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?

This outstanding novel is set on the freezing inhospitable world of Gethen (Winter) where the inhabitants cling to life in the narrow margins between the Northern and Southern glaciers. Life is harsh and errors mean certain death. Genly Ai is the ‘First Mobile’ or first direct contact with the inhabitants of Gethen from the ‘Ekumen’, not so much an empire as a league of planets and peoples (3000 nations on 83 worlds). A facilitating body (it says) set up to develop communication, trade, and harmony between its members.

The story is told in the first person by the two major protagonists, Genly Ai and Estraven, Prime Minister, before his exile, of Karhide, the first kingdom of Gethen visited by Ai. Using this narrative technique their nature is gradually revealed by words and deed although more is revealed by the way they misinterpret each other. The novel is interspersed with short chapters of tales from Karhidish legend which gives the reader an additional level of background insight into Karhidish culture (and another set of tools by which to evaluate Estraven and the Karhiders).

Other than the harsh landscape, the main obstacle facing Ai is the physical nature of the Gethenians: they are hermaphrodite. Not for them, however, the striking symbiosis of both female and male characteristics much favored by ancient sculpture; most of the time they are sexless, neither men nor women. A short cyclical period of sexuality (Kemmer, which lasts four days a month) brings them into ‘heat’ where they take on female physical characteristics and induce by touch the opposite sexual characteristic in a companion. This is the only time in which they are recognizable sexual beings.

Throughout the book, Ai struggles with his interpretation of the Gethenian sexuality. Le Guin constantly refers to the Gethenians as ‘he’, using the male pronoun and other grammatical indicators, which reinforces the reader’s impression (and confusion) of the Gethenians’ maleness. Ai, the alien, the outsider, the off-worlder, finds great difficulty with the ‘alien’ nature of these people. In a conversation with Estraven he rightly notes that for other races “the heaviest single factor in one’s life, is whether one’s born male or female. In most societies it determines one’s expectations, activities, outlook, ethics, manners – almost everything.” In their sexless state Ai still regards these strange beings as male but with a strange and seemingly prejudiced antipathy towards any feminine aspects of their nature. Female traits are always negative; for example in Ai’s early meeting with the insane king (apparently madness is a necessary quality in a King of Karhide) when the ruler laughs it is “shrilly like an angry woman,” or when he is brooding “as an old she-otter in a cage.”

How does society operate without the rigid distinction between the sexes? For one thing there is no war—a situation Estraven’s successor Tibe seeks to change for his own advantage as he aggravates a border dispute with Orgoreyn (as sub-plot and vehicle for a display of political intrigue, stretched loyalties, and an examination of the nature of patriotism). They have murders and forays into a neighbour’s territory but never wars. They have no concept or language to describe such conflict just as they have none to describe men and women.

The Ekumen sees all humankind as related and coming from ancient origins on Earth. It is suggested that the Gethenian physiology might have been the result of some type of genetic experiment. An added dimension, surprisingly not suggested by the author, might be that their ambisexuality is the result of the Terrans’ need to adapt to the harsh climate of Winter. So much of Mankind’s efforts (according to Freud) are directed towards the pursuit of sexual conquest and fulfillment that they perhaps would not have survived in this unforgiving environment without some sort of major change. Take sex out of the equation and what might man accomplish? An obvious reaction to this story (well it was to this writer on that earlier reading—the one fact that remained) but not one explored here by Le Guin.

This is a tale about loyalty and betrayal and how these two sides of the same coin are misunderstood and confused. The two main protagonists are thrown together towards the end as Estraven rescues Ai from an Orgoreyn labour camp, and they must make the long and dangerous trek across the glacier to Karhide (and relative safety, although not for Estraven). During this journey they are completely alone, sharing the confined space of the tent and the labours of dragging the sledge weighed down with their shelter and provisions across snow, ice and the glacier. This close contact brings out, for the first time, intimate discussion as they dispense with the ever-present ‘shifgrethor’, the pride and prestige relationship that governs social protocols and hierarchies between the Gethenians.

It is difficult not to read into the narrative the tensions of the time in which it was written. Are these the author’s intentions, purely the reader’s expectation, or our interactive response to the text? This is the time of the re-awakening of the women’s movement in the USA after a long period of inactivity. It is also the height of the cold war and the clash of political ideologies.

Contrast the anarchic, decentralized, and flexible society of Karhide—albeit ruled over by a madman (could this too be part of the analogy?)—with the totalitarian, centralized, rigid, and uniform state that is Orgoreyn: broken up into Commensalities within which “they provide all units [citizens] with jobs”. Karhide however is rife with factionalism and political intrigue, and in contrast Orgoreyn seems so appealing to Ai—at least until his incarceration and brutal treatment in the labour camp where the authorities hide him, covering their tracks with rumours of his death.

Since the Odyssey and Aeneid (and earlier foundation myths) the hero’s journey is a familiar topos, in the case of SF usually from Earth to different planets. This is true here but further reading reveals that there are (like for Odysseus and Aeneas) journeys within journeys. The one that will challenge Ai and lead him to self-awareness is not the passage from Earth to Winter but his arduous and perilous crossing of the icy wasteland in the company of Estraven, the native. This journey is indicative of and mirrors Ai’s true journey: that of his rising self-awareness and the developing warmness of his relationship with Estraven. In that journey they find a closeness, a love like that between Estraven and his 'brother' (told in an inset-tale) that can never be.

