No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, January 07, 1999

The Essential Bordertown: A Traveller's Guide to the Edge of Faerie - eds.Terri Windling & Delia Sherman

Terri Windling’s Bordertown – ‘the finest of all shared worlds’, according to Locus – makes its hardcover debut in this anthology. Guidebook chapters, frequently works of art in themselves, alternate with short stories by big-name fantasy writers, as well as those who are not (yet) famous.

Bordertown is where science and magic, the World and the (Faerie) Realm, meet: once an ordinary American city, it was transformed by the return of Faerie on the hills beyond the suburbs. Now Bordertown is a frontier town, populated by the rejects of both societies, subject to UN sanctions on faerie trade, and running a flourishing ‘underground, under-thirty’ economy.

Neither science nor magic can quite be trusted in Bordertown. In ‘Arcadia’, by Michael Korolenko, Jill’s disappointment with the city is transmuted as she tries to film a documentary, and finds that her spell-powered camcorder records something quite different to what she sees. Steven Brust’s masterful ‘When the Bow Breaks’ is the tale of a ship’s captain who learns another lesson of magic: treat anything as alive for long enough, or personify it, and you’ve worked a spell. If the Mad River acts like a drug on humans, what might it do to the ships that sail its blood-red waters?

In many modern fantasies, elven themes go hand-in-hand with Celtic myth and magic. Bordertown, true to its multi-cultural manifesto, has room for more: Donnard Sturgis does wonders with voodoo and a gumbo recipe in ‘Half-Life’. ‘Argentine’, by Ellen Steiber, pits an elven thief, stealing whatever someone most loves, against the ghost of another thief whom she encounters in a cemetery on the Day of the Dead. This is one of the most accomplished and atmospheric tales in the book: Steiber’s first fantasy novel is forthcoming from Tor, and if ‘Argentine’ is a true gauge of her style, it should be worth the wait.

The original Bordertown anthologies (none published in the UK, and all out of print in the US) dealt primarily with adolescent themes and obsessions. While this anthology embraces several of the usual rites of passage, there is a sense of emerging maturity. Caroline Stevermer’s ‘Rag’, in particular, is a thoughtful exploration of the idea that ‘hearts of fire grow cold’; that growing up means that you stop caring about the things that used to matter. ‘Socks’, by Delia Sherman, describes the conflicts of adults through the eyes of a sick, amnesiac twelve-year-old girl, subtly and with remarkable effect.

I’ve mentioned only a handful of the stories in the anthology, and they are not necessarily the best. There isn’t a weak story in the book: if anyone still thinks that fantasy is an excuse for poor prose, let them read here and think again.

Friday, January 01, 1999

Antarctica -- Kim Stanley Robinson

I enjoyed this much more when reading it for pleasure than I did while trying to decide whether it was SF for the Arthur C Clarke Awards. (It's set in future, after expiry of Antarctic treaty, but I am not sure this counts).

Robinson certainly knows his stuff: he has clearly read all the books, and is not ashamed to show it. He also manages to blend in several of his recurring themes (high-tech primitivism, living off the land 'with all that technology can do to help: ecological terrorism: a romance of opposites that parallels the political views in opposition …) Most impressively, at least to me this year, he writes about feng shui without sounding precious.

Exploration, science, neither really mattered to Shackleton: what mattered was living in Antarctica. There he had first experienced that being-in-the-world which is our fundamental reality, our one true home: and rather than try to find that experience also in the wilderness that is England, he kept returning south …Only this moment, always. We never get to change the past. We never get to know the future. No reason to wish for one place rather than another; no reason to say I wish I were home, or I wish I were in an exotic new place that is not my home. They will all be the same as this place. Here the experience of existing comes clear. This world is our body.

The narrator of that passage is Ta Shu, a Chinese vid-caster who walks around recording his thoughts and what he sees for a massive audience back home. Once the adventure is over, one of the other characters finds himself watching a badly-translated broadcast:

In a vision we share a story. Lemon said stories are false solutions to real problems. Lamb added corollary, that stories from other planets hence must be false solutions to false problems. What then have we done together? … Take a walk outside in the open air. Wherever you find yourself on the face of this planet, it is a good place. Breathe deeply the breath of the world. Look at the sky over our heads all together. Feel yourself walking: this too is thought. Feel the way you are animal, breathing in the spirit wind. If our time together gives you no more than this walk, then still it has done well.

Robinson also manages another meditation on Beethoven's music ('melodies so stuffed with meaning that they were landscapes in themselves'), which is pretty good since apparently the Hammerklavier sonata contains the keys to life, the universe and everything (according to Kim Stanley Robinson's earlier novel, The Memory of Whiteness). Smart chap, that Beethoven.