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Into the Abyss

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Category: Reading
Forum Name: Firebrand Fiction
Forum Description: Archive of Firebrand Fiction Reviews and Articles
Printed Date: Sep-27-2023 at 12:03am
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Topic: Into the Abyss
Posted By: SFReader
Subject: Into the Abyss
Date Posted: Mar-05-2015 at 8:26am

Objectivity's Paradox, by Robert J. Santa

originally published 12/23/2007

Paradox: The Magazine of Historical and Speculative Fiction has been both entertaining and intellectually stimulating since its inception in the Spring of 2003. As a market devoted almost exclusively to historical fiction and alternate history, it is one of only a few that focuses on this genre. What that says to me, as a reader, is that the caliber of stories within its pages will be the creme de la creme, if only due to the limited availability of output for such stories.

Full disclosure: One of my speculative twists on a mythological tale appeared in the first issue of Paradox, and I've spent the last four years trying to get another publishing credit. I regard editor Christopher M. Cevasco as one of an elite minority who maintain the level of professionalism all good publications should strive for, as I've had nothing but outstanding exchanges with him and heard nothing but similar remarks from writers at the SFReader forum (of which, full disclosure continuing, Chris is also a frequent visitor). Lastly, as an editor myself, I have purchased one of Chris' stories for an upcoming anthology.

Okay, I lied. This is the last remark: Paradox is my favorite fiction magazine, and I devour every copy I get.

Which brings me to one of those reviewing quandaries. Much like coaching little league and watching your own child blow the big game, will I be able to distance myself from my prejudices enough to make critical commentary?

There's only one way to find out: write a review of Paradox, issue 11 and see what happens.

The opening piece is "Love, Blood and Octli" by T. L. Morganfield (more disclosure: she is also a frequenter of the SFReader forum). Even without the magnificent Mesoamerican art covering the first page, I knew this would be a subject matter dear to my heart: the Aztec Empire. My favorite novel is Aztec by Gary Jennings, an historical fiction epic I've read twenty times at least, where I was first introduced to octli (a tequila-like spirit, though that is an inferior description). It is unfair to compare Morganfield's short story with Jennings' masterpiece, and I won't. "Love, Blood and Octli" stands on its own as a fable about the rise of the Aztecs as a people. Ayomichi is given her name by the wind god Ehecatl and told of her future role as dispenser of wisdom. Ehecatl visits her rarely throughout her life, always changing its course and the course of her people (and not always for the better). The pacing of this piece is deliberate (which should not be interpreted as "slow"), as the story of a civilization's infant steps unfolds. I found Morganfield's storytelling outstanding, and her piece deserves the spotlight of first on the table of contents.

"In a Byzantine Garden" is one of three contributions by Darrell Schweitzer (the other two being poetry, of which I am woefully underskilled to critique and will refrain from doing so). This one-page short story about a meeting of lifelong enemies engaged in a discussion of peace could truthfully take place in any time, in any setting. Schweitzer elegantly brings the two characters to life with such simple brevity, all writers who strive for that skill should be jealous (this one included). What could be called the story's twist, upon which everything before pivots, is a single sentence of three words. I couldn't have done it with fifty. This is a curiously haunting, extremely short story that hung with me for far longer than it took me to read it.

Michael Livingston does in his Civil War story "The Angel of Marye's Heights" exactly what I feel Chris Cevasco is looking for in Paradox: taking a documented historical event and examining it from a different perspective. This is not a "What If?" tale, as many Civil War speculations tend to be. The "Angel," from history, is a Southern soldier at the battle of Fredricksburg who risked his life to bring water to the dying strewn about after the massacre. The "Angel" in Livingston's story isn't the water bearer; he's an actual angel masquerading as a Northern soldier, one who knows what's about to happen. This is an interesting story about destiny, though I felt it took a bit too long to set up. Don't get me wrong, the opening is very well written, just a bit more than I would have done given the opportunity to tell the same tale.

"Historical drift" is a great phrase to come out of "I Read the News Today, Oh Boy..." from Richard Mueller. The term refers to a psychosis afflicting the protagonist's friend and many other people around the world. They believe they have traveled to another time period, and from their perspective the modern world does not exist. The narrator meets Jeannie in a coffee house in a thoroughly-modern world plagued by terrorism. Historical drift is at first treated as escapism until Jeannie begins to feel she is affected by it. I liked this story, in spite of its predictable ending.

