Sunday, November 23, 2008

GUD #3 (Autumn 2008)

GUD (Greatest Uncommon Denominator) Magazine. Issue 3, Autumn 2008. Pp. 204. $10.00.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

This professionally presented paperback volume is the fourth issue of GUD Magazine (the first issue was numbered zero). Greatest Uncommon Denominator is a magazine that prides itself on being eclectic, slipstream, surreal, undefinable, weird, and fantastic (in their own words, they publish "literary and genre fiction, poetry, art, and articles"). This issue, which is the size of a short paperback novel, is nothing if not eclectic. The theme is nominally "mechanical flight", but the stories and other contents range from the tragic alternative history, the challengingly speculative, and the chillingly cruel to cheap comedy and surreal collage; and from the brilliantly original to the unutterably silly or the frankly unreadable. It is great that this magazine exists and that its editors have the courage to take risks with unusual material: no reader will like everything in this issue, but there is more than enough good in here to justify the material that I was not fond of.

The first lengthy fiction piece in this volume is Darja Malcolm-Clarke's 'A Song, a Prayer, an Empty Space', which is a very classily written, twenty-page story about a disgraced bishop in an alternative reality where God can only be addressed by means of euchoi, coins imbued with prayer and then processed by a machine that translates the prayers into divine form. Bishop Adan has been exiled from his monastery in Algeria (it is never clear whether the monks in this story are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or whether "Yahvist" is a catch-all term for a single Book faith) for giving away euchoi to the poor who could not otherwise afford to pray. In addition to rising taxes, a daemon is stealing prayers before they can be euchomified, and the world around the church is starting to crumble. Although this story is well-written and the characters engaging, there was something lacking for my tastes. If there was a political overtone behind the plot, it was only that people ought to be able to speak to God without the mediation of an élite church that charges them for the privilege. The replacement of one church for another is hardly a radical conclusion, and a moral harking back to Reformation sentiments may well have gone over this reader's head. A well-written story, but one which left me a little flat by the end.

Tina Connolly's 'Facts of Bone' is a near-future story about a pair of sisters who run a business harvesting down feathers from cliffside birds' nests. Jules rides a "flycycle" which allows the freedom of the skies as she patrols the cliff face, looking out for the birds and their nests; her sister Marnie is a businesswoman, always travelling and always too busy to come home. A run-in with a poacher injures Jules, and a rare genetic disorder manifests itself in hospital, a condition that threatens to interfere with her ability to fly and do the work she loves. The conclusion to this story is an incredibly sensitive treatment of disability, of mental health affected by physical fragility, and of the psychological implications of virtuality and remote experience. An excellent story, for me one of the outstanding pieces in this issue.

Another subtle but clever story is 'Think Fast' by Michael Greenhut, an understated and original take on the multiple-realities idea. A young man with a tragic family history finds that if he thinks hard and fast enough he can send messages back in time to his younger self. These messages, which are interpreted as instincts, allow him to benefit from his future experience and avoid the worst things that can happen to him: getting into a fight, being murdered, being arrested; he can then take great risks with impunity, since he can prevent the worst from happening by sending messages back again and again until he finds the successful course of action. The protagonist is not a superhero, although he does protect the innocent and fight crime; he makes morally complex decisions, and the reader may not always agree with him. This is a thought-provoking and heart-breaking story, as the hero finds himself always unable to go back and prevent the original, ultimate tragedy.

Perhaps my favourite piece in this collection is the long story 'Night Bird Soaring' by T.L. Morganfield. In an alternative history where the divine Aztec emperor defeated Cortés in 1521, and a great Aztec empire dominates the world in the twenty-first century, Totyoalli is a talented boy chosen by the priests to be Teotl Ixiptla, to be sacrificed to the gods at the age of 29. Befriending the immortal emperor, Totyoalli builds on his talent for science to pursue a career as an astronaut, although he may not live long enough to take the voyage he dreams of. This story contains a fine mixture of rational and spiritual elements, remaining respectful to both. Totyoalli is a scientist and an atheist, but he cannot entirely turn his back on the ancient religion and expectations of his culture. It is perhaps slightly disappointing that in this alternative history, the twenty-first-century Aztec empire features almost entirely mediaeval religious and cultural setting alongside almost entirely modern technology, as if the two would not have co-evolved to create a culture unrecognisable as either. This is a minor quibble, and this remains an excellent and most worthwhile story; sensitive, provocative, and powerful. This one will stay with me.

