Back from the brink of folding up their business, the folk behind Talebones have returned with an excellent selection of material for their thirty fourth issue.
I only have the last couple of issues to go on, but Talebones seems to pick good strong images for both the front cover and the inside. I’m not particularly fussed about getting artwork with my fiction fix, but if it’s going to be there anyway I’d rather it didn’t seem decades late or just plain cheesy, and Talebones manages that in most places.
So, to the stories.
We open up with Mark Rigney‘s His Master’s Voice. I can say with all honesty that if I’d have known what this was going to be about before I actually read it, I might have avoided reading it at all. Which would have been a terrible shame, because it’s a very strong piece of work. It’s based around the historical figure of Alan Lomax, one of the pioneers of cultural archiving, who travelled the United States capturing the previously unrecorded music of black subculture – early swamp blues, prison and work-songs – on the ‘Modern Miracle’, the first (arguably) portable sound recording machine.
Lomax is waylaid on his travels by none other than the Devil himself. Old Scratch has a vested interest in keeping the music of the downtrodden out of the public ear, and tries to cut a deal with Lomax to that effect. Lomax declines the offer of fame and fortune, only to find that Satan starts blocking his efforts at every turn. Eventually they reach a different compromise, with Lomax giving a platform to the original outcast, and with it a chance for his redemption.
See what I mean? If you summarise it, it sounds like it would be a hokey little fable. But Rigney’s sense of atmosphere and dialogue redeems the plot completely, turning it into something far greater than the sum of its parts – an almost transcendent modern myth that echoes the magic realism of the blues music it centres on. The introduction mentions that the story was a long time in the making – for that, I think we can be grateful. It was worth the wait.
Crows by Carrie Vaughn is a borderline fantasy story that could probably pass muster as historical fiction with a little tweaking, in that it has virtually no cliché tropes in evidence. It describes the descent into madness of a footman guarding the body of his fallen lord on the field of a medieval battle, using restrained and simple language to great effect. The underlying theme – that of honour in service – seems a little out of place in this day and age, but that is easily attributed to the prejudice of the reader in this case, and largely irrelevant. Crows is a character-centred story of great efficiency, and if there was more fantasy fiction written in this direct and unadorned style, I’d probably find myself making more time for it.
Alan DeNiro‘s Gepetto Kiln takes us as far from the battlefields of yore as possible, into a far-flung future universe populated by space-faring posthumans, aliens that have evolved into spacecraft and much more. It’s a little jargon-heavy, almost to the point of obfuscation, and might prove hard going for a reader unaccustomed to the language and tropes of hard sf. But for the reader who craves the maximum number of big ideas per page, it’s a rewarding story that will probably leave a desire for more of DeNiro’s material – it’s plain to see that he has a complex universe entirely thought out, and the questing mind will want to know what lies beyond the races and histories hinted at here. DeNiro also uses the tropes of posthumanism to their best effect, as triggers for investigations into the nature of reality and the notion of self. Posthumanism in fiction leads easily to the questions of postmodernism, and Gepetto Kiln pokes suspiciously at the beehive of metanarratives without losing the reader in philosophy. I’d be interested to see what DeNiro can achieve at novel lengths.
But Who Shall Lead The Dance? is Marie Brennan‘s reworking of the classic ‘mortal wanders into the land of faerie’ riff, wherein the cocky faeries bite off more than they can chew from a human woman who has strayed into their domain. While the language employed, a somewhat declamatory high fantasy idiom, is obviously a function of the narrator’s character, I found it rather tiresome – haven’t we reached a point now where faeries can be imagined to have picked up a few more modern turns of phrase? That having been said, with its lyrical refrains and repetitions the writing itself evokes the frantic dance that the tale describes, and the meat of the story is substantial enough to redeem the language. Stylistically, however, I feel this piece pales when held up against Crows.
