Crossed Genres, a magazine published online, digitally and in print, has a unique approach to genre fiction: every month it chooses a genre and requires that the stories it publishes that month combine the chosen genre with some aspect of science fiction or fantasy. Issue 27 offers a mash-up of science fiction and fantasy with tragedy. Surprisingly, none of the five short stories uses the traditional tragic element of a hero with a fatal flaw, which would seem tailor-made for SF and fantasy. Instead, the writers simply write stories that end in sadness.
“Nadirah Sends Her Love” by Ada Milenkovic Brown is the most imaginative of the stories. It takes the form of letters from Nadirah to Azim, her husband, in Hijiri Year 1432 — or, as westerners figure time, 2011. In this world, the Arab nations continued to grow and develop their scientific acumen, while the western world remained mired in the Dark Ages. Religion is the be-all and end-all for the westerners, who refuse to recognize the value of such things as medicine. Of particular importance is their insistence that their women wear chastity belts except during pregnancy or sexual relations with their husbands. Reproductive tract and urinary tract infections are chronic and considered normal — and can kill. But even when a chastity belt truly must be removed for medical treatment, it is not allowed. Nadirah defies this law in order to treat a middle-aged woman. To say that there are consequences barely begins to tell the story. This alternate universe tale reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I’d love to see this idea of an alternate Arabia expanded.
Therese Arkenberg’s “The Halcyon in Flight” is a complicated fantasy about a sorcerer who can transform into a bird — the halcyon of the title. It’s a bit hard to keep the characters straight on a first reading, but the story of a rebellion by one royal against another is ultimately fairly standard. The atmosphere Arkenberg creates is lovely, though, and once again I found myself wishing for a longer work based in this world.
“Rule of Threes” by Corinne Duyvis takes place in an Australia that is under attack by a lizard species that eats human flesh, and swarms with such numbers that whole communities die before they have any chance at all to avert the crisis. The lizards remind the reader of the Biblical plagues that beset the Egyptians who would not let Moses and his people go. The story is about one family — two boys and their aunt — attempting to outmaneuver the lizards to find water first and safety second. The boys, apparently raised as typical middle class kids, do not understand the sacrifices that must be made for the sake of survival, and their aunt pays the price. Still, one wonders: did the aunt really need to abandon those she seems to give up so easily?
“They Gather in the Green” by Michelle Muenzler is a fantasy about a family that has fallen apart: the father has followed the mother, who was — at least according to family legend — abducted by fairies. Their children, Rook, a hard-eyed boy, the elder, and his dreamier and insufficiently grounded sister, Salla, attempt to farm enough food from the family’s holdings to survive. The sister’s job includes herding the goats, but she often allowed them to get into the blackthorn, which sours their milk. One day, as Rook is attempting to get one of the goats out of the blackthorn, a stone beneath him sinks into the mud, revealing a green glass ladder leading to — where? Rook isn’t inclined to find out, not trusting holes in the earth to lead to anything good, but his sister insists. Rook’s trip into the earth confirms his misgivings, and he forbids Salla to climb down the ladder. Salla is as good at obeying her brother as she is at herding goats, and her trips down the ladder lead to the truth — and tragedy.
Richard Larson’s “I’ll Take You With Me” is the story of a woman suffering through a break-up with her boyfriend, or the story of an alien invasion, or both. It’s next to impossible to determine if the first-person narrator of the story is going mad from grief, or whether green-skinned aliens are actually invading New York, an ambivalence that gives the story its power.
Bull Spec, published quarterly from Durham, North Carolina, has a fair bit of local news, features local writers, artists and poets, and apparently gives first priority to publishing local voices (submissions are closed to non-local fiction submissions at the moment, for instance). Not that that’s any hazard to good reading. No, the only hazard I found was that the latest issue in PDF format translated really badly to my Kindle; you might want to use a better e-reader than I did to read its six stories and five poems, together with reviews, interviews, and even a portion of a graphic novel. There is lots of goodness here.
“Freedom Acres” by Andrew Magowan is about a lower-middle class neighborhood in a future not too far away. Much is automated, but peering out the windows to see what your neighbors are up to is still something busybodies do, including the busybody who serves as the narrator of the story. Even more, though, some busybodies can take the initiative and watch what’s going on inside a neighbor’s home. Boy, does that ever open up the possibilities for troublemaking! Using the prototypical science fiction theme of “If this goes on…,” the story explores current trends in childrearing, law enforcement and telecommuting to show us just how ugly the suburbs can get.