Jason D. Wittman's 'The Train' is a nightmarish, Alice-in-Wonderland-like story set on a train full of refugees fleeing across war-torn Russia in 1942. Katya is fleeing from the besieged Stalingrad, along with so many other civilians. Her husband is an officer, fighting on the front lines. She knows that his life is in danger, and somehow the old man with the magic coin and the dwarf she meets on the train have something to do with it. This is not a terribly original story, with the protagonists caught up in giant games of chess, chasing fate down the length of the train and pursued by angels and automatons, but it is engaging and moving and well worth reading.

In 'Flower as Big as the Sky', Matt Dennison tells the story of a perhaps unusually gullible young boy and the man building a mysterious construction in the garden next door. Despite the boy's awkwardness, it is the adults in this story whose naivety, and emotional immaturity, and lack of respect for others really earn our pity and contempt. Seemingly befuddled on the surface, the boy turns out to have the best grasp of what is going on in the world around him out of everyone.

A nonfiction piece, Christian A. Dumais's 'Counting Nuns' is a study of phobia (in this case of needles) that contains a richness of language and imagery that many fictional stories lack. A perfect example of the editors taking a risk publishing an unusual piece that pays off.

Two stories that I want to finish with both deal with pathos and desperation/despair in different ways. Frank Haberle's 'The Great Big NOTHING' is the story of an alcoholic who takes some time off from his thankless life to meet up with a woman from his past and hike in the wilderness, but he is unable to overcome his fear of failure and make the most of the opportunity, so knows that nothing will change. Nick Antosca's 'Soon You Will Be Gone and Possibly Eaten' is a story of alien visitation, abduction, and departure, and studies the themes of jealousy, fear of loss, and the fragility of the most passionate and mercurial relationships; also the way we become reliant upon those we love to the extent of physical addiction. A truly heartbreaking story.

Alongside the many powerful (and a few less impressive) short stories in this issue, there are some dozens of poems and pieces of artwork, a few of which are worth highlighting. Dangerous Innocence by Joe Roger is a drawing made up almost entirely of faces, skulls, smileys, and slavering bestial maws. The central figures, asleep or dead, have biblical references tattooed on their flesh, but it is hard to read most of these and the significance is obscure. It is a shame, because this is probably a very subtle piece of art, but the small size, low resolution, and poor quality paper rather ruin the piece. In Clockwork Wings by Kiriko Moth a naked male figure with mechanical wings stands before a clock against a background of cogs and wheels. The juxtaposition of tender flesh and harsh machinery is intriguing (as is the weird metallic buttock-corset the main figure appears to be wearing).

Two poems (which I am usually reluctant to review) caught my attention. 'How to Fetch Firewood' by Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau is dedicated to the women and children of Darfur, and has been published in multiple venues prior to this. It is a powerful, both moving and chilling poem about the horror and desperation of living in a war-torn and famile-wracked land with no hope and no help. Jim Pascual Agustin's 'In Every War'/'Sa Bawat Digma' is a bilingual poem published here in both English and (I presume) Filipino. Like the above-mentioned poem, this one focuses on the plight of non-combatants in wartime, in this case parents who cannot sleep for fear of what might happen to their children.

If the aim of Greatest Uncommon Denominator magazine is to be eclectic and challenging, then issue #3 has certainly succeeded on both counts. Enthusiastically recommended.