I can't same the same for "Fort Bliss," a Vietnam-era piece by J. Kenneth Sargeant. American soldiers are not fighting in Vietnam for Democracy; they are there to fight a whole host of mythological creatures such as dragons, harpies and trolls. The truth is being covered up by the U.S. Government, which sends Specialist Dennis Grace to investigate. His conversations with a captured harpy skew his opinions in a way no combat ever had before. I never connected with Grace as a protagonist, and I was never drawn into the environment of the story. One of the reasons for this, surprisingly, is the use of profanity. I'm a prude when I write my own stories and almost never use profanity. There's plenty of it in "Fort Bliss," but I found it in curiously short supply. When one considers a thoroughly profanity-laced story probably wouldn't make it into this kind of market, I still felt the soldiers in this story didn't sound like soldiers would in the Vietnam jungle. As a writer of primarily fantasy, it was not the fantastic elements in this piece that turned me away from it. I simply couldn't empathize with Specialist Grace or his situation, which could just have easily been told with the harpy being replaced by a captured VC woman.

"Letters on Natural Magic" by Matthew Kirby is something of a surprise. Were it not for the illustration of the famous robotic, Turkish chess-machine accompanying the title, I would have thought the narrator a protoge studying chess at the feet of his master. Instead, the narrator is actually a robotic, chess-playing machine engaged in a game against Benjamin Franklin, who it has previously beaten twice before. Alone, Franklin tells the machine a long story about his own role as a spy and dealings years before that would have altered the world on a scale no less grand than the formation of the United States was. As I read the opening pages, Kirby's deliberate - there's that word again - structuring of the story seemed, well, slow. Only after finishing this piece did I understand he was emulating a chess game. Before a vital move can be made, several steps must precede it. The vital move in the story is Franklin's revelation of his "big secret," one that cannot be revealed without an understanding of the events that preceded it. Kirby's writing is engaging during the opening pages, enough so that a typical reader's attention shouldn't wander. Where many times I have written a "whammy" into a story, something to give the reader an aha! moment, it is the writing of the story itself that provided the whammy for me. I applaud Kirby's technique. While this may not be the best story in this issue, the technique clearly is.

The premise behind Tom Doyle's "The Wizard of Macatawa" is that the Land of Oz is less fiction than documentary, observed through a time- and dimension-traveling device by both Frank Baum and the story's young narrator many years later. This piece also holds a whammy, one so well done I wouldn't dare spoil it here, one that made this writer laugh out loud with envy. It seems the residents of Oz didn't take too kindly to Baum telling about their lives and came to this world to do some not-so-nice things. As a great fan of the musical Wicked for its ability to tell a well-known story from a view-point that is both contrary to the accepted norm and highly-entertaining, I also enjoyed Doyle's concept as much as his prose.

So, I've gotten through the whole magazine and shared my opinions of it. Was this a glowing review filled with fawning praise? Hardly. Did I enjoy it? No doubt. Would I recommend Paradox, issue 11 to a friend or family member? Absolutely. This issue contained more speculative elements than I was accustomed to seeing in previous issues, but it is still a solid home for historical fiction. As I've said dozens of times, any collection of stories is going to be hit or miss. That this one was almost exclusively hits is not surprising to a subscription holder; Paradox always hits. If you do not have a subscription to magazine, I can't imagine why. Paradox: The Magazine of Historical and Speculative Fiction is a twice-yearly reason to run to the mailbox.

Posted By: SFReader
Date Posted: Mar-05-2015 at 8:28am
Into the Abyss, by Robert J. Sants

originally published 3/20/2009

With the sudden folding of several prominent print magazines (and the dramatic scaling back of others, a sure sign their demise will soon follow), I have been reading more and more of my short fiction online. This is not my favorite medium for reading, but the way things are looking, I'm going to have to get used to it. 

So I've decided my Firebrand Fiction reviews are going to be for online markets only from this point forward. Why fight the inevitable? 

And why start anywhere but at the apex. Abyss & Apex, that is. This online market for all things speculative has been around for a long time. Issue 29 marks the 1st Quarter edition for 2009, and I see no reason for this market to fold. It's changed editorship, which is usually the sign that somebody wanted out. That previous editor could have simply packed up and gone home. Instead, Wendy S. Delmater took over. That tells me she wants Abyss & Apex to continue. 

Her editorial, "Rejectomancy," is a must-read for any writer. In fact, in a recent forum discussion the topic of "what exactly does this form rejection mean?" came up. It just so happens it means something at Abyss & Apex. Read the editorial. It's terrific, especially sprinkled with rejections in haiku form that are hysterical. Following this are the short fiction offerings and some flash, but since this is an online market there's really no reason to read them in order unless you feel, as I do, editor Delmater put them in that order for us to read them that way. 

