SF AGE: Volume 1, Issue 4 (May 1993)

I have had a goal since 1996 of reading on average one book per week. That would amount to 52 books per year and the closest I have ever come is 41 books. It doesn’t sound like a lot especially when I see there are people reading two or three times as much as me. Maybe I’m just a slow (but steady) reader. I am way off my pace this year, and the main part of the reason is that I have been reading and commenting on my SCIENCE FICTION AGE collection. I worried about this through the first three issues. I worried that the time I was spending reading the stories was taking away from other books that I wanted to read–what I considered my “real” reading.

With this issue of SCIENCE FICTION AGE, however, I have changed mind. I had so much fun reading the stories in this issue that I thought to myself, so what if I am not finishing as many books as I normally do? I am deriving so much enjoyment from reading through the pages of these magazines, I am learning so much about what makes a story work, that I needn’t worry about what I am missing. I’m having too much fun to worry about it. And so I finally decided that it’s okay if I don’t finish as many books this year as I normally do. It’s okay because you really can’t beat the enjoyment you get from reading stories like these. Each issue is like a “best of” issue and this one is no different. We have Scott Edelman telling us that it’s time to go to Mars. We have Robert Silverberg demonstrating how we live in a science fiction age. We have Frederik Pohl’s words giving added meaning to Barlow’s amazing illustrations. We’ve got debate on fantasy vs. science fiction. We’ve got scientists telling us, in 1993, that we can be on Mars in 10 years. We even have a poignant review of Isaac Asimov’s last FOUNDATION novel, Forward the Foundation. And all this is aside from the five great stories that appear in this issue.

There’s nothing better than doing what you love and I love going back through these magazines, andante lugubre, reading the best that science fiction has to offer.

“The Princess Who Danced Until Daybreak” by Lois Tilton

John Campbell once gave a young Isaac Asimov was once given writing advice which goes something as follows: “If you are having trouble starting a story, you almost certainly starting too early. Pick a time later in the story and start from there.” He said that was one of the most helpful pieces of writing advice he ever received. I was reminded of this when I started reading “The Princess Who Danced Until Daybreak”, which begins as follows:

Then the king had the passage to the Underworld sealed, and he gave his youngest daughter as a bride to the soldier, and half his kingdom besides.

How cool is that? Talk about picking the latest possible moment to start a story! But I liked it.

Lois Tilton’s story is the fantasy piece in this issue of SF AGE and I liked it because it was well written. Good writing will always win me over, regardless of subject matter. I simply get envious that someone can write that good. I am awed by it. Add to that good story-telling and you’ve got a winner. The story is a kind of retelling of the Romeo and Juliet tale, but with a little magic added in. That’s one thing I liked about it. There wasn’t a lot of magic, but just enough. In fact, if you set aside the idea of the Underworld, the only magic in the whole story is–well, I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t already read it.

“Andante Lugubre” by Barry Malzberg

Early on I mentioned that I am not a huge fan of alternate history. On the other hand, as I mentioned above, good writing will always win me over, regardless of subject matter. Brilliant writing–writing that takes it to another level is what the joy of reading is all about. There are still people that claim that science fiction is not a literature on par with the Great Works of the Ages. Barry Malzberg represents evidence much to the contrary. Brilliant writing–and when I say brilliant, I mean genius–a good story and you find yourself reading something that feels extraordinary.

“Andante Lugubre”, at some level, is an alternate history where Tchaikovsky lives on and on and on, and ultimately moves to the United States and with the likes of Rachmaninoff, Walt Disney, and Jacob Javits, attempts to summon support to fight against Hitler’s evils in Europe. As an alternate history it is an amusing notion, and I readily admit that some of it is over my head. There are layers here.

But the thing that makes this story is the writing, the mastery of a craft to such an extent that I drool over every sentence. Mazlberg is a natural at this, or so it seems. He has the ability to capture essences in magical phrases that conjure the perfect images for the situation. At the beginning of the story, he describes Our Hero as follows:

Tchaikovsky lived on, stunk in the wheelchair, broke into the pustules and exploded surfaces of extreme old age, exuded the leprous but alluring perfume of death.

One sentence and yet filled with so much. If you are at all familiar with Malzberg, you read that sentence, smile, lick your lips, tune out of the rest of the world. The story is made of up sentences like these.

The title of the story, “Andante Lugubre” is a reference to the way in which Tchaikovsky’s symphonies were supposed to be performed. It means “slowly and lugubriously.” This is how Tchaikovsky ages. This is how Tchaikovsky feels about the interminable length of the meeting of these titans. This is how they feel the world is reacting to Hilter’s machinations. It works.