Nick Mamatas gives us “O, Harvard Square,” a sly story that subverts expectations as flamboyantly as you’ll ever see. The story is about drugs and homelessness among the young in a place where the favored young are attending perhaps the finest university in the world: Harvard. Those disenfranchised youth are eager to find what Harvard hides, though, and based on what one of them hears in the filling in her molar, what’s hiding is pretty darned interesting. A hidden tunnel later, the group of kids is minus a member. What happens next? I’m not about to give it away. Mamatas builds a mood with great care, and I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader whether he fulfills that promise or destroys it with the ending of his story.
David Tallerman’s “The Burning Room” is a ghost story apparently set a few centuries ago in London. A woman who is new to the city finds a room in a widow’s home for a suspiciously reasonable price, and learns why the room was available on her first night, when a specter appears. The new boarder — Miss Taversham, which necessarily gives us echoes of Charles Dickens — neatly unravels the mystery in a way that offers no surprises. It is a nice exercise in setting and mood, though, and Tallerman’s use of 18th century vernacular seems just right.
“A Mathematician’s Apology” seems especially timely in these few weeks after the IBM computer, Watson, has defeated two of the top Jeopardy! champions at their own game. What does the human mind mean when a computer can solve in days all the problems we’ve bent our own meager resources to for centuries? Don Norum, the author, studied cognitive science, according to his biographical squib at the end of the story, and seems intent on putting himself out of business.
“City of Shadow and Glass” by Erin Hoffman is about a city that becomes essentially virtual as we incorporate computers into our bodies, into our surroundings, into the very air. Why shouldn’t virtual realities become as much a danger as illegal drugs are now? If you can change your perceptions by swallowing a virtual bit or byte, how do you distinguish between the real and the virtual? And how do people form relationships? It’s a very short story, but it manages in just a few pages to pose a lot of interesting questions. One isn’t surprised to learn that Hoffman has designed video games for the last ten years (“but hopes you won’t hold that against her”).
“Tornado of Sparks” by James Maxey is about dragons with complex institutions much like those of humans (from evil kings and wise counselors to bad guys with hearts of gold). I thought I’d read as much about dragons as I’d ever care to, but this unchallenging tale was pleasant enough. I enjoyed the idea of a dragon as conman of other dragons, and I don’t recall ever reading a story of dragons as government before. Really, though, these dragons are merely humans with built-in flamethrowers and unpronounceable names.
I had to go back to the PDF version of my copy of Bull Spec to read the poetry, because my Kindle made the poetry into a complete mishmash, with a line from one poem followed by a line from another. What a mess! The best of the five poems is “Beastwoman’s Snarled Rune” by Rose Lemberg, a fairy tale complete in a few stanzas. The others demonstrate just how difficult it is to write good fantastical poetry; it is hard for the poet not to be too obvious and even trite. One must commend Bull Spec for running poetry, and it is good to note that it is open to all submissions in this field. I’d love to read more, better, poetry here.
Plenty of other features fill out this issue. I can’t comment on Mark Gallagher’s graphic novel, “Closed System,” as I have not read the first three of the four parts (and again, I had to go to my PDF version of the magazine to read this; the print was so tiny on my Kindle that it was illegible). The interview with Gallagher was interesting, though, and made me want to explore his work.
The magazine contains a second interview, this one of Lou Anders, the editor of Pyr. I’ve been following Pyr ever since it appeared on the scene about five years ago, and have found that the mere fact that it is the publisher of a book is a good indicator of its quality. Anders explains his philosophy in choosing books, and also gives a good explanation of why Pyr started out publishing more SF than fantasy, and now publishes almost all fantasy.
There is also an excerpt from Mark Van Name’s new book, Children No More. The book is about child soldiers in a science fictional future, but it’s built on a present in which 300,000 children around the globe are in the military. It’s enough to make me want to read the book, especially when considered in concert with the interview of Van Name.
The book reviews are competently written. Paul Kincaid’s review of Peter Beagle’s The Secret History of Fantasy is especially worth reading, as Kincaid talks a bit about the underlying thesis of the book rather than just about the stories it contains. It’s good to read some real literary criticism in a nonacademic setting.
Bull Spec is an ambitious undertaking. I expect to read more of it — though next time, I’m getting it in hard copy!