Tangent Reviews

Asimov's, July 1997

from Tangent #19, Summer 1997

Voice, the rolling thunder or whispering precision of a story's procession of words, the property that marks a writer as baroque or vanilla or thudding or lyrical. This issue of Asimov's is not only rife with writers of distinctive and powerful voices, but features a Robert Silverberg editorial that concludes, "It's a marvelously rich language we have. You might almost call it supervacaneous in its plenitude of verbal bounty."

Voice is also the answer to the Jeopardy question, What do you think of when you hear the name Eliot Fintushel? Fintushel stormed into the field with a series of fictions carried by his off-kilter sensibility and his sidling-at-you-sideways characters, but most of all by a rush of words that lifted readers bodily and thrilled and chilled them to the ending like a stand-up, barefoot plummet down a Splash Mountain water slide. His "Izzy and the Father of Terror," at least the third (not second as the intro has it) of the Izzy stories has these values all, and at novella length.

The story is unrecapitulatable; take it as granted that the ever-complaining Izzy once again saves mankind from a fate no one else can even see, before being revealed for what he really is. Izzy's love for and despair over the roving infection known as humanity is also Fintushel's, who more and more reveals himself as the long-sought spiritual heir to R. A. Lafferty.

High praise, as anyone who remembers the thrill of discovering Lafferty in the 60s must know. Younger readers may wonder at the statement, though, for Lafferty is largely forgotten, barely even a cult figure. Brilliant as Lafferty's short fiction could be, his novels betrayed him by frustrating any reader who wanted characters to reveal themselves as people, plots to become more than whimsically linked events, and the rush of words to crescendo to a glorious peak rather than buffet monotonically till the end.

If "Izzy" glories in all of Lafferty's virtues, it does so only in the process of subjecting us to all of Lafferty's faults in equal measure, with a greatly-delayed ending somehow both arbitrary and abrupt. John Clute said of Lafferty that "For his career's sake, it was certainly unfortunate that his response to renown seems to have been an intensification of the oddness of his product..." Fintushel now has achieved his measure of deserved renown; his intensifying oddness remains a concern.

Just as there will always be a place for head-banging rock 'n' roll, there will always be an audience for stories like R. Neube's "The Holy Stomper Vs. The Alien Barrel of Death," which brings the WWF into interstellar diplomacy. What is even odder is that this story is actually a rogue Analog piece, with its notions that a down-to-earth wrestler is smarter and more capable than academics or the military, that humans are the smartest and toughest beings in the universe, and that capitalism is the strongest force. As for voice, let's just say the story shouts at us in three chords for 2:45 and goes out with a drumstick smashing on a cymbal.

William Sanders may be best remembered for his novel Journey to Fusang, alternate history done absolutely right, with a sting at our culture hiding on every page. After a stint at mystery writing, he appears to be returning to the sf world, and lucky us. Sanders is a Cherokee, and writes about Cherokees, and that immediately gives him a voice and an approach not quite like anyone else's. "Words and Music" is a minor novelette about a musical showdown with the devil, essentially a retelling of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." But from the moment you see the shaman hero get persuaded to investigate a case of witching by being told his rewards will be Cherokee gospel singing and home-baked pie, you know you're in good hands with the telling.

John C. Wright's novelette, "Guest Law," also recalls earlier Analog days, the era in which tales of interstellar empires always included knights and nobility playing at mock courtly graces in speech fully as baroque as the exteriors of their spacecraft. Wright has this and more in this encounter of two such vessels in deepest space. His answer to his own question of how to enforce chivalry under such conditions may or may not be intended to be a moral for our time. But it provokes more thought than the abstract rituals of the piece deserve.

Tanith Lee writes a series of short, pithy, adjectiveless sentences and makes of them a style almost as baroque as Wright's convolutions or Fintushel's concatenations. Here, in the short story "After I Killed Her," Lee favors us with a tale of a knight and a dragon. Typically, the killing of the dragon is not the ending, but more of a beginning. She leaves no doubt that a moral flavors her ending, and whether you subscribe to it or not, her words lend it a seductive beauty.

Tony Daniel's short story "Black Canoes" is in the first person and while it's hard to keep voice out of such a story, voice is not his dominant tone, although he is a good and graceful writer. The voice is of a potter, attracted to, even obsessed with a woman who flits in and out of his life like the wren she resembles. They meet, they separate, they meet again: the story never gets beyond inchoate longings, despite some foreshadowing, until it veers suddenly into a fantasy of epic proportions and import. Whatever Daniels thought he might be saying, we readers never learn nearly enough about either character to make the final revelations come close to working, and we never learn enough about the world they find to make any of the melodrama believable.

Tony Daniel's story fails for reasons far beyond voice, and a different voice couldn't have cured its ills. That proves a point, I suppose. If that's a victory, it's a small one. Because the real point of this issue is that in it there lurks the ghost of a potentially great story whose substance we'll never see. I'd trade a dozen stories that give great voice for the chance to read it.

Copyright 1997 by Steve Carper

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