Buy or subscribe to GUD magazine

Saturday, November 15, 2008

New Scientist, 'Science Fiction Special'

New Scientist, 15 November 2008. Special issue: 'The Future of Sci-fi'. Pp. 46-52. £3.15/$5.95.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

The November 15th issue of this weekly popular science magazine contains a special feature on the future of science fiction ('Is science fiction dying?'), including comments from six high-profile authors, a handful of book reviews and the results of a readers poll. All in all, this is fairly light fare from what is normally a serious and intelligent magazine: in particular the question of whether wonderful modern science has rendered science fiction obsolete, the almost exclusive focus of this article, is not the most interesting question one could ask about the genre (one might argue it's a non-question).

The lead article is by Marcus Chown, and is more of a summary of science in science fiction than it is a critical analysis of any aspect of the genre. The observation that science fiction more often "articulates our present day concerns and anxieties" than it attempts to predict the future is both a commonplace and an extremely important statement. Beyond the argument that science fiction requires a culture of change "when ... children [can] expect to grow up in a world radically different from that of their parents", this observation is not taken very far. The remainder of the article discussed the popularity of science fiction and the idea that the genre is becoming mainstream (as is patently the case in film) or being incorporated into "non-genre" writing (as is clearly the case with literature).

To be fair, Chown has barely a full page of text to devote to this discussion, since the bulk of his four-page article is made up of pulp illustrations of bug-eyed aliens or the inserts of comments by science fiction authors.

A few interesting comments are made in the quarter-page author essays. William Gibson gives a thoughtful retrospective on the history of his relationship with science fiction, which reiterates the point that SF is not about the future, but about the hopes and fears of the world in which it was written; Gibson's comparison of SF with the writing of ancient history (in the extended version of this essay online) is extremely apposite in as much as both disciplines involve creating a culture around a small amount of data, and both are speculative and tell you as much about the present as they do about the past or the future. It is interesting (but nothing new) to note that Gibson--despite being the author of the seminal work of one of the most important new sub-genres of science fiction of the last thirty years--does not really identify himself as an author of core science fiction. His work is speculative in the way that all good literature is speculative: it takes a premise of our world (technological, futuristic, or otherwise) and follows it unflinchingly until a fascinating story unfolds (think for example of Kafka).

A sensitive comment from Ursula Le Guin sadly fails to raise many overt political points (although she does recommend the work of Geoff Ryman, China Miéville, and Michal Chabon); instead she focuses on the subtleties of genre, pointing out that the more fantastic breed of SF--space opera and the like--tends to be reactionary while social science fiction is much more ripe for good speculation. Kim Stanley Robinson reiterates the point that science fiction reflects our own time and concerns, and unsurprisingly his concerns are environmental. Robinson's essay is a warning that our immediately future can only be utopia (a new political and economic order) or dystopia (total environmental catastrophe), nothing in between.

Nick Sagan talks about the sense of wonder in science, and how the lack of engagement with truly innovative science is responsible for the nostalgia in much modern science fiction. A new space programme may not be the answer to changing the popular perception of science, but the challenges and opportunities involved in a workable renewable energy programme just might. Stephen Baxter talks a little about the history of science fiction, from the rise of modern physics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, through the nuclear fears of post-WW2 literature, through the cyber-revolution of the 1980s, and to the environmental fears that colour much SF in the 2000s. Perhaps the strangest choice of author in this section is Margret Atwood, who occasionally dabbles in speculative themes but normally denies any involvement with science fiction. It turns out she says very little in this (somewhat disingenuous) essay, except to demonstrate that she doesn't actually understand the difference between science fiction and fantasy.

I am not going to review the two-page reviews section of this special issue, and there is not very much to say about the readers' poll results except that it may be interesting to hear that the readers of a science magazine overwhelmingly picked the films Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the book Dune as their favourites in science fiction. There is something grand, something "hard", something ambitious and determined about all of these visions of the future, which perhaps appeals to the scientific mind. On the other hand, there are no surprises in these lists, and all these titles turn up regularly in "best of" polls whatever the demographic.

This reader remains slightly disappointed that New Scientist magazine was not able to come up with more weighty fare than this on the subject of science fiction. Compare the discussions that can appear in SF blogs (such as this or this) to see what people really plugged into the genre can come up with when they discuss science fiction.

Read this special issue of New Scientist online