Visions of Paradise

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Conjunctions 39

Conjunctions 39: the New Wave Fabulists is a special issue of a literary magazine published by Bard College. It was edited by Peter Straub, bestselling horror writer who is actually a close friend of the science fiction genre. This book’s stories intentionally straddle the twilight zone between literature and genre fiction. If there was any trend in the stories in Conjunctions it was that many of them are not complete stories at all, but story fragments or expositions, with very little plotting and no attempt at resolution. