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

Sunday, November 18, 2007

#72: 100 Great Short Short Fantasy Stories -- Isaac Asimov (ed)

Following 100 Great Short Short Science Fiction Stories, this should really have been entitled Another Hundred Great &co: the majority of the stories collected here -- by authors from Asimov himself to Zelazny (a master of the very short genre story) -- seem more easily categorised as SF or horror than as fantasy. I did start tabulating themes (pacts with the Devil or his minions; 'three wishes'; ghosts; vampires, werewolves and that ilk; alt history ...) but was distracted by some of the puns I encountered herein. Even without quantitative data, though, I'd maintain that the majority of these stories aren't strictly 'fantasy' in the contemporary sense. And I'd also like to point out that presenting the stories in alphabetical order by title means that similar tales may be clumped together, to their detriment. When it comes to an anthology, contrast is good.('The Third Wish' followed by 'Those Three Wishes'; 'Deal with the D. E. V. I. L.' by 'The Devil finds Work'.)

The stories collected here were published between 1940 ('The Haters' by Donald Wollheim) and 1984 (several stories including 'Vernon's Dragon' by John Gregory Bettancourt: this anthology's copyright date is 1984). It's a whirlwind tour of the (primarily) American short-fiction market over that period, from the ancient horrors of Lovecraft to the psychological nasties of the sixties to the smaller apocalypses and stranger worlds of the eighties.

It is perfectly possibly to write a neat, well-formed story in a thousand words or less, and many of these authors manage it. James Gunn's 'Feeding Time' will stick in my head (and is proof that there's room, even in a story this short, for pacing and suspense). I'd read Wollheim's 'Rag Thing' long ago, not remembering title or author: the story's stood the test of time. There are clever stories, wry stories, stories that are deeply surreal (Raylyn Moore's 'Getting Back to Before It Began', about a bus ride to the end of everything, to where there are no names for places ...) and stories with the simplicity of a fairytale (Jane Yolen's 'The Lady and the Merman' is a bittersweet delight, wonderfully visual and melancholy).

There are also quite a few stories that exist to support a pun or a one-liner (not my thing, but fine in moderation), or to explore a hitherto-murky aspect of a classic story -- literary fanfiction, if you like, where a crewman from the Flying Dutchman makes his escape and is rescued by the Marie Celeste; where the ghosts from Hamlet plot together to ruin everyone else's stories; where God welcomes Adam and Eve's rebellion. One thing that does strike me about these stories is the sense of fun -- that these are tales their authors produced for the hell of it, because they wanted to, because the idea suddenly popped fully-formed into the writer's head.

A good anthology to dip into, but be prepared to groan at some of the really dreadful puns.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

#71: The Virtu -- Sarah Monette

What hooked me into reading this more or less as soon as it arrived in the post was the prospect of seeing Felix (who spent most of Mélusine mad) in a state of sanity. Kethe's blessing (as Mildmay would say): what you asked for but not what you wanted. Felix is sharp enough to cut diamond, arrogant, insensitive and vain, a very Romantic hero, very Byronic and intrinsically, perhaps irrevocably, damaged.

Actually I rather like him. Though not nearly as much as he likes himself.

I've read elsewhere that Mélusine and The Virtu were originally conceived as a single novel: if so, the structure (and the rather episodic feel of Mélusine) make much more sense. The structure of The Virtu, and the physical journey that Felix and Mildmay undertake, is a mirror of the previous novel -- though both men are changed by what they've experienced, the ordeals they've undergone, and by Mildmay's solution to the situation he left behind in the city of Mélusine. (A solution that could hardly be signalled more strongly in the earlier book, but still surprises, because Mildmay, even as narrator, isn't in the habit of telling anyone more than a quarter of what he thinks.)

As before, the most fascinating aspect of the plot is the interaction between the two. There's Felix's growing respect for Mildmay ("he'd simply taken a short-cut through the conversation I'd anticipated having and reached the finish line ahead of me. I'd known he was much smarter than he seemed, but I hadn't appreciated before how quick he was"). There's Mildmay's need to hold onto, stay with Felix (quite different from the cult of Felix he observes in others, which gives us an external yardstick for Felix's charisma). There are all the things they have in common (both damaged by physical and psychological abuse when younger, but Felix is far readier to blame those responsible for the way he is, while Mildmay internalises, thinks he deserved everything, and seldom makes explicit connection between his past and his character), and all the ways in which they complement one another (Felix has little sense of direction; Mildmay doesn't get lost, even in mazes).

And it's hard not to like a character named Mehitabel, even if she speaks normally (formally, even) and is not given to saying wotthehell*. For one thing, she calls Felix 'sunshine' and completely fails to fall under his spell. Perhaps one day she will give him the resounding slap he deserves. Go Mehitabel!

One thing that really did strike me about this novel -- though I hadn't consciously made the connection with Mélusine -- was how well it fits the 'fantasy of manners' subgenre, as originally suggested by Don Keller long long ago in a galaxy far far away NYRSF. (Now butterfly-me has spent a while googling the original article: no joy, but there are good write-ups of a couple of Readercon panels.) Urban setting? Yep, once they get back to Mélusine. Elaborate social structure? Yes, and then some. (Thrown into relief by Felix and Mildmay coming from very different levels of said structure.) Protagonists pitted against their peers? More so than against any external Blight, for sure. "Duels may be fought," says Wikipedia, "but the chief weapons are wit and intrigue." Spot on. (I found myself thinking about fantasy tropes that aren't featured here, and one of those is swordplay: neither protagonist uses, nor wishes to use, a sword. Bernard uses a sword, but even Mildmay thinks he's a thug.)

Which is not to say there's no plot. I am intrigued by several elements of same: the mazes and labyrinths that recur, and are key; the Sibylline, a local variant of the Tarot with some extra cards and a Major Arcana that's congruent but distinctly not ours; obligations, d'âme and du sang, and how they might be broken; memory and forgetfulness, which is all I'm saying about the ending.

Oh, there's a very definite ending to one arc of the story -- and, I thought but was mistaken, to another arc (because I thought something was not forgivable, but underestimated a bond) -- there are elements that are left ready to be drawn back into the weave, in the third or even fourth book of the series. And there are no easy answers, no quick fixes, no happy endings. Just broken people, afraid of but craving intimacy, afraid of what's broken and wanting to mend it.

*yesterday sceptres and crowns
fried oysters and velvet gowns
and today i herd with bums
but wotthehell wotthehell

#70: Dream Angus -- Alexander McCall Smith

Another in the Canongate Myth series (in which mainstream authors tackle classic myths, with mixed results): this is the first work I've read by the author, despite his near-constant presence on the bestseller lists. His style is deceptively simple, and his approach -- a kind of Impressionist melange of simple retelling and contemporary echo -- suits his subject, the Celtic god of love and dreams, very well, though it has a vague unfinished feel like a dream fading at waking.

Angus's father is the Dagda, ruler of the Celtic pantheon, cunning and paranoid and fickle as Zeus. The Dagda banishes Angus after one of those nasty prophetic dreams: Angus is raised by a foster-father, and grows up gentle and peaceful, loved by his foster-family, inspiring dreams of romance in the young women he meets, drawing songbirds to him as he sleeps, calming the fiercest hound by his presence.

Angus's story weaves through others: the tale of Jamie and Davie, two brothers in Depression-gloomy 1930s Scotland, inseparable until Davie's invited to seek his fortune in Canada, which development devastates Jamie 'til he's sent a dream of dark trees and snow and knows, somehow, that Davie will still be there for him in the dream-world. The tale of Pig Twenty, a genetically-modified pig bred for medical reasons, and the gentle unambitious keeper who wants to rescue him -- and of the secretary who falls in love with the pig-keeper, against all inclination but with a joyful recognition of something that's right. The tale of two honeymooners, a man with a secret and a woman who dreams of it. Of a son who finds out that his father is not his father. A wife who walks out on her husband and seeks therapy. Brothers, secrets, childhood, the sound of birdsong.

McCall quotes Auden in his introduction: "Angus puts us in touch with our dreams - those entities which Auden described so beautifully in his Freud poem as the creatures of the night that are waiting for us, that need our recognition." I hadn't encountered that phrase before: I like the way it made each dream a vulnerable entity rather than a divine messenger or a symptom of some inner sickness. But are the dreams characters in and of themselves, separate and distinct from the god who bestows them? From these stories, I'd call the dreams gifts rather than entities: blessings given, not something born.