Saturday, December 20, 2008

Butler (ed.), Taking Flight (2008)

Pete Butler (ed.), Triangulation: Taking Flight. PARSEC Ink, 2008. Pp. 126. ISBN 9780615152806. $12.00.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

This is the fifth anthology published under the title Triangulation, brought out by the PARSEC Ink press. Taking Flight brings us a clutch of stories on the theme of things that fly, or that try to fly, or that ought to fly. The subjects of these stories are streamlined, jet-propelled, or space-faring; gas-filled, lighter than air, or fluffy and flighty. It is an eclectic collection with some pieces that approach the theme daringly and imaginatively, that push the boundaries of genre and taste alike. As a volume Taking Flight tends more to the light-weight and flighty end of this scale: at 124 pages of fiction, there isn't really room for many of the 20 stories herein to get going, and some are so vignette-like and perfunctory as to be almost incomprehensible. There are more than enough moving and shocking pieces, however, to reward the patient reader, and I have no hesitation in declaring this volume good value for money.

Among the stand-out pieces in this quite varied anthology is Elizabeth Barrette's 'Peacock Hour', a story that reads like a Near Eastern fairy tale about the eldest daughter in a tragic family who make flying carpets. While her father spins spells and prepares magic wool and other materials, her mother weaves rugs with a life of their own, and her seven brothers risk their lives in a series of failed flying experiments, Haylaa helps as best she can. But she is a girl, and while she can (somewhat scandalously) gather rumours and conduct research into the history of magic carpets, there is little else she is allowed to do. This sensitive story ends with a slightly incongruous combination of, on the one hand, a feminist reaction against the limiting and veiling of women, and on the other a re-affirmation of the classic (and oppressive) assumption that a woman's virginity is somehow pure and powerful and virtuous.

Perhaps the most challenging and even shocking story in this collection is 'Seeing Stars' by Shanna Germain, an intense and graphic depiction of the practice of autoerotic asphyxia. The narrator is a medical professional who offers the service of making sure that her clients do not accidentally kill themselves by strangling, hanging, or suffocating themselves while masturbating. This story manages to be sensitive, erotic, non-judgemental, and deeply disturbing at the same time. A very impressive achievement.

Jacob Edwards's 'Stone Cold' is a short but interesting take on the cliché of using parallel universe theory to pick a single, infinitesimally unlikely outcome out of the range of all possible outcomes of a particular decision, thus having apparently superhuman powers of foresight and/or good luck. If one in a million of you from all these parallel worlds is successful, what happens, this story asks, to those that are not successful? What, moreover, are the moral implications of manipulating your own luck at the expense of your clone in a parallel dimension?

Another piece with a different take is 'It Takes a Town' by Stephen V. Ramey, in which the eclectic (and often eccentric) citizens of a depressed Midwestern town unite under the guidance of a talented schoolgirl to cobble together a mission to bring back soil samples from Mars. The story comprises of twelve short chapters as they countdown to launch day, each from a different viewpoint but linked by the attempts of the local pig farmer to talk them out of this mad mission. This is ultimately a story of affirmation, of small town pluck triumphing against the odds, against opposition, and against skepticism, despite the fact that to all appearances the skepticism would appear to be well-founded. Not only is the attempt to build a rocket from a disused grain silo, a water heater, and other varied farm junk based on a design put together by a twelve year-old girl exceedingly unlikely, but (as Tom the pig farmer rightly points out) there are more pressing problems to solve here on Earth, without which we will not possibly survive long enough as a race to colonize Mars and the other planets needed to support the desperate Earth's population. This is an allegorical story about the need for hope and the value of co-operation, to be sure, and I do not wish to be obnoxiously pedantic or use this as an excuse to damn all space exploration. There are many good reasons to continue to conduct research in outer space, not least the opportunity to learn more about the Universe and our place in it, but if we abandon the health of this planet because of dreams of colonizing some other, then we really are doomed.

By far the most original and striking piece in this volume is David Seigler's 'Graveyard of the Cloud Gods', one of the most inventive stories I have read this year. The protagonists are Llaunu, gas-filled creatures who float above the clouds of their world (which is probably not our own), living a rarefied existence and despising the filth and miasma that exists in the world below. Conservative and pious, they believe that the mere sight of this sinful world will surely kill and possibly even steal the soul of a Llaunu, and that those of them who fall give up their souls to heaven before their bodies can be corrupted and decayed. Ju'utu, an open-minded and inquisitive character who is mistrusted and eventually branded a heretic by his fellows, is not satisfied by the pious teaching of the elders and decides to see beneath the clouds for himself. On the Earth below Ju'utu discovers that fallen Llaunu are worshipped as gods by the base creatures that inhabit the surface, the bodies of the dead reverently disposed of and the survivors tended and fed. As is clear from this brief summary, this story is full of religious language and imagery, and it is not kind to those who hold to the old ways or insist on their blind faith despite any evidence to the contrary, especially those who will repress or attach those who threaten their Panglossian view of their world. This piece manages to be scathing, tragic, philosophical, and optimistic in equal measure, and is a tour de force of a short story.

Among a handful of flighty and fluffy pieces in this anthology, therefore, there is a hard core of sophisticated, streamlined, and jet-propelled excellent science fiction writing. All in all another very good collection from PARSEC Ink, who are proving to be a press worth watching.

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1 comment:

Tashai said...

Just wanted to wish you a tremendous holiday!