Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Shock Totem 1 (2009)

Shock Totem 1: Curious Tales of the Macabre and Twisted. Summer 2009. Pp. 100. ISBN 978-1448621743. $5.99.

Reviewed by Steven Pirie

The news has been fairly bleak lately. With a number of short story venues closing down, or claiming hiatus as they try to ride out the ravages of the economy, it’s hard not to feel a sense of foreboding that the small press is creaking under the strain. Possibly it’s a brave heart, then, that seeks to launch a new print magazine right now—and a pro-paying magazine at that—yet clearly the chaps and chapesses behind Shock Totem are made of stern stuff.

I’ve followed the gestation of Shock Totem through various blogs and forums on the Internet, and I have to say I’ve been impressed with how the Shock Totem team have been open to suggestion and criticism; freely admitting that this publication is a new venture to them; happily taking guidance from other editors who have been-there-and- done-that, yet still feeling confident enough to impress their own personalities upon the project throughout. There are lessons for us all, there, I’m sure.

And the result, I have to say, is pretty good. Shock Totem is a digest sized, perfect bound magazine, full colour front and back cover with stunning artwork by Robert Hoyem, and with a black and white interior. At one hundred pages but with a relatively small font size, there’s enough content to match bigger rivals.

So, what’s on offer, here? What’s different about this one from what’s already out there? I think it’s fair to say that Shock Totem has resisted the temptation to be radically different in any way. The content follows a well tried formula of an opening editorial, fiction, interviews, reviews, a scattering of poetry and, at least as a promise in future issues, non-fiction. Where it excels is in the obvious care and love in its production. This issue is a very strong base from which to build. And who knows, as it does build maybe it will evolve away from the ‘formula’ in ways even the Shock Totem team can’t yet see.

The fiction reads rather Americanised: this is hardly surprising, perhaps, given all the authors featured are indeed Americans. Whether this is by design or by coincidence I can’t say, but it seems to me that on this showing the British writer writing quintessential British fiction, for example, may find it hard to break into this market. Of course, future issues may already be filled with international content to prove me wrong. I hope so. Add to this that the Shock Totem team have been known to delight in their high rejection to acceptance ratio of submitted stories—okay, that’s harsh—delight in their high standards—if you, the writer, do make the cut here you can probably feel some achievement.

‘Music Box’, by T.L. Morganfield has the honour of being Shock Totem’s first ever story. It’s a Chocky-esque tale in which the turbulent relationship between two sentient, malevolent ‘cuddly’ toys is paralleled with the equally turbulent marriage of Cheryl and Kevin. It offers a somewhat bleak view of relationships, as both human and toy are systematically torn apart, one literally, one metaphorically, and there is little or no redemption for any of them. The ending is particularly strong, and the reader is left fearing that the violence evident throughout is about to escalate to the extreme. That Morganfield ends the tale just as this fear is to be recognised leaves the reader to decide what happens next. If the reader is in the middle of a bad day, my guess is there’re kidneys and tubes everywhere!

Mercedes M. Yardley's ‘Murder for Beginners’ is a delightfully understated tale that at times borders on the whimsical. Two girls, one corpse, one bloody shovel is the backdrop for what is surely the ultimate trivialisation of murder most foul. It’s the almost nonchalant attitude of the characters and Yardley’s skill in merely brushing against the seriousness of the situation that produces a tale in which the reader feels there’s an entire back story there lurking below the surface. In this way, the story really engages the reader, and the result is a thoroughly enjoyable vignette.

‘First Light’, by Les Berkley, is a lyrical tale of love and loss and life and death. In many ways, it’s a tale of gentler times, and I found myself lost in Berkley’s rolling prose. “I would dig Claire’s grave where no corpse-light would burn... ride her mare under the fainting moon and remember.”

‘Complexity’, by Don D’Ammassa, is a tale of paranoia ultimately proved valid. There’s an irony in that the technology Jake has grown to fear is the same technology he helped create. The story is a fine read, problematic only in that the set up to Jake’s paranoia seems a little drawn out in places and I found myself thinking long before the denouement: ‘Okay, I know this guy wants to be reclusive, is obsessive about ‘them’, is living in great fear, so I’d quite like to know why now.’ Also, because of the structure of the tale, to reach the conclusion required long passages of exposition. If you like that kind of writing (which you may guess I often find a little ‘dry’) you’ll enjoy ‘Complexity’.

Pam L. Wallace's ‘Below the Surface’ is a tale of jealousy and betrayal between two sisters, one the queen and the other bent on becoming queen. Set in an idyllic paradise, the story quickly darkens to the horrific and becomes compelling reading.

‘Slider’, by David Niall Wilson, is an odd tale of baseball, a death (or three) and a curse. Despite the fact that there’s a good deal of the esoteric in there—much of the nuance of American baseball will be lost on an international audience—the tale is conversational and otherwise easy on the eye, and despite the copious references to the game I was still able to follow the storyline.

‘The Dead March’, by Brian Rappatta, tells of Aaron and his hardship at the hands of his drunken, abusive father. Aaron can raise the dead with a single word, and the reader wonders how long Aaron will endure his father’s abuse before doing so to fight back. Ordinarily, I’m not a lover of zombie stories, but here Rappatta embellishes the tale with enough emotion, enough interest in the living, that the zombieism is almost secondary to the story.

Kurt Newton's ‘Thirty-Two Scenes from a Dead Hooker’s Mouth’ is unusual in structure in that it’s a tale in reverse. It begins with Nikki’s death, and then follows backwards in scenes of her life, all the way through to her birth. Newton’s prose pulls no punches, and the odd structure works very well to produce a fascinating read.

The interviews are with John Skipp, Alan Robert, and William Ollie (the latter including an excerpt from Ollie’s novel KillerCon) and are interesting reads. The poetry is there... sorry, poetry and me are ships in the night.

There’s a nice touch at the end of Shock Totem in the ‘Howling Through the Keyhole’ section in which the contributors are invited to talk about their motivations in writing their stories. Such insights round things off nicely.

So, it’s a strong first issue. I think, given the Shock Totem team’s willingness to improve, that if the magazine manages to survive in such shallow-pocketed times as these, it may go on to be a big player in the small press arena.

Here’s hoping, and good luck to it.

Shock Totem website

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Le Guin, Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness. 1969. (Panther edition 1973.)

Reviewed by Simon Mahony

Ursula Le Guin’s, The Left Hand of Darkness, Winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards for the year’s best S.F. novel (so it says on the cover of my 1973 reprint), has a lot to live up to as the first novel since Frank Herbert’s Dune to win both of these prestigious awards. Had my impressions of this novel changed with the passage of time between my first reading (attested by the yellowing pages with “U.K. 35p” marked on the back cover and “12p” in scrawled biro inside the front one) and now? Certainly I had changed in the intervening years; how would this influence the triangular relationship between writer, reader, and text?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Golden, Evergreen (2009)

Bruce Golden, Evergreen. Zumaya Otherwords, 2009. Pp. 342. ISBN 9781934841327. $17.95.

Reviewed by Carolyn Crow

Though he began working on Evergreen years before the current explosion of public awareness of global warming and environmental issues generally took root, Bruce Golden’s foray into the forests of an alien world seems very timely. Yes, there is an underlying environmental theme, but the book is never preachy or pedagogical; despite the fantastic milieu he’s created for the planet Evergreen, this is a true character story. It’s told from several viewpoints, all the while exploring the emotional bents of revenge, redemption, and obsession.

If you’re looking for lots of futuristic advanced technology, this probably isn’t the book for you. Evergreen is still a frontier planet where many forms of technology are limited by solar activity and the planet’s magnetic field. Solar power is the colonists only form of energy other than muscle and sweat. The colony was initially built on the backs of its indentured lumberjacks, though “the company” that owns the planetary mineral rights has begun setting up mining operations.

A man known by the name of Gash is one of these timber jockeys. He’s got a past he’s trying to forget, and he makes use of the local narcotic to ease his pain—until he’s recruited by the colonists to join their insurrection against the company. This rebellion, led by a colorful “pirate” of a saloon owner, is only one of several storylines that crisscross and eventually converge for an almost surrealistic climax.

The novel unfolds when an ancient artifact is discovered on Evergreen, a heretic priest back on Earth becomes convinced it’s the link that will prove his theory about the existence of an extraterrestrial “City of God.” Dr. Nikira forms an expedition to Evergreen that includes renowned archaeology professor Luis Escobedo, his wife, Filamena, and his estranged son, Maximo. Unknown to the professor, his wife has recently put an end to a brief but passionate affair with Maximo, her stepson. She chastises herself for the weakness that led her to the affair, and is now determined to stay true to her husband. However, when Maximo unexpectedly joins the expedition, she must deal with the constant temptation of his presence.

Traveling aboard the same ship that will take them to Evergreen is Eamon, a young man wracked by both guilt and a need for vengeance. After years of searching, Eamon believes he’s finally tracked down the man responsible for his mother’s death. He intends to find the man and kill him. In order to do so, he has contracted himself to join the timber jockey workforce, which is made up mostly of debtors and convicts. Though the lessons he learns along the way may be a bit obvious, I still found the naivety of his character appealing.

At this future point of man’s exploration of space, several inhabitable planets have been discovered, but, as yet, not a single intelligent species outside of mankind has been found. However, an exobiologist studying a primate species on Evergreen believes these “ursu” may be only thousands of years away from evolving into a sort of primitive intelligence. She’ll discover these creatures have a past as well as a future.

I found the ursu to be one of the most interesting facets of the book. Once their entire story was told, it seemed to me, from a thematic point of view, that they represented primitive man on Earth. While the potential of the ursu’s intelligence is debatable, another intelligence on Evergreen is not. This one’s not so readily visible. I won’t give it away, but this is the literary centerpiece that connects the various character pieces of this tale, and brings them together at the end.

As for the relevant issue of the environment, it’s not something Golden slaps you across the face with. No character ever broaches it—there’s no editorializing. But, by the end of the book, questions have been raised in the reader’s mind: Should mankind be allowed to do whatever it wants with whatever planet it encounters? Should we be able to do whatever we wants with planet Earth?

One of the best aspects of this book is the way Golden sets up each and every payoff. The foreshadowing is subtle, but it builds dramatically and informatively. We get a little piece here, a tidbit there, until the entirety of it unfolds. One obvious example comes with the character of Gash, who experiences mental flashbacks from the thing that haunts him. Each time he flashes back, we get a little bit more of what actually happened—what led him to Evergreen.

Evergreen has everything you look for in a great science fiction read. Believably tormented characters, unique world-building, realistic dialogue, adventure, exploration, alien lifeforms, conflict, resolution, and topical content... by the time the book ended, I only wished it were longer. I wanted more of this alien world, and wanted to know what happened to these characters next—at least those who survived to the final page.

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