Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: The Man Who Bridged the Mist by Kij Johnson

Asimov's Oct/Nov 2011My story recommendation of the week is for "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" by Kij Johnson, cover story of the October/November issue of Asimov's Science Fiction (cover by Paul Youll).

The past few years, Kij Johnson has been winning awards with short parables, such as the delightful "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss," the disturbing "Spar," and the delightful-but-then-disturbing "Ponies." "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" is quite different from those pieces -- longer and more deliberate, less flashy -- but similarly rewarding.

Kit Meinem is in charge of building a massive bridge over the great river bisecting the empire that employs him. This has never been done, because the river is covered in "mist." Mist is a misnomer; this layer is lighter than water, but still dense enough to support boats on its shifting surface and strange varieties of "fish" beneath. The "fish" are poorly understood, especially the largest and most dangerous, which the locals unimaginatively call "Big Ones."

The huge undertaking will demand all Kit's skills both as engineer and politician, as he tries to maintain the support of the locals. Kit becomes fascinated with the ambivalent reactions of the local ferry operators, the beautiful Rasali Ferry and her brother Valo. The bridge will put them out of work (compelling them to change last names), but then again it may save them from their profession's customary early death -- each ferry crossing is a hazardous trip.

The huge bridge symbolizes Kit's desire for meaningful interpersonal connections, but Johnson employs the metaphor delicately enough that it's never annoying. At novella length, Johnson is able to coax the relationships between her characters along gently, in a way that proves most satisfying. For example, halfway into the story, Kit and Rasali have spent a fair bit of time together but it's not clear how close they have become. Then, while Rasali is on the opposite bank, Kit sees one of his bridge workers killed. Kit first worries how the townspeople will react, then flashes back to a university instructor talking about how Kit relates to people:
You're good with people, I've seen it. You like them. . . . But inside the framework of a project. Right now it's your studies. Later it'll be roads and bridges. But people around you -- their lives go on outside the framework. They're not just tools to your hand, even likable tools. Your life should go on, too. You should have more than roads to live for. Because if something does go wrong, you'll need what you're feeling to matter, to someone somewhere, anyway.
When Rasali returns to Kit's side of the river, she immediately helps him to express his own grief over those who have died under his command, and we realize, even if he does not, that Kit now has someone to whom what he's feeling matters.

The science fictional aspects of this story mostly stay in the background, and some readers may find the tale lacking in drama, but I don't think it would benefit from extra explosions or action sequences. This a story of believable characters, who experience real confusion and pain, and I grew to like them very much.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Weird Moves at Weird Tales

Weird Tales, Summer 2011Ann VanderMeer has announced that she will no longer be editing Weird Tales. Apparently Marvin Kaye has purchased the magazine, intending to edit it himself.

I find this decision most unfortunate and, I must say, rather weird. Weird Tales had become a much more interesting magazine under Ann VanderMeer and her staff, an intriguing blend of high fantasy, dark fantasy, absurdism, even a little science fiction. It's had a gorgeous look with Mary Robinette Kowal as art director and interesting features under non-fiction editor Paula Guran. I wasn't the only one who was impressed -- the magazine just won its first Hugo Award two years ago.

VanderMeer says the first issue with Marvin Kaye as editor will be "Cthulhu-themed," which suggests the new direction will be a big step backwards. Perhaps there's still a large untapped market for H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard pastiches, although the ongoing struggles of Weird Tales to stay afloat since the 1950's suggest otherwise. But as much as I love the old pulp version of Weird Tales, it seems to me that writers have already had plenty of time to add to the Cthulhu mythos and explore Conan-style sword & sorcery. I suppose I shouldn't pre-judge what Marvin Kaye plans for Weird Tales, but his initial decision to jettison the current excellent staff does not bode well.

I just subscribed to Weird Tales for the first time this year, but now I highly doubt I'll be renewing that subscription.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Maddy Dune's First and Only Spelling Bee by Patrick O'Sullivan

The story recommendation of the week is for "Maddy Dune's First and Only Spelling Bee" by Patrick O'Sullivan, from Writers of the Future, Vol. XXVII. The striking illustration is by Meghan Muriel -- you can see more of her amazing portfolio, along with news of her upcoming projects, at her Facebook page.

So I had decided the stories in Writers of the Future 27 should not be eligible for SROTW since, having spent nine days together with all the other WOTF27 authors, I am far too deeply biased to evaluate the book objectively. But I just can't help myself. This book include some of the best works of short fiction I've read in the past several years, and I want them included in the SROTW honor roll.

The most I can do is limit myself to three of the stories that particularly speak to me. This should not be taken to suggest anything at all negative about any of the other WOTF27 stories, every one of which is written at a very high level (excluding my own, which I can't comment on), and I am proud to appear alongside all of these talented (and super-nice) new authors. Two of them, Keffy Kehrli and Jeff Lyman, have already received story recommendations for non-WOTF pieces, and I suspect they all will before long.

So with that disclaimer, we begin with Patrick O'Sullivan's "Maddy Dune's First and Only Spelling Bee." "Maddy Dune" is Patrick O'Sullivan's first published story, but it is so imaginative and beautifully written, I am certain we will see much more outstanding work from him in the future (which hopefully he will tell us about at his web page).

Maddy Dune is a part-human, part-"spectral hound" girl adopted by human stepparents, who have been teaching her magic. She does not fit in well in polite society, but she hopes success in the big spelling bee will help. Maddy lives in a world where "spelling bees" have nothing to do with whether "i" comes before "e."

Most of the tale takes place on the stage of an auditorium, yet this is a tremendously vivid and engaging story. I enjoyed this piece from start to finish, and I read it to a group in my office who loved it as well. You need to find a copy of Writers of the Future, Vol. XXVII and read "Maddy Dune's First and Only Spelling Bee." And then, since you have the book anyway, why not check out some of the other stories?