Like travelers in the Odyssey, Ai and Estraven are granted, upon formulaic request, shelter and food from strangers; a necessary reciprocal code to maximize the chances of survival in this harsh and unforgiving landscape especially amongst those “who live on the edge of the edge”. Without this no sane person would ever venture out onto the roads buried under snow and ice.

Their hazardous journey and shared hardships bring them closer together and a strong bond forms between the two. Estraven cannot avoid his time of kemmer but chooses to repress his feelings towards Ai. However, in this proximity his femininity is revealed (together with mention of a child born from his body) and once this is accepted by Ai, he begins to be able to accept his own feminine side something he had previously thought of as weakness and a characteristic only for women. Showing depth of character and an inner strength he acknowledges and even gives voice to his own vulnerability. As they reach their goal, where they know parting must come, Ai feels the true cost of opening himself up to love as Estraven dies, betrayed and shot down by an apparent friend. Love gained is balanced by love lost, just as joy with sorrow, and light with darkness. The fullness of Ai’s love is matched by the intensity of his loss. His growth as a character is marked by his experience of the pain of both love and its loss as he emerges with greater knowledge, insight, and strength. Here the reader might remark on the choice of name for Le Guin’s problematic ‘hero’: Ai. Like the Aias (Ajax) of Sophocles the sound of Genly’s name is “a cry of pain” and as the tragic chorus well understands: “man must suffer to be wise.”

As in Taoist philosophy, light and dark are not in conflict but co-exist, each defining the other rather than struggling to eliminate each other. Both are essential for life to combine as are good and evil, positive and negative, male and female. Opposites are reconciled to achieve balance and harmony. This is the implied message of Le Guin’s story. How much would we as human beings achieve if we removed the continual contest of sexuality and how greatly would our lives be enriched if we, both men and women, were permitted to experience the full range of human emotions and were not restricted to only some of them? Human sexuality is a cultural question, one of tradition and prejudice. Taoist peace and harmony may be achieved on an individual level, and indeed on a world level, if we accept and foster both the female and male principles in each of us. Thus might we become whole.

The interesting calendar, where years are counted backwards and forwards from the present so that Gethenians are constantly in Year One, also needs to be included here on a minor note. This also feeds into the Taoist perception of harmony where the emphasis is always on the ‘now’ with energies being directed here on the moment rather than on (as often is the case in Western thought) what may happen in the future. This is not to say that no thought is given to the future, or that we should live in an unrestrained, hedonistic present, but that there should be more balance between the two. We exist and can only exist in the present moment, however hard we plan and work towards an unseen future.

That to one side, Le Guin weaves an intricate tale that draws in and immerses the reader in this new and strange world of Winter; a world where a study of its inhabitants necessitates an exploration of the nature of sexuality, loyalty, betrayal, oneness. A story teller of the highest magnitude, Le Guin rightly deserves the awards for this novel (which really should be read in mainstream literary circles as well as by genre fans), for the way in which it engages with the human condition in elegant and superbly descriptive prose. The author displays insight of both the social and political spectrum and engages the reader with both philosophical and psychological issues.

Authorial intrusion can arguably be read in the one chapter that does not fall into the earlier given categories, ‘The Question of Sex’. Structured into the tale as ‘field notes’ from an earlier investigator (of the type that do the preliminary groundwork but do not make contact) we find in the penultimate sentence that this is a female voice, the sole female in the novel. Here there are suggestions for the peculiarities of Gethenian sexual physiology, well thought out though suitably vague descriptions of their sexual cycle, how this fits in with conventions of pair-bonding and family ties. Sex is a part of a cycle so there can be no non-consenting sex, no rape, no division into strong and weak, owner and chattel; and importantly, no war. The ‘investigator’ postulates the link between “continuous sexual capacity and organized social aggression” and suggests that some consider “war to be a purely masculine” activity—“a vast Rape”—although she herself is “no expert on the attractions of violence or the nature of war”. No race of warring Amazons here. However, might it simply be the climate, the relentless cold that eats up all their fighting spirit? They need all their energies to survive the harshness of their surroundings. That is their unrelenting war.

My only serious criticism is that in the exploration of ambisexuality the inhabitants of Gethen seem to be solely male (except for their negative characteristics) and hence an opportunity is lost. In addition there is no mention of same-sex attraction or relationships. We hear and meet Estraven’s child but we do not see Estraven as a mother or in any other overtly ‘female’ role. My copy of The Left Hand of Darkness is 200 pages long and perhaps if Le Guin were to have addressed these issues we would have had a length more approaching Dune or Lord of the Rings, more heavy going, and less accessible as a result.

This work survives the test of time and survives it well. I expect that subsequent visits when the pages fade further will also be worth the time spent. In this book Le Guin addresses issues that are timeless and intrinsically relevant to mankind. They were always there in the text and within the author; the change in the triangular relationship has been with the reader. This one is now more able to appreciate the complexities and subtleties woven within.

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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