Tangent Reviews

Tomorrow #21, June 1996

from Tangent #16, Summer 1996

Writing this just after the Olympics, I'm savoring the memories, moments I'll treasure for years to come. No, not by the athletes. By the commentators.

For two weeks, NBC's experts nitted and picked their way through every performance, complaining about a tiny step after a vault, an arched back spoiling a dive, a bobbled start in a sprint. 200 million viewers now have ample proof that world-class, even gold medal performances are almost never as good as they could be.

And so to the reviews.

Nina Kiriki Hoffman is the kind of solid competitor who keeps coming back with fine stories year after year. Here, to flog that Olympic metaphor an inch further, she attempts a story with a high degree of difficulty. There's this wizard, see, although he looks to the world like an ordinary businessman, and he traps a demon and forces it to assume the role of boy companion and protector to his son after the boy's mother's death, but one day the demon wakes as a girl. Could anyone make that premise work, turn it into anything more than cheap hooters comedy?

Hoffman does, somehow weaving a sensitive, intelligent coming-of-age story out of very thin cloth. She does so by assuming that "The Demon Servant" of the title of this novelette has begun to think like a human after several years in human guise, and letting genuine affection between it and its charge propel the story forward. Unfortunately (and this will be the last Olympic metaphor, I promise), she fails to stick her landing, I mean, her ending. The promising start roars past the potentially fascinating complications she hints at and skids to an Afterschool Special conclusion. I found it hard to believe that a demon freed from years of thrall would remain to hang around the malt shop with some very ordinary teenagers. No good reason for the demon's suddenly turning female is ever given (the boy is well past puberty) and implications about the son's more-than-just-friends love for the boy he thought he knew are quickly forgotten. Even so, by keeping the focus on human emotions, and some quietly nice writing, it rates as the best story in the issue.

The other novelette, "Canis Major," by Joseph Carrabis, falls far from these heights. Iggie is a werewolf with a twist: he is human only during the few days around the full moon. Despite such a handicap, he has managed a complete understanding of human culture (it helps that he is independently wealthy). Placing an ad in the personals, he strikes immediate male fantasy. She is beautiful. Tremendously sexy. 5 feet, 5 inches, 110 pounds. "Big tits." Except that he can't quite bring himself to tell her the truth, so they dance around the subject for many, many pages. The story goes nowhere, but could have been redeemed if both Carrabis' people and prose weren't equally wooden. He suffers from an unholy bad case of Pronoun-Verb Syndrome, in which every sentence start thuds off the pages in sing song fashion. A paragraph chosen not quite at random but all too representative: "Sherry was;" "He hadn't; "She was;" "It was;" "Her hair was." It was. No fun.

Turning to short stories, James Killus' "As Beauty Does" is essentially a 1930s story in 90s guise. A mad scientist, er, a physicist, invents a serum, er, builds an accelerator, that can never be duplicated and that is blown up at the end anyway. In this case, the accelerator emits "aestheton" particles that makes ugly things appear beautiful. A seriously ugly female grad student turns the beam on herself. Killus tries for tragicomic commentary on beauty in today's society, but the uneasy mixture never gels.

Don D'Ammassa also begins "Sneak Thief" with an awkward and unlovely young woman. By the second page, her basic nature and powers have been telegraphed to us and any Tangent reader will know exactly what the succeeding pages will bring. They do so in very direct fashion, and then stop.

Better told is Brandon Massey's "Dead to the World," a seemingly straightforward story that shifts imperceptibly but unstoppably from mainstream to fantasy to horror. The surprise ending may or may not work for you, but Massey makes the protagonist sufficiently real that you should identify with his very bad day at the office.

"Seeing Sebastian," by Tawn Stokes, is a piffle about VR vs. reality. Reality loses this round.

"Cogito," by Elisabeth Vonarburg, translated from the French by Jane Brierley, is, like her last several Tomorrow pieces, a reprint. I'm curious as to where this was originally published, because it is written in a most unusual format: the didactic utopia. You remember the style, force-fed in English class if in nothing voluntarily read: the omniscient author explaining in several thousand words of exposition unbroken by dialog, characterization, or -- all too often -- wit, exactly why the citizens of the future have chosen to replace all their velocipedes with tandem rickshaws. Full confession mode here: this style of quasi-fiction is the print version of nails on a blackboard to me, and this piece required several tries before I could achieve the momentum to see me to the end. (Worse, all too many in the mainstream still seem to believe that this is what science fiction -really- is like, a point of view which does not need encouraging.)

Anyway, Vonarburg's story is a modern version of same, involving a curious little girl, and some lessons about life that apply, yes, even in this utopia. This type of story, having no plot, cannot resolve, per se, and so it dribbles to a literary conclusion.

Despite the competence of some of these stories, I had none of that thrill that a good story provides, none of the frisson given by a well-turned phrase, a perfect description, a brand-new idea. It did not help that the short stories announced their impending mediocrity by opening (in the order reviewed above) with the following set of lines:

"I'd like to call it the 'beauty particle,' Professor Hadley told us that day. "But the quark boys beat me to it."

Although I consider myself a competent observer, I was totally unprepared for the unique threat posed by Heather Angeli.

"Where's my check?"

"Of course we can see each other," Milli said. "I'm loose, sweet and twenty."

Once upon a time on a planet far, far away there was a little girl named Nathany Berkeley.

Oh, my. Not much there to cause even a milliRichter of frisson. Imagine then, the way I caught my breath in hope and wonder as I read this:

"I touched a carefully polished, brilliantly red apple, one of several pieces of fresh fruit filling a pottery bowl occupying the center of my father's kitchen table. I'd given Mom that bowl for Christmas the year before she died. This was the first time I'd seen it used."

Oh, my. Writing, as opposed to the laying down of words to fulfill a plot, is by no means sufficient nor even necessary to the creation of a fine story, but the pleasures of pure, lyrical writing are hard indeed to deny. All the more so when as here, in the opening of Laurie Tashiro's "Music in the Park," they provide the reader with history, conflict, and emotional subtleties in a very compact space. I confess a bias for stories about people, and human emotions, and the turmoil and complexities these can bring, and having one this nicely-written is surely a bonus. But fine writing does not a fine story guarantee, and this one goes wrong in almost every possible way.

I'd like to think, I'd love to be convinced, that what follows that lovely opening is a particularly subtle unreliable narrator story. Tell me that it was deliberate that, in a story arising from the memories belonging to families and their histories, only the narrator's aloofness from these feelings makes the plot possible. Show me where Tashiro meant us to realize that it was the narrator's blindness and not her own that makes the ending fail to grow organically out of anything presented to us in the beginning. Persuade me that writing a first-person narration in which the narrator's lack of emotional involvement in the story is essential to its outcome was intended from the start. I don't think anyone can. But I wish, for the sake of what could have been, that someone would try.

The first part of a novel by Michael Shea fills about a third of the issue, taking up room that could have been occupied by a half dozen shorter pieces. Probably any six plucked out of inventory at random would have pleased me more, I'm afraid. We have here an issue that even John Tesh couldn't fake enthusiasm about.

Copyright 1996 by Steve Carper

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