Thursday, May 22, 2003

Polyphony Volume 2, Wheatland Press, Deborah Layne and Jay Lake, Editors

The second volume of this new slipstream (for lack of a better term) anthology is nearly twice as thick and nearly as good as its predecessor.

The first story is "The Same Old Story," from Lucius Shepard. It's set in the beach bars of Honduras, and meanders drunkenly from one to another, much as its protagonist meanders drunkenly while telling the stories which he thinks will exorcise his demons. Shepard's story is similarly told, in fragments, by ghosts and memories and Port Royal beer. There are undercurrents of rage and sadness here, rage at the injustice of U.S. involvement in Central America, sadness at the apathy inspired by same. Yet the emotional disconnect between the protagonist--and he is a protagonist, not a hero--and the reader echoes this apathy. Perhaps this is intentional? It is clear from the beginning that he is not simply a victim, that he has had a hand in the atrocities which haunt him. And so his penance, when we see the extent of it, feels deserved, but at the same time gives us no satisfaction. I can't say I loved this story, but it has stayed with me, and I admire the structuring of it.

Jack Dann's "The Hanging" was a puzzling story for me. It's about two friends. One goes into the Federal Witness Protection Program, the other moves to Australia. The one leaves the FWPP, and the other becomes a famous novelist. They both get married. One gets divorced, and is estranged from his wife and children. Years later, one of the sons of the divorced man hangs himself, and the two of them go to the funeral together. I'd like to say that this story is about distance, not physical distance but emotional distance, and the different ways in which we estrange ourselves from the people we love. I think I might even be right, but I'm not certain. As I said, a puzzling story.

Honna Swenson is the co-editor of Talebones and a writer of some promise. Her story "Animal Attributes" is about a doctor who surgically modifies his clients with wings, tails, and other less tangible animalistic properties. There is the matter, however, of his own failure to carry wings without having his body reject them, and also the fact of his love affair with a client who also rejected hers. This is a very dark story, which raises questions of the soul which seem to contradict themselves. The menacing figure of Dr. Miles Von Carnop, the head of the clinic, with his wide wings and wider professional shadow, looms over the protagonist, who seems to have no escape from this futuristic Moreau. I can't say this is a perfect story, but it is deeply troubling, and it does well to ask questions about what exactly it means to be human.

"Coo People" by Carol Emshwiller is a wonderful story which I can't compare to any writer I can think of--perhaps James Tiptree Jr./Alice Sheldon comes closest--but this is a very original, not to mention lovely, piece. It's so simple--and yet not--and spare, and so elegant. I really am at something of a loss for words. It's dreamlike in that it's strange and has its own logic and has an odd intensity--and yet there is the sense that it could be real, and that perhaps even the inexplicable things that occur have an explanation. Perhaps the narrator is not entirely sane--I don't think she could be described as reliable, in any case. This is a wonderful story.

"The Arts of Malediction" by Lisa Goldstein is something of a morality tale, but it's also very funny, and quirky, and entertaining. It's not a loud or a terribly deep story, but so what?

Kit Reed's "Into the Jungle" is about a exasperated wife and mother who decides to pay back her philandering husband and have a life-changing experience by leaving him with the kids and signing on as the assistant to a Geology professor traveling to the jungle. The romantic notions in the back of her mind are subverted at every turn (or are they?), but she finds herself able to handle the reality. In the end, she and the professor find what they both may have been looking for--though it is not what they (or, most likely, the reader) expect.

"Theo's Girl" by David Moles is a story set, possibly, in the time of Alexander--although the appearance of warships and other odd details make it an alternate history, at least. There's a siege, and a unit of soldiers--the wide-eyed recruit, the jaded veteran, the insufferably crude comrade-at-arms--and what seems to be a mandate to kill any gods that are come across. It's not made explicit, but someone higher up is expecting to find a goddess in the streets of the Old City, and Theo (the aforementioned wide-eye) and Mies (the veteran) both see her. Theo is an instant convert, but Mies is a tougher sell--until the end, when both are forced to make a choice. It's a bit predictable, and the setting distracts more than it adds, but this is a readable and entertaining tale.

Michael Bishop is next with "Andalusian Triptych, 1962." This consists of three short sketches of Seville around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It's affecting, real, and offers nothing definitive about the world or human nature. It's a very good story.

"Dead White Guys" by Bruce Holland Rogers is about the Founding Fathers and how they might function in the world today. As funny as that sounds, the story is even funnier. This one doesn't need a lot of explication from me.

Timalyne Frazier's story "Burning in the Montage" is a quiet story which requires a bit of thought and attention, and it's one of the best stories in this volume. It's about identity, and how it changes, or rather how we can change our own. Of course, there's always the danger of losing it altogether . . .

Next is "Dreaming for Hire, By Appointment Only" by Dianna Rodgers. It's about a boy whose father dreamed him alive, whose father can dream anything real--except that his power is fading, and his son must soon take over. But when the time comes for him to dream for the first time, he discovers there is only one thing he truly wants. Even if it costs him his gift forever, it's worth it. A well-written tale, heartwarming without being cloying.

Last in this volume is Brendan Day's "Last Man on Earth," a Kavalier and Clay-like story of an elevator operator with a passion for the pulps and a screenplay titled, you guessed it, "Last Man on Earth." There's an odd series of events which lead him to the roof, with his supervisor and his supervisor's girlfriend, who don't seem to be what they are, and who show him some of what will be . . . very little of which matches his Campbell-fueled dreams. This story left me with a lot of questions, but it also intrigued me.