One of my favorite short story venues is Subterranean Press Magazine. Perhaps it is slightly less tread, due to the fact that they don’t publish much in the way of unsolicited manuscripts. On the flip side, many of the noteworthy authors that we know and love grace the digital pages of their magazine.
The 2014 issue was guest edited by Jonathan Strahan, a well-known editor by readers of SF anthologies. I have learned of Strahan through the Coode St. Podcast (if you want to be enlightened in the field, check it out!) and through his The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year anthologies. In this issue, Strahan edits some new fiction by some of the great names in SF. The theme of discovery and identity are common themes among all of the stories, particularly as they pertain to new worlds and creatures. Two stories deal with medieval Christendom, though religion is not a common subject throughout the entire collection.
For me, there were three clear standouts: Greg Egan’s, Bit Players”; Jeffrey Ford’s, “The Prelate’s Commission”; and K.J. Parker’s, “I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There.” The collection as a whole was fantastic — not a bad story in the bunch.
My impressions of each individual story are below.
The Scrivener by Eleanor Arnason
Arnason’s fairy tale is about a scrivener who draws contracts and accounting documents for the illiterate. His dream is to write fiction, which he tried to impress upon his three daughters, even going as far as to name them after three elements deemed necessary in fiction: Imagination (Ima), Ornamentation (Orna), and Plot.
The girls’ talents reflect their given names, and while they loved the fairy tales their father shared, they show no aspirations for writing stories themselves. The father’s deep desire to live vicariously through his daughters’ lives sends each of them individually into the dangerous woods in search of a witch who will give them the necessary skills to become fiction writers. The quests are the same, but for each girl, the results are different as each discovers her own lot in life.
“The Scrivener” is a simple story, but elegantly written. It is a fable for writers, encouraging them to cultivate their tools as needed to shape their fiction rather than requiring that they use the tools in a certain way. “The Scrivener” is not ambitious in terms of being innovative, but is enjoyable nonetheless and was a pleasure to read, reminding writers to let their fiction grow wings so it can fly on its own path.
Bit Players by Greg Egan
Greg Egan’s story tells of a woman, Sagreda, who wakes in a cave, only to discover that gravity pulls east rather than to the center of the earth. Her memories recall the normal Earth, but she has no recollection of how she ended up in this side-turned world.
Sagreda is not alone in this unfamiliar world and she learns that there is a village network of caves in which the civilization lives. She has a profound ability of science and physics and begins to perform a series of experiments to understand how a world with sideways gravity can even be possible (by her estimation, the entire crust of the earth would collapse on itself). She is reticent to foil the logic of the world in fear that it could anger the world’s creators.
“Bit Players” was an enjoyable story that started with an idea that could be written off as a novelty, but then develops into a world much more vast and intriguing. Egan slowly divulges information about the reality of the world (or lack thereof), giving the story a good pace and building up until its conclusion. He examines many quandaries of physics and of faith, even touching on matters of artificial intelligence. As typical of his fiction, Egan once again takes hard science concepts and molds them into a fictional narrative that is fun and enlightening.
“Take it with you. Kill who I tell you to. The moment your victim’s heart stops beating, the canvas will reveal the portrait of my true self to the world. All who see the painting will know me when I approach them. Now, go back to the village and await word from me as to whom I’ve chosen for you to take.”
Talejui didn’t believe in the devil – at least not in the sense that he could have his portrait painted. When the Prelate gives him a secret mission to go to an island in the mountains and do just that, Talejui meets the devil and is given this frightening message. But the devil is not one to accommodate the church’s wishes and has his own set of plans up his sleeve.
In this mythic tale, Jeffrey Ford brings us to a fictional land reminiscent of the Italian renaissance. Talejui is an artist’s apprentice and has demonstrated himself a prodigy in his painting of the dome of St. Elovisus. His character is impressionable, willing to follow both his master and the Prelate, a megalomaniac clergyman overseeing the cathedral. The story is a battle of wits and of free will as the young artist discovers that his fate is sealed regardless of what path he takes. “The Prelate’s Commission” is a gripping story that reads like a cross between an historical account of the middle ages and a gothic fairy tale.
Nanny Anne and the Christmas Story by Karen Joy Fowler
Nanny Anne and the Christmas Story” is a frame story in which a nanny comforts twin girls during a heavy rain storm by telling them an eerie fairy tale. Her story tells of a baby that is born in a magical crib, is stolen, and then mysteriously returned with a replica that only her mother can tell apart. One of the sisters, Dacey, refuses to finish the story out of fright, while the other sister, Fiona, insists that the story is true and eagerly awaits its conclusion. The result is an eerie Christmas tale that leaves the reader wondering where truth and fiction are really divided.
