and only Zinnia can save her from this doom. Or so she thinks.

“And you think that’s justice? That I should die dancing in-red hot shoes?” The queen’s voice is trembling very slightly, her fingers curling into the wooden arms of her chair.

“No, I mean, I’m not a capital punishment person—my mom’s into the prison abolition movement” —she’s into all kinds of activities these days, as if all the energy she’d been preserving to hate Big Energy on my behalf had been redistributed to every other modern supervillain— “but this feels like a ‘live by the sword, die by the sword’ situation, you know?

The queen stares at me for a murderous moment, then closes her eyes. “Help me.” I didn’t think a whisper could sound so imperious.

“If I were begging for my life, I might add a question mark and a ‘please.’”

Her eyes remain tightly shut, as if she fears she will throttle me if she sees my face. “Help me, please.” She doesn’t quite manage the question mark.

I lean forward across the table, drawing out a long, vicious pause before I say, “Nah.”

Eventually, Zinnia relents, and the story splinters out from there in strange and unpredictable ways.

It is awfully easy to become horrendously esoteric when writing stories about stories. It is also far too tempting to take the other route and shout “Hey! We all know it’s a story anyway, so who cares?” Stories are serious business. But to be that serious about stories as to make one’s discoveries that fiction is fiction and stories are stories appear profound is like gilding a lily already fossilized into aureate malarkey. Harrow has found some middle ground where she can address our need for stories and make it a good story in itself.

As much as this is a fun and captivating read, like all good fairytales it contains its measure of wisdom and humanity. It may to some appear brief and slight, but it’s a story about stories for all time.

Eridahn

by Robert F. Young

Del Rey

June 1983

ISBN: 0-345-30854-9

Let us now praise Robert F. Young.

In his time, which was from about 1953 until his death in 1986, he wrote some splendidly engaging short fiction, much of which I read in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. But his work appeared in almost all the digests, and he even scored some sales to Playboy and The Saturday Evening Post. Much of the work was satirical, and he had a keen wit, but he also possessed a clear-headed view of the world, at once generous and magnanimous. Perhaps it was his undoing that he wrote in a time when magnanimity was not a quality much in demand, except perhaps by editors.

Perhaps I should have chosen, in recommending his works to you, one of his collections of stories, like The Worlds of Robert F. Young or A Glass of Stars. In choosing a novel, one might also think of Starfinder, which is thought by some to be his best. But instead I thought of Eridahn, which I picked up in a used bookstore on a lunch hour when I worked for an advertising agency and really needed a deftly-executed diversion. A story which begins with a young operative for a time travel agency wandering through a sector of the Cretaceous Era world in a machine which looks like a triceratops from the outside is impossible, at least for me, to resist.

Jim Carpenter, the operative, is investigating the possible origins of an anomalous finding in a Cretaceous fossil. In doing so, he stumbles upon two well-dressed, well-behaved (mostly) children, who also claim to be the prince and princess of Mars. Of the two, the boy, Skip, proves to be quite conversational but the girl, Deirdre, at first refuses to talk to “commoners” like Carpenter.

The story from there unfolds into a maze of time periods and timelines, but never to a point of great confusion for the readers. There’s ample adventure and suspense and it moves at an admirable pace. Another thing I liked about this novel from the get-go is that it’s a brisk 146 pages. It falls into that range I’ve always felt was ample territory to explore a science fiction story, especially one geared more toward adventure than paradigm-shifting concepts. It may have helped that the book was based on a novelette that appeared in Worlds of If in December 1964, “When Time Was New.”

To my surprise, in looking up this information, I discovered that the novelette was also the cover story of that issue, and that image, of the triceratops machine (named Sam, by the way) was one of the first that ever caught my attention on the drugstore spinner rack where the digest magazines were displayed. Had I not been shooed away by the crabby cashier who monitored the magazine and comic book racks with an inane proprietary diligence (“What are you looking at? Put that back! Those magazines aren’t for you!”), I would have become a science fiction fan much sooner.

Young was a great storyteller, and an intelligent one too. I am somewhat saddened that most of the encyclopedic entries seem to dismiss him as an “also ran.” Some of this comes from critics who have already made their judgments before reviewing his work, and who read him, if at all, through bias-tinted glasses. Another part may come from a (mostly) unconscious bias at the late discovery by the SF world that Young’s “day job” for much of his life was that of school janitor. It’s not supposed to make a difference, but to many it still does. The thought of a school janitor writing sophisticated, satirical science fiction, to some, is almost too subversive to contemplate.

Alas.

Let’s bring back Robert F. Young!

 

Copyright © 2022 by Richard Chwedyk.