The superbly monikered Cat Rambo turns out a traditionally gritty slice of urban cyberpunk with Memories of Moments, Bright as Falling Stars. It’s getting harder and harder to do anything truly original with the cyberpunk format, due to the fact that we live in a world almost indistinguishable from the classics of the subgenre, but Rambo sidesteps the pitfall by getting the details right and drawing the reader in with strong characters. Jonny and Grizz are two unemployed street-punks, scraping around for survival in an economy where there are too many people and not enough work. They pick up some implantable memory from a biotech firm’s dumpsters, which they hope to use to boost their chances of getting a job – but of course it transpires that there are other parties who are less than pleased at the disappearance of what turns out to be bleeding-edge technology.
All the trappings one expects from this type of story are in evidence; ubiquitous technology, broken economics, drugs and dejection. Rambo is careful to avoid unnecessary exposition, however, and lets the reader discover the setting by seeing it through the eyes of the characters. This method is always more effective than long-winded descriptive passages, and reduces considerably the risk of clichéd atmosphere. The ending seems a little rushed, but Memories… breathes new life into a familiar style to satisfying effect.
Eaglebane sees Ryan Myers rethink and remix the trope of gremlins by stepping into their shoes and imagining what their history and mythology might be like. The deadpan style produces a curious mix of humour and pathos, and results in an enjoyable little story that will please any reader who is a sucker for the underdog.
Next we have Fermi Packet byJason Stoddard, and here I’m going to abandon any pretence of professionalism by naming him as one of my favourite short fiction writers and claiming this piece as a great example of why that is the case. While post-singularity fiction is one of the leading flavours of big-name sf at the moment, particularly in the UK, I don’t encounter many short stories of the type, and very few that simultaneously press as many buttons as Stoddard’s output manages to. The beauty of any genre, literary or otherwise, is the fact that the restrictions placed upon the artist by the accepted formulas of the format encourage – if not demand – that the envelope be stretched as far as possible within that scope.
In Fermi Packet, Stoddard takes the established recipe and runs with it: we find a classic sf trope (in the form of the Fermi Paradox), modified into a post-singularity human civilisation and filtered through the wry knowing humour of what Charlie Stross refers to as ‘the Slashdot market’ – if having a main character who is a software amalgam of the consciousnesses of Bill Gates and Linus Torvalds isn’t a naked pitch for the geek seats, I don’t know what is.
As with much fiction of its type, Fermi Packet could be accused of having characters with whom it is hard to sympathise – they are posthumans, after all, and disembodied ones at that. But for the reader who is accustomed to the flavour, that won’t be an issue. Stoddard writes fiction of ideas – that may be a different skill to fiction of character, but not an inferior one, at least from my perspective. I don’t know if he has retained the electronic rights to this story, but if he has then he could do far worse than release it as a Creative Commons piece and splash it all over the blogosphere – it’s done Stross, Doctorow and company no harm at all, and Stoddard’s best potential market is very much in the same demographic. Someone give this guy a book deal, stat!
The magazine closes with And Her Hand, the Stars by E. Catherine Tobler, a piece that returns us to a more empathetic style of narrative, and one that I don’t feel it would be sexist to say has a distinctly feminine touch, especially in contrast to Stoddard’s big-boy’s-toys. A field surgeon on a planet being pacified by humans is given charge of a wounded alien, with instructions to keep it alive for interrogation purposes. Tobler deals evocatively with the gulf of understanding between cultures separated by space, language and philosophy, and produces a story that is very relevant to the current state of world affairs. A reader who finds the work of writers like Stoddard an excuse to claim science fiction has lost sight of emotional truth will find Tobler’s story a refreshing antidote.
As mentioned before, I’m a relative newcomer to Talebones (and indeed short fiction magazines in general), but I can say with certainty that if they can consistently produce selections of fiction with these levels of diversity and quality, it would be a tragedy to see them stop publishing.
If anyone can supply web or LiveJournal addresses for the unlinked authors above, I (and probably they) would be greatly appreciative.