Which gave me pause. Pauline J. Alama starts her story "After the Revolution" with a literal bang. Aurora is the team leader of a hostage rescue force that storms a building in the first few paragraphs. The hostages are alive and well, and the criminals are hauled off. But the hostages are genetically-engineered children, designed to be perfect. One young girl comes under the wing of Aurora, who winds up quasi-adopting her and taking her off-planet. That Aurora is a genetically-engineered adult from the same school as the young girl is supposed to provide some story conflict that never seems to come for me. But what bothered me more than anything else was the "oh, no! It's an asteroid field!" scene. I don't understand why some authors use this device when it is virtually scientifically impossible. The navigation computers fail, or the controls, or some such piece of equipment that makes the ship careen into hundreds of asteroids. Truthfully, the densest part of the field would have asteroids thousands of miles apart. And I thought they had "broken the light barrier" and were traveling in a sort of hyper-space where I presumed a field of asteroids wouldn't pose a problem (if it did, why would you be traveling so quickly you couldn't avoid them?). Bad science in a science fiction story, especially when another plot device could have easily been constructed to make it impossible for Aurora's young ward to pilot the ship, is like putting too much salt in the soup. Had it been left out, the soup would be fine. Since it was put in--along with characters that seemed to provide conflict that was never resolved--the soup was ruined. As the longest offering, too, it was not worth getting through what seemed like a bloated middle to arrive at an ending that told more than it showed. If this was supposed to be the cream of the short fiction, with the coveted first slot, then I was in for a hairy afternoon of reading. 

However, hot on the heels of this piece was the brilliantly titled "Letter Found in a Chest Belonging to the Marquis de Montseraille Following the Death of That Worthy Individual" by Marie Brennan. It's something of an alternate history piece without the actual history part. The letter in question is a narrative from the titular character to his beloved. No review could go into more detail about the story without revealing too much. Suffice it to say, even though an experienced reader would see what was happening two-thirds of the way through the piece to a predictable ending, Brennan's writing is so lyrical I couldn't wait to get there and see it for myself. The beauty part is how this piece is not very long, so any predictability is over in just a page or two. 

I liked the concept of Fraser Sherman's "One Hand Washes the Other," in that a lawyer pining after a lost love seeks the assistance of a witch. The classic gift-for-a-sacrifice ensues. Sherman definitely puts a twist on the idea, but it seemed a bit clumsy to me, involving too many situations that could have been less bizarre. Had he taken a more straightforward approach, one where the protagonist isn't required to perform such complicated tasks to arrive at a conclusion he'd already made early in the story, I feel this could have been a much better piece. As it stands, it seems weighed down with imagery and events that didn't need to be there to make the story work. 

Best of the bunch is "Incarnation in the Delta" by Richard Foss. Any story that begins with 

'"I think the gods are embarrassed they created me," mused Buddha's twin brother Larry as he walked past the sign that read Welcome to Coahoma County, Mississippi.' is all right in my book. Fortunately, where many stories have a terrific opening hook then fall apart, this one doesn't. Larry is a reincarnated musician who asked the gods if he could remember his previous lives, his brother having chosen to become an enlightened being and teacher. Larry's got great perspective, and his conversation with guitar partner Robert Johnson as they walk the country roads is perfect. Larry meets a young girl, one of thousands upon thousands he has met during his multiple lives, and quickly discovers she's special. Set in an intolerant, early twenty-century South, Foss explores not just love and life but their opposites as well. Truly a spectacular bit of storytelling. 

Karl Bunker's "Murder," however, is not. It's a murder investigation piece set on an Arrakis-like world populated by aliens referred to as "squirrels" and the few humans they've rescued from a post-apocalyptic Earth. Detective Harry Keaveny is employed by the squirrels because they have a love of all things artistic: music, sculpture, painting, and apparently detective work. A human has been murdered, though frankly how is beyond me because of all the modifications the aliens have put in the humans so they can survive any situation. The science aspect of this piece, much like with Alama's "After the Revolution" is almost unnecessary. Where the first piece could have used a cult and a regular cop instead of a genetically-engineered populace, at least the science offered a different way to tell the story. In "Murder" there's none of it. Take away the aliens, the body mods, the non-Earth location and it's exactly the same story. There's no need to change any of it. Compound what I feel is a speculative fiction infraction of the highest order with a murder plot that's not very good, and this piece goes nowhere. 

The final offering is a bit of flash from Samantha Henderson, "East of Chula Vista." I loved it. Part ghost story, part dissertation on the hazards of illegal immigration in the United States, Henderson creates a setting in the first three-quarters of the story that seems bound to have no story taking place in it. Then kapow! All the pieces fall into place with a story that could have been true flash if it were only the ending, but I wouldn't sacrifice a word of that set up. 

I read Abyss & Apex a lot. It's free, after all. What always strikes me about this e-zine, as is the case in Issue 29, is how appropriately named it is. An abyss is a deep, immeasurable chasm, while an apex is the tip, a highest point. Abyss & Apex lives up to those definitions with these offerings that I found either just that side of wonderful or just this side of awful.

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