25 February 2010

Reading Asimov's Science Fiction (Jan. 2010), Part IV

• See Part I.
• See Part II.
• See Part III.

6. Carol Emswhiller, "Wilds" (pg. 76-82) *** 1/2
Read 2 Feb. 2010. This story is a strange one to find in Asimov's: not clearly either SF or fantasy. Yet it is wholly engrossing and superbly executed. I'm going to call it a fantasy of sorts (maybe even a fable), as its unnamed first-person narrator lives out the fantasy of escaping from and leaving behind the everyday world of rental cars, jobs, neighbours, and so forth, by discovering and then surviving in "the wilds" (77). The world rejected by the narrator is our world, now -- not an SF near-future or alternate past, but now. Emshwiller thus constructs a fantasy of the reconnection with nature and the primal and the physical, wholly unmediated by technology or other modern conveniences: a fantasy of awakening to one's deepest and true desires ("But even as I swallow little snakes, I'm singing" [77]), and so to one's essential self, the world be damned ("I look at my reflection and I see exactly who I am" [82]). For the narrator, such rejection and reconnection relies upon "hiding" as his "way of life" (77): finding the highest, most inaccessible place "away from everybody" (76); building a tower of stones to give himself a better view, but making it look like a "natural formation" (77); eventually, he dresses "in mud" and smells of "ferns" (82), invisible to campers and hikers. Even the woman who shows up at his mountain with a Gucci purse filled with $50,000 worth of $100 bills is escaping and hiding. She's running from the law, certainly, having "'just picked ... up'" (81) an unguarded bag containing the money, then buying herself the Gucci purse, dinner at a "'fancy French restaurant'" (81), and a car -- as she says, "'Stuff I've never had before'" (81). She acted in defiance, then, of a world that alienates her (economically, materially), a world to which she was hidden. However, her motives for coming to "the wilds" are not as pure as the narrator's, for she remains tied to the material(ist) desires of the world, wanting to retrieve the bills scattered about the narrator's mountain, instead of, like the narrator, truly confronting her self and becoming "part of the wilds" (79). All of this is told by Emshwiller with a sharply focussed and consistent voice, the narrator's short and constrained sentences feeling decisive and practical, offering only as much communication as is necessary, but everywhere hinting at loss and nostalgia. What sort of world, we might ask, causes a man to cast it off utterly, to the point of real nakedness and drinking water "as an animal would" (82)? What is so alienating about such a world that a man's true self is concealed from him. The narrator does something I suspect many of us have contemplated or fantasised about doing. Yet the cost of his victory suggests caution at the end, for he achieves a wholly solitary life, hidden from campers and hikers,  secretively leaving $100 bills in their shoes and pockets and hats while they sleep, playing "mysterious" (82) songs on his flute at night. I am sympathetic to his desires and choices, even jealous of them. I don't know that I would have the courage to realise them.

7. Allen M. Steele, "The Jekyll Island Horror" (pg. 84-100) ****
Read 2 Feb. 2010. The highlight piece of this issue, signalled by the cover art and for the quality of the story. This piece is alternate-history horror SF, hinting at homage to Lovecraft and mining the conventional conspiracy theory that aliens have already visited Earth but we either don't know it or can't know it because the evidence is mysteriously unavailable. Steele makes use of the device of the frame narrative, but plays with the (expectation of the) distinctions between fiction and nonfiction, for he is the frame narrator who acquired and provides to the "public" (86) the "typewritten manuscript" (86) containing the ostensibly true story of a brief and "terrifying" (86) encounter with an alien on Jekyll Island in "March 1934" (86). Steele-as-narrator sows the somewhat obligatory doubt regarding the truth of Solomon Hess's tale ("I don't know whether to believe this story; that I'll leave to the reader" [86]), which is reinforced by the knowledge that Hess had "written a few SF stories ... during the pulp era" (85) -- and that he served as "personal valet" (86) to William Apollo Russell, a New York publisher who put out "cheap fiction magazines that catered to the masses" (86), such as "Fascinating Science-Fiction" (86). I admit to liking stories that employ this strategy of internally raising questions of reliability and fallibility, of belief and trust. That Steele adds a further layer of uncertainty by including himself in the transmission of the tale only heightens the intrigue (i.e., did this really happen? it's a novelette in a major SF&F fiction market, so it has to be made-up, right?).
          Steele handles that intrigue skillfully, spending time first introducing the exclusive, upper-class world of Jekyll Island in the 1930s, to which William A. Russell gains admittance. Russell winters there in early 1934, enjoying "the Jekyll Island social scene" (89), Hess his only servant. All was "relaxed" (91), until some "strange occurrences ... and the horror that soon followed" (91). At this point, Steele effectively builds tension by delaying the climactic encounter with the alien by restricting the narrative to the process of what Hess knew and experienced. There was an "abrupt boom from somewhere high," then "voices raised in astonishment," and then Russell "rushed" into Hess's room, "wild-eyed and out of breath" (91). Quickly, Russell put on his "outdoor gear" (92) and drove to the site of the suspected meteor. The next morning, Russell took Hess the site, going on foot "to avoid being seen" (93), swearing Hess to silence. Russell brought Hess for his "'expertise'" as "'an astute thinker in subjects of a speculative nature'" (95): i.e., because Hess wrote SF and so could offer insight into the "creature" (94) on the Jekyll Island beach that definitely "wasn't from Earth" (94). Steele manages pacing wonderfully as Hess, Russell, and others inspect the alien and hypothesize about its nature, Russell finally suggesting that "'it presents an opportunity that we'd be foolish to miss'" and so could be "'profitable'" (96). Here, Steele makes the story at least partly a satire of class pretensions and hubris, the servant Hess being the only one concerned with "proper scientific observation" (97) while the others climbed atop the alien for a photograph, claiming their prize and property. Of course, they paid for their greed. Eventually, Hess was visited by two men from "U.S. Army intelligence" (100) and given the job not only of keeping the truth quiet but also of watching for signs "that the creature may have returned" (100).
          The story, then, shines for its plotting, narrative structure, and willingness to play with layers of unreliability and uncertainty. For me, it also shines for what I will call its science-fictional self-reflexivity. "The Jekyll Island Horror" is a novelette written by an SF author and published in an SF magazine; the SF author makes himself part of the story, acting as an SF author who receives a manuscript from the son of man who was a published SF author; at the heart of the story is the classic SF trope of the alien encounter, an event that Hess could appreciate properly because he wrote and read SF. This science-fictional self-reflexivity generates some provocative questions. Do the conventions, tropes, and discourse of SF prepare us for the possibility of an actual alien encounter? Do they make us more willing to accept and believe that such an encounter could occur? Do they help us potentially approach such an encounter with a mindset not focussed solely on exploitation and personal gain? In other words, Steele's story implies that a science-fictional way of thinking might save us from a deadly alien encounter, a way of thinking that we can acquire from (the history and tradition of) SF stories ... a way of thinking that is not merely and simply "speculative" but practical, useful.

Final Thoughts
• Overall, the Jan. 2010 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction is a rather strong, including one truly excellent story (Steele), two very strong stories (Roberson, Emswhiller), one really good story (Tem), and three average stories (Landis, Reed, Shoulders). The strongest story is Steele's; the weakest is Reed's.

• In this issue, the better pieces succeed especially in their plotting and structure, particularly regarding the completeness and resolution of the story at stake. With short stories/novelettes, focus is the key, it seems: knowing precisely the story that must be told, which means centring on the proper and most interesting point of crisis and change for the main character(s). We want to meet characters at a time of significance in their lives, when they experience something that alters them -- or their world -- fundamentally. Also, the better pieces succeed, as I discovered from the Dec. 2009 issue of Asimov's, owing to consistency in voice, tone, and mood.

• In this issue, the metaphorical suppleness of the pieces by Steele, Emshwiller, Roberson, and Tem further sets them apart. I appreciate stories that reveal attention to layers of meaning, and stories that can play with the conventions and assumptions of their genre.

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