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    Posted: Mar-05-2015 at 8:06am

First Class Fiction, by Daniel E. Blackston

originally published 7/2/2002
SciFi.com is an electrifying website resplendent with multi-media menus, topnotch interviews, live chats, discussion boards, SF news, and just about anything else SF related you can imagine. It's a SF fan-friendly extravaganza with rapidly changing, cutting-edge content. A thoroughly fun labyrinth to navigate.

The Sci Fiction section of the site is our focus in this column -- and even here we can do little more than graze the surface. This is, of course, the Cadillac of online Speculative Fiction sites, piloted by a legendary editor, who by all indications is at the height of her substantial influence and creative powers. Simply put, this is a must-bookmark SF source and a likely place to discover some of the best fiction available anywhere, in print or online.

Under Ellen Datlow's expert and intriguing editorship, Sci Fiction shines as brilliantly for the SF constellations as Zoetrope All Story, Francis Ford Coppola's wildly successful venture, does for the Literary field, with fiction of outstanding quality and craftsmanship, and an editorial vision that fruitfully integrates reader ease with creative/aesthetic expression. Week after week, Ellen Datlow presents Speculative Fiction in diverse variations that will haunt and possess readers, scribed by writers of proven quality and vision. Even if you are only a sporadic SF lover or e-pub reader, this is a source you'll want to make time to visit again and again.

Sci Fictions's vast archives boast contributions by such notables as: James Blaylock, Ursula K. Le Guin, Brian Aldiss, Roger Zelazny, James Blish, plus many, many more.... Also a regular series, "Michael Swanwick's Periodic Table of Science Fiction", plus regular classic reprints, plus SF writers on Sept. 11th, plus a Nebula Award winning novella, plus -- we're just getting started here! This site is an absolute treasure trove of SF and we regret that we only have space to spotlight a trio of the most recent offerings. We urge you to click over explore the superabundance at will!

As for recent fiction, "Jemima" by A.R. Morlan is a stunning satire of commercial marketing and virtual-reality gaming that threads a symbolic needle expertly, while tattooing a tale of the not-too-distant-future on the reader's cerebral cortex. Erc, a hard-ass sociopath with a tattooed bar-code on his forehead, is recruited off his skateboard by a cabal of game designers and promoters to become a living Sim, a flesh embodiment of virtual Spear-Slinger Roe Nudara Aswad, hero of the interactive virtual action-game, "Notker". The transformation of Erc's body through all-over-body tattooing, darkly described by Morlan, ignites Roe Nudara's saffron-skinned, shooting-star celebrity.

As "Notker" goes into promotion for its third edition, "Shadow Blade", Erc-as-Roe-Nudara, works the trade-show circuit where he performs psuedo-choreographed combat exhibitions with down-and-out football players, ex-wrestlers, and others, who masquerade as the luckless villains of the game. Morlan's description of the demo-combat is steeped in ominous satire and there is much sexual cynicism laced into the imagery of clashing spears, bodies, and breasts. The penultimate moment of the story's rising action is the appearance of a black antique peddler in the crowd who whispers a single word to Erc, "Jemima". The permutations of this word and its chilling symbolism of logo-commercialism is a brilliant literary device deployed by Morlan with great sophistication. Connecting the futuristic Sim, transformed through hideous tattoos to be a living logo, to the "antique" pancake and syrup, smiling Negro Aunt used exploitatively in America's racist past and present is a masterful ironic device.

Trouble comes to Erc's paradise when a serial killer uses the "Notker" games to lure child victims. A tsunami of legal and promotional entanglements deluges the virt-game and Erc. Morlan brings the story to a haunting close and shows subtle, yet thematically profound, character development in this brilliant satire of consumerism and Plutocracy. Very highly recommended.

"The Children's Crusade", by Robert Reed, is a mission to Mars theme darkly imagined as one man's personal, familial tragedy. When a child visionary Philippe Rule starts a Crusade among the young to turn their minds and money to the prospect of Mars exploration, the societal fallout hits hard on a teacher and his family. Reed's hapless protag, Wes, seems to watch the generational hypnosis by Rule's virtual Web-Mars game and the general trend of Mars fanaticism a little too passively. His direct involvement with Rule, who ultimately "converts" both his nephew and daughter, threatens to stretch the bounds of verisimilitude. Despite this bit of "stretching" plot-wise, the tale is a powerfully successful epic that reads quickly despite its time span and heroic background. Reed won me over both emotionally and intellectually with his novel-impact short story -- and his predilection for a hostile Mars revives a dark dimension to the Red Planet I am more than happy to re-encounter.

The recent classic reprint is, "Land of the Great Horses", by R. A. Lafferty, a boisterous bit about a mass-gypsy migration and some light-fingered extraterrestrials. Two mineral explorers, Rockwell and Smith, are exploring in the Thar Desert in North India when it begins to rain. They steer their terrain buggy near a legendary mirage, a pinnacle of luscious high ground, called The Land of Great Horses. As they survey on foot closer to the mirage of highland green, Rockwell discovers that their instruments show they are actually gaining altitude. Smith shocks him further by declaring that his real name is "Pettalangro" and that the Land of the Great Horses (his true home) is no longer a mirage.

The tale then thumbs through a series of colorful vignettes, curious and nefarious folk all around the world quit their lives abruptly and pack off to the Land of Great Horses. Later, we learn that the Land of Great Horses was physically taken by the Outer Visitors as a "sliver" for scientific study. The Visitors left a holographic replica as a loaner -- hence the mirage. When the OV's claim a fresh "sliver" (Los Angeles) for a specimen, Lafferty tilts full-speed into a mock encyclopedic entry for the "Angelenos", a race of gypsies who drive "for hours and sometimes days on seldom used cloverleafs and freeways". A terrifically enjoyable piece.

Other great stories from the archives are: "Water Master," a fantasy/fable about drought and the dark animus who controls the flow of water in a post-apocalyptic village, by Carol Emshwiller, "The Disinterred", by Mark W. Tiedmann, a Dantesque descent into 19th century satanic horror, told chillingly through the story of a man and his dialogue with his son's ghost.... but we're really only at the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Given the cornucopia of awe-inspiring and technically adroit fiction at Sci Fiction, we have no choice but to award Ellen Datlow our Brand Award. Congratulations to Ellen Datlow and to all the writers at Sci Fiction, from now on when we mention the site (and you can be sure we'll be visiting again), or Ellen Datlow, the Brand shall immediately follow.

So, once again, we challenge those last two or three remaining e-pub skeptics to spend half an hour at Sci Fiction and try to go on doubting. It's a triumph of Internet publishing that anyone with a browser can click over to fiction of this caliber, offered in a pleasant, highly readable format. We're happy to bring you this appetizer and hope you'll click over for a full-meal. It's not often you find gourmet food and fine wine served in a glittering glass -- all on the house.

Don't lose a minute, link up to free speculative fiction at Sci Fiction.

For a candid and fascinating conversation with Sci Fiction's laurel-crowned editor, Ellen Datlow, see the most recent issue of Science Fiction Chronicle, available through DNA Publications.

Until Next Time.
Daniel E. Blackston
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