Tesseracts 14

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Tesseracts is a historic semi-annual anthology of Canadian science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Each volume is put together by a different pair of editors. Jean-Louis Trudel’s history of the series up until 1998 can be found in Tesseracts 7. Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing acquired Tesseract Books (which published Tesseracts from its fourth volume onwards) in 2003. I first encountered the series in a used bookstore in Montréal a few years ago, and learned more about it while preparing NanopressAurora winners’ anthology in celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the award last year. I have read volumes 3 and 8 in full, and portions of volumes 4, 5, and 9. As an increasingly devoted observer of Canadian genre writing and fandom, I chose to assign this review to myself, and I hope that what I consider my thoroughness and honesty come across as such. It is worth reminding our readers that I am indebted to several members of the Edge staff, particularly Brian and Anita Hades and Janice Shoults, for their help in holding the launch party for this magazine at the World Fantasy Convention in Columbus this past fall. I have not allowed their kindness to prejudice this review, and in fact it is my affection for Canadian fandom and for Edge as a publisher that motivate me to be as truthful as possible.

Although earlier collections leaned more toward sf, last year’s was horror-themed. This fourteenth volume is more ambiguous, although perhaps the adjective “strange” in its title suggests a kinship with the loosely defined weird or new weird interstitial subgenres, which blend horror, fantasy, and sf tropes. Some (“Basements” and “The Director’s Cut” in particular) seem to slide into slipstream (a category or effect characterized by its strangeness, as in Kelly and Kessel’s 2006 collection Feeling Very Strange). In any case, as asserted by Brett Alexander Savory in his Afterword, this collection has a consistent feel, signifying a unified editorial vision. Very few of the stories in this collection are unambigiously limited to a single genre, and most of them are dark. At least seven out of these nineteen stories include strong horror tropes or themes, nine lean most strongly toward sf, and eleven are dominated by fantasy elements. It isn’t quite what I’d come to expect based on my past experiences with this series, but it strikes me it has probably changed significantly since the late 20th century. The changes were likely influenced by the transformation of the Canadian genre scene from which it draws its contributors, and the wider Anglophone and Francophone marketplaces.

Speaking of the marketplace, a number of the stories in this collection have a distinct (and rather frustrating, to me) aura of intentional future fixup about them; perhaps I might better call them
‘teasers’. I should note that I have nothing against writers using short forms to test out ideas they might later use in a novel, as long as those short form works stand on their own. How do you distinguish short fiction written as short fiction (which may innocently enough develop into a novel) from an excerpt of a novel, or a short work that the writer has deliberately written with his eye on longer things? For starters, the pacing of a novel and the pacing of a short-form work are often very different. Novel plots don’t get very far in a thousand words, or if they do, they still have a long way to go, even if the author doesn’t engage in lengthy digressions from the action. Also, the end of a teaser doesn’t *feel* like an ending or have any real sense of closure, because it is actually a beginning, an introduction, a hook to sell a reader or a publisher on the full length work. In addition, often a novel segment presented as short fiction lacks exposition of any kind, or that exposition is truncated, with the reader only just beginning to gain a notion of the world’s structure or characters’ identities and motivations by story’s end. Various critics (among them Jo Walton in one of her columns at tor.com) have argued that expecting the reader to get a sense of a complex world with minimal exposition is a hallmark of genre work (particularly sf), and I wouldn’t disagree. I’m not arguing for overly explicit exposition which is a hallmark of inexperienced writers. It’s just that as someone who believes in and enjoys short-form fiction for its own sake, for the well-crafted completeness and pleasing solidity of its most notable exemplars, I find teasers maddening even as I understand why writers sell them, and why magazines and collection editors buy them. Short-form fiction is hard to write, and many developing authors find it more natural or more conducive to their artistic maturation to write novels. Publishers, of course, tend not to buy novels from relative unknowns, and self-publishing is not a trivial matter (or a reputationally neutral one), even in these days of ebooks and POD. So new writers often chop up their novels and offer up likely chapters early in the action as short stories. This doesn’t make them short stories, however.

The weakest pieces in this collection, “The Brief Medical Career of Fine Sam Fine” by Brent Hayward and “Grandmother’s Babies” by Jonathan Seville, turn to shock tactics, voyeurism, and puerile fantasies for their impetus. The first of these stories describes a love triangle between a college student, her conjoined (and anatomically incomplete) sister, and a young male medical student. I am sure it is possible to write successfully about conjoined twins, or indeed characters with disabilities in general, without stooping to freakshow descriptions of them engaging in horrific actions motivated by twisted, overdramatic, and unrealistically presented psychological drives. The problems of “Grandmother’s Babies”, in which an elderly woman recruits a stranger to impregnate her daughter, are also legion, including offensive stereotyping and exoticization of Chinese characters, sexual unimaginativeness, and cartoonish characterization like something out of a late-night B movie (perhaps Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD). Perhaps Jonathan Saville is trying to interrogate the idea of westerners adopting Chinese babies by having Chinese characters adopt half-white babies, but his approach here is not only unrealistic but also regrettably culturally illiterate and insensitive. The only glimmer of promise in this story is a brief evocation of the genuine affection between ‘grandmother’ and her husband.

“Heat Death or Answering the Ouroboros Question”, by Patrick Johanneson, in which the whimsical Norse god Loki meanders around aimlessly, (along with the plot) wants to be a playfully-written trickster tale that engages with the magic of creation and syncretically plays homage to a variety of cultural traditions. Unfortunately, it ends up feeling flat (with an unconvincing romance and some unoriginal bickering between the narrator and the ferret around his shoulders) and going nowhere very slowly, despite efforts at evocative description.

“Machinery of Government” by Matt Moore, portrays a midlevel bureaucrat’s experience of an unconvincingly portrayed bombing attack on Ottawa, seems to have less kinship with science fiction than with the subgenre of invasion stories that flourished between the late nineteenth century and WWI (notably Hector Hugh Munro’s When William Came), although its emotional resonance is very different. It isn’t really a political editorial or an analysis of the social implications of technology, being instead an exploration of the psychological trauma at play in disasters, and perhaps a gentler meditation on themes covered by Glenn Grant’s definitely sf story ”Storm Surge”, in which the institutions we put faith in and the compromises we make to serve ourselves and save our loved ones damn us, and everyone around us.

Atmospheric and memorable but needlessly elusive, “The Director’s Cut” is all style and no substance. That style is lovely, with vivid descriptive language, but I frequently verges into the purple or the incoherent: “Lasha’s life was a spotlight. Intense. Hot. Forever struggling to spill beyond the black box eclipsing her.” Sentences like that read as if their author had read up on theatrical terms but had no idea what they meant. Susan Forest’s setting is well-described but somehow unconvincing, just like the relationship between the main characters, because it feels contrived and precious. As noted above, she knows her terms, knows how to build a mood, but her attempts to give this story emotional weight by using overwrought language fail. Also the idea of an independent film studio making its name by recording productions of classic stage plays seems off, illogical, just as Lasha’s obsession with her appearance is, as if Forest couldn’t decide whether her main character was a director or actress and her obsession stage or film. With a bit more logic and fewer adjectives, Forest could live up to the promise of the beginning of her story, which derails quickly.

“Rocketship Red” by , on the other hand, uses classic sf styling and tropes (almost to the level of Bradburyian pastiche) to tell a horror story which is at this point about as original as “Event Horizon” or Doom 3, unfortunately. Michael R. Colangelo’s delivery is cute, but it also seems to force him into shallowness. Eagan and his hero are both made out of cardboard, and his dreams have all the emotional import of a television synopsis, something that may have as much to do with the story’s brevity as its engagement with stock themes and techniques.

I felt that two other horror stories in this collection, “Harvest Moon” a werewolf story by M.L.D. Curelas (which has dystopic glints) and “Nights in White Linen” a disappointing story about supernatural anthropophagi by Daniel Sernine (which deviates not at all from the standard mold when he is capable of so much better) also sank beneath cargoes of stock tropes. The dystopia of the first and the twist ending of the second were their only noticeable glimmers of originality, are nonetheless similar to numerous horror movies about farm towns and zombies in the case of the first story and horror fiction going back to the nineteenth century in the case of the second.

In “Destiny Lives in the Tattoos’ Needle“, a lost spy escaping a shot-down airship attempts to evade enemies, is kidnapped by a mysterious hermit, and learns a life-changing truth about his origins. Although the zeppelins and limited technology of Suzanne Church’s story may evoke steampunk (sadly glutting the market at present), what we see of the social structure surrounding its protagonist comes across, interestingly, more as a militarized hierarchy than a Victorian caste system. Its weaknesses are structural and characterization-related rather than conceptual. I find it hard to believe that a lone three-year-old could escape from a government training camp, and the narrator’s reaction to the revelation at the story’s end feels flat and unconvincing. Although it may have left him numb, that section feels less like the description of even a very repressed man undergoing genuine emotional overload than a narrative taking on too much weight too fast and collapsing under the strain, forced into a false closure that betrays a fixup in the making.

On the other hand, another story that scored high for emotional authenticity lost points in my book for using a dated premise in a contrived and unintentionally creepy way. “Flight of Passage” discusses a pregnant scientist’s descendants creating a primitive yet aeronautically gifted society in a manner that shocks her colleagues (for a number of reasons). John Martin Watts’ use of relativistic time dilation is realistic, but other writers have mined this vein pretty heavily. I’m also bothered the idea that Kathy went into space while pregnant, as if she wouldn’t check beforehand, as the risks to her as well as to the fetus might have been considerable. We know that she would have been pregnant before launch (i.e. that she didn’t conceive Carver or Pelletier) because Jack recognizes that her descendants look like him. I get that John Martin Watts is trying to suggest that one might gain some solace in the midst of disaster, and perhaps engage in some homage to Nausicäa, but the way the story ends, it just seems creepy, glossing over incest to allow Jack to feel like a proud grandfather, and (if we feel uncharitable) some sort of stud for fathering a whole small civilization. It would be interesting to read this story alongside a similar piece by Marion Zimmer Bradley, “The Wind People” (1959) . . . In any case, despite the story’s grave flaws, its central characters—Jack and Julia—are realistic and well-rounded.

Although “The Pickup” is well written, and its Leah Silverman gives its environment and the characters’ predicament an arresting bleakness, its premise is unoriginal, it doesn’t seem to go anywhere on its way to its predictable ending, and its characters feel flat and interchangeable. It could be flavor text in a splash book for a roleplaying game. There’s potential here, but it isn’t realized; I look forward to seeing more developed work from this author.

With a trite setting, flat but at times emotionally involving characters, yet an intriguing concept, “Random Access Memory” involves poker games played for the highest stakes—the experience of a hideous recorded death (drowning, mauling, burning) that may or may not overload the player’s hardware if it doesn’t meet posted specifications. Michael Lorenson interweaves this novel concept into a stock story of a man who owes mobsters for a gambling debt. One of the mobsters is terrified of his wife, who he genuinely thinks is an obsessive sociopath who would like to murder him, but this is a side plot, barely explored. There are a couple of clever moments (like the system specs mentioned above), but mostly this story leaves me wanting to see Lorenson stretch himself a little more, as he’s clearly a capable writer.

In a note, Tony Burgess says his son named “Giant Scorpions Attack”, and although this touch of youthful whimsy almost seems appropriate for a story about a young girl and her brother mapping their neighborhood, including its eldritch aspects, mostly it just doesn’t fit the content, and that irritates me. That said, the believability of his descriptions is remarkable, and he doesn’t go wild with the adjectives (although at times he becomes a little incoherent—what the heck are “unbreathable clumps of light”?) But although there’s tone and setting here, the characters feel stock, like Anychild Anywhere. Their fear is authentic, as are their inventions and the threats they face. I could complain about some gross moments as well, but they seem at home here, in a young boy’s imagination and in the supernatural world he and his sister discover they must navigate.

The standout quality of David Nickle’s “The Basements” is its psychological depth and realism. The story seems to be about government agents and a captive, but I’m really not so sure, and perhaps the way the story diffuses into a fog of confusion is intentional. That said, the vague atmosphere of menace loses its power when it is hard to tell what any of the characters are really afraid of, why they want to flee, or kill themselves. This story leaves me with a frustrated version of the feeling I had several years ago after listening to James Patrick Kelly’s equally non-genre feeling “Dancing with the Chairs”, a sense of encountering a detailed rendering of a human figure adrift in a sea of hazy chaos. But in this case so much is left out, and the connections between the beginning and the end are so tenuous, the half-sketched description of the years the agents stay in their makeshift town, that the story feels fragmented, half-finished. But the narrator and his inner life kept me reading.

Although it has the incomplete feeling of a teaser, John Park’s “Nightward” is vivid, with strong (but not purple) descriptive language, and an engaging setting blending sf and fantasy tropes, a world whose slow rotation plunges its dark half into winter, settled by humans who call its indigenous lifeforms by the names of legendary beasts. His expositionary strategy of having a narrator who has lost his memory is bit trite, but that is more than made up for by the interest and psychological realism of the story, although both the protagonist and his love interest seem rather flat and stock in this brief space.

Lisa Hannett’s strength in “Soil from My Fingers”, a story of desperately wishing for parenthood set in a Mongolian culture (it isn’t clear which one), is the convincing central relationship she creates. To be honest the setting is unconvincing, and most of the characters are pretty flat, but her protagonist’s emotional torment and sincere devotion to his wife are realistic and engaging.

Claude Lalumière’s “Vermillion Dreams: The Complete Works of Bram Jameson” is one of those successful metafiction gems that has probably ended up on a lot of readers’ favorite stories lists. A bizarre, fascinating, hilarious, and intentionally ridiculous pastiche-homage to a multitude of writers, especially J.G. Ballard, it takes the form of synopses of imaginary books written by a character named Bram Jameson. All of them center on a mysterious city named Venera and a drug named vermilion, which can only be produced there. Lalumière writes a history of literary movements and individual authors’ ideas metamorphosed into the history of a country, playfully reveling in the process in pulp and comic book excesses and sly in-jokes (which jerked me out of the story at times until I got used to seeing them and could simply chuckle and move on). This isn’t much more than an extended joke, but one so skillfully handled that I’m was happy to reread it.

Now, despite the praise I’m about to pile upon it, “Hydden” isn’t a perfect story. The idea that two homo sapiens sapiens can conceive offspring of another species, especially one that seems to be both more and less intelligent than its parents, bothers me intensely. I cannot help but think of eugenics. I also don’t see how it could work scientifically, and Catherine MacLeod doesn’t give us any suggestions for how it happened either. Rogue biotech doesn’t grab me, pollution wouldn’t be universal, and evolution doesn’t happen that fast. This sort of plot seems common in the last few years: everyone in the world wakes up one day and something has changed, whether they’ve lost twenty-four hours, they’re covered in blood, a few people have superpowers, or whatever it is. The mechanism in this case is fantasy, not science fiction. Exploring the reconstruction of the social world around a fundamental change in the life’s structure, whether manmade or natural, is definitely science fictional. What gives this story strength, what makes it memorable, is its narrator’s voice and the enduring horror of its themes, of women reduced to wombs, helpless in this case to do anything but wait for their inevitable suffering and death. For most of human history giving birth meant risking death by infection or hemorrhage. Now, despite improved medical technology, many women still lack access to adequate reproductive health care, and there are some who wish to limit women’s access to abortions, even when those women’s lives may end if they carry their pregnancies to term. The shadow of these themes, and the narrator’s calm tone and observant voice, awake to natural detail and human connections both, are reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The protagonist’s world, its inhabitants (except for the strangely blank Hydes) and its dislocations, despite all their lack of scientific grounding, have emotional reality.

The author of “One Nation Under Gods”, Jerome Stueart, emigrated to Yukon from the States in 2007, and his former citizenship is evident in the themes and content of his story. I’m not biased in its favor because of my nationality, nor simply because its dark vision seems in concord with my fears. This story succeeds, in my eyes, because of his detailed worldbuilding, the realistic relationship between the narrator and his sister, and his cultivation of genuine menace, an evocation of the way people can be treated as things. In the world of this story (which in outlook and some tropes puts me a bit in mind of Steve Darnall and Alex Ross’ 1997 comic Uncle Sam) concepts like Freedom and Patriot are incarnate as deities, administered by priests and priestesses, and the Statue of Liberty herself is known to walk abroad. The history of the gods is the history of the country, and its people are required to memorize that catechism or pay with their lives in particularly grotesque ways; if a child fails the standardized test which is a mandated rite of passage, he or she is transformed into a public object, anything from a soda shop to a garbage can. Stueart skillfully incorporates the conflict between individuality and vested religious and political powers; the way those powers can intertwine and what that merging means; the clash between idealism or perception cultivated through propaganda and reality, between history as the study of people in power versus the study of the people’s past; and the transformation of people into instruments, people into numbers.

Despite these remarkable contributions to the anthology, in the final analysis, I find myself interrogating the editors’ choice of stories. If they found themselves with an embarrassment of excellent possibilities (as they suggest in their Introduction and Afterword), why did they accept any pieces that seem inconclusive, shallow, or poorly written? I know that we most likely have different tastes, but it does make me wonder if they had constrained themselves by making an explicit effort to try and represent stories in a wide variety of genres, settings, and styles. Because if so, despite some of their questionable choices, they have succeeded admirably in giving the reader a broad survey of Canadian short genre fiction today, even if it is not one uniformly populated with shining exemplars of excellent writing. That said, I find John Robert Colombo’s explanation for why more Francophone writers are not included somewhat frustrating, although I understand the practicalities of paying for translation. It is possible to take an end run around this difficultly, and read in different languages, by selecting multilingual or bilingual editors every now and then, and I imagine that sometime in the next few years Edge will do this again for Tesseracts, as other has been done for the collection in the past.

Colombo says (and I give him credit for taking the topic on) that they did not go specifically out of their way to include women (doubtless feeling nervous of tokenism) and were gratified at their final numbers (36%, or six out of nineteen stories, and two out of three suites of poems) but I’m not sure whether I’m impressed or not because I don’t know how many female writers were among the 450 who submitted work, although I’m aware that there are those (not including these editors, as I can tell from reading Mr. Colombo’s forward and having met Mr. Savory) who will dismiss my explicit handling of numbers in this regard as close minded humorless feminist bean counting, when I should just shut up and praise how much things have changed since 1970. Yet I both refuse to be cowed and think it may reveal as much about the Anglophone genre marketplace as a whole as about this collection that the percentage is what it is. It is perhaps worth noting that my calculations also don’t allow for the potential Tiptree effect, although I imagine fewer women use explicitly masculine pen names nowadays than hide behind initialisms.

Tesseracts 14.
Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing.
ISBN: 978-1-894063-37-1
$17.95 US
$17.95 CDN
304 pages

About Val Grimm

Val Grimm is a critic, copyeditor, demoscener, smof, sf fan, étudiante de français, inveterate volunteer, and hobbyist photographer who is also beginning to become an avid cyclist. Current projects include Nanopress (a small Canadian science fiction publisher), @party (a small computer arts festival), and this magazine, of course.
This entry was posted in February 2011 and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Tesseracts 14

  1. Michael Lorenson says:

    Interesting review, Val. Thank you.

  2. Pingback: “…his cultivation of genuine menace…”: a review of “One Nation Under Gods” at Portal « Yukon Science Fiction Writer

  3. MessInfurne says:

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