Those who are familiar with Malzberg know that Hitler is another one of his recurring themes–in fact, in a later issue of SF AGE, he has another story where this is even more obvious.

So when people who don’t know any better say that science fiction is not literature, when they claim it’s all bug-eyed monsters and FTL drives, point them to a copy of the May 1993 issue of SF AGE, and have them turn to page 35. What they will read is, in my opinion, far better than anything you’ll find in the pages of THE NEW YORKER.

“Thy Kingdom Come, Part II” by Ben Bova

For reference, you might want to refer to my thoughts on part I of this story.

This is a dark world that Ben Bova presents. It’s the kind of world that would frustrate me, that I would not tolerate, a terrible, almost hopeless place. And yet there are dreamers and believers. The Chairman of the World Council is one of these dreamers. Dreaming like this can be infectious if it catches on, but that is a big if. The lines between right and wrong, between good and bad blur. In a world gone mad, in a world which “forgets” about its citizens, who is the criminal and who is the victim?

There is a grittiness to this story that takes the reader into this terrible place so that you experience what happens inside that train tunnel along with Vic and Jade and Lou and Moustache and the others. You become part of that world. Perhaps the best way to describe this is to quote from a letter that appears in SF AGE Issue 1, Volume 5 (which I am reading now) and which comments on this story:

Ben Bova’s story really hit a nerve… [He] really knows how to put his readers hip deep in all that decay in fictional future Philadelphia. God grant his prophecies don’t come true.

The letter writer is exactly right. We despise the setting of the story; the setting is another character, a villain in its own right and it is to Ben Bova’s credit that he can make us hate that character so.

“Hunting Wabbit” by Allen Steele

One thing that SF AGE did is help to push the boundaries of science fiction by encouraging (or not discouraging) authors from experimenting away from the mainstream of science fiction. Those of us wannabe science fiction writers who have been writing for a long time often learn the hard way what works and what does not. Generally, for instance, a “recursive” story–a science fiction story about science fiction–is one of those things that editors frown upon from beginning or unknown writers. (Present tense stories is another one, but I will have more to say on that next story.) But Scott Edelman was not afraid of these on either count and throughout the history of SF AGE, you will find a smattering of stories like “Hunting Wabbit”.

It is and end-of-the-world story, with a planet-killer asteroid only 24 hours from impact with Earth. The narrator is a writer who, in his last day on earth, seeks to take revenge against a mean-spirited critic of his work only to discover that many other writers had the same idea. I like metafiction because it adds an element to the storytelling that somehow involves the reader more directly into the story. In this case, I also got the whiff of an ulterior motive.

I think we all have some experience growing up in which we fail and from which we seek some kind of redemption. For writers, it is typically being told by a teacher (or friend, or parent, or editor) that we are no good and might as well give up. But we don’t give up, and eventually we make it and become a big star. At this point, don’t you just want to say, “I told you so!” In some ways, Allen Steele’s story reads like an “I told you so” story, targeted to a specific critic (or amalgam of critics) who crossed the line. The emotion that goes into the story feels like it comes from someone who was very affected by this. It can mean one of two things: this is Allen Steele’s revenge story; or Allen Steele is simply a very good writer, able to harness those emotions so well.

I’m betting on both.

“Another Country” by Kim Antieau

If Barry Malzberg’s story has the most potent writing in the issue, then I have to say that Kim Antieau’s story was the strongest story in the batch. This is not to say the other stories were not strong. But this one came out on top for me. “Another Country” is the story of a woman who wakes up with some memory loss and keeps having to relive the death of her husband and daughter through journal entries that she leaves for herself each day. In some ways, it is loosely like the movie Memento long before the movie ever existed.

What makes it so strong as a story is that it was moving. I honestly felt for the narrator and each time she woke up, I felt her pain of rediscovering the horror that her life had become. I found myself wishing each time that she would wake up and realize that it was all some terrible dream–which is exactly what she was thinking. When a writer and reader are that much in sync, you’ve got something special.

Stylistically, this is another one of those stories where Scott Edelman was willing to push the boundaries. Beginning writers are told not to even bother writing stories in the present tense. Editors laugh at these “beginner mistakes” but I never understood why this was a bad idea. Stories like “Another Country”, written in present tense are that much stronger and effective because of the immediacy given to the story by the style of the writing. It was just right for “Another Country” and I could not see the story working nearly as well any other way.

I have already started reading Volume 1, Issue 5 of SCIENCE FICTION AGE which is a very special issue for me, for reasons I will discuss next time. Look for my comments on that issue (with stories by the likes of Piers Anthony and Charles Sheffield) within the next week.


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