I had mixed feelings about this story. On one hand, Karen Joy Fowler is a veteran writer who crafts a story with style and wonder. There is a certain innocence in the story about two young twins, making the strange mystery that much more discomfiting. The connection between the nanny and the girl’s mother is clearly implied, but it didn’t tie well enough together for me to make complete sense of the story. The result was a sort of ambiguous connection that didn’t resonate with me. Despite this fact, this short and haunting tale was interesting to puzzle together and Fowler’s writing makes it a pleasure to read.
Hayfever by Frances Hardinge
Hayfever is about a chef named Stephen who is about to cook the final meal for one of the most dangerous criminals on death row, the Pyne of Mabar. In fact, the Pyne is so dangerous that a proxy is required to eat the meal because of the great risk in giving this insect-like criminal its desired dish. The Pyne requests what appears to be an innocent choice — mimblebat pie, but as Stephen goes to retrieve the meat, he realizes that only a tiny portion is edible. To make matters worse, the mimblebat is a symbiotic species and the existence of the Great Throat Orchids depends on the bats’ ability to thrive.
Hayfever is a clever tale, filled with weird creatures and an ethical dilemma that Stephen must overcome. If I have one criticism, it is that Stephen does not seem willing to make the difficult decision of either killing the mimblebats or going back on the accord that allows the Pyne a last meal. Instead, through indecision a third opportunity presents itself that seems a little convenient. Despite this minor issue, Hardinge writes a well-developed story that is both unique, creative, and wonderfully weird that left me ready to try one of Stephen’s otherworldly culinary dishes for myself.
Caligo Lane by Ellen Klages
Most of the people living in San Fransisco before the Second World War are not familiar with Calico Lane. It can only be reached by magic or maybe once by accident. Franny, a magus of exceptional abilities, lives on this street, performing ori-kami, a magical form of cartography involving paper folding.
Her art doesn’t just create maps – it reorganizes the city beneath the dense fog that covers the bay. It’s fortunate that she is skilled in her cartography, for one fractional error can make someone’s life a living hell.
Klages writes with elegant prose, full of vivid imagery and description. The idea of the story is intriguing, reminding me of the dream-like world of the movie, Inception, where space can be manipulated. The plot takes a back seat as the story focuses primarily on Franny’s gift and how the maps and world change with each fold she makes. Regardless, the prose and milieu make the short street of “Caligo Lane” at just over 3000 words well worth your venture.
I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There by K.J. Parker
K.J. Parker’s tale is about a man living under a false identity who seeks the power to walk through walls, stop the flow of time, and kill people with a single stare. The sorcerer that can teach him these magical skills demands several weeks’ worth of wages to give him this satisfaction. Upon receiving the sum, the cryptic sorcerer gives more tricks than instruction until his student possesses the magic he seeks.
When reading this story, I couldn’t help but associate it with two wonderful fantasies – it shares in the double-crossing confidence games that we see in The Lies of Locke Lamora. It also shares in the trickster master/dutiful apprentice relationship that we see in The Name of the Wind. “I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There” is a fun battle of wits and magic, revealing the motives and characters in a gradual fashion. With this, comes increasing suspense until we learn whether the student or the master will prove wiser. For fans of the aforementioned novels (i.e. people with taste), K.J. Parker’s fantastic tale of intrigue is sure to please.
Pilgrims of the Round World by Bruce Sterling
Bruce Sterling’s tale gives the untold history of the Shroud of Turin. During the Crusades, an innkeeper named Ugo has become an Ambassador for Cyprus and Jerusalem. He and his wife sell all of their possessions and embark on a pilgrimage only to discover the land they seek is quite different from Ugo’s childhood.
Unlike the other stories in this collection, “Pilgrims of the Round World” reads more like a novel. It has many scenes that open the vastness of the world rather than creating the economy of a single idea. Many characters and scenes interweave in this fifteenth (?) century narrative.
Sterling does an excellent job of building the world and sharing the mystery behind a couple of religious artifacts. He also does a good job of developing unique voices for many of the characters. I felt the story did tend to meander a bit, making it a little difficult to keep up with, not knowing with where it was going. Overall, it was a great story to round out the collection, with well-developed characters and a vast world, sharing the story of people that encountered one of the famous relics of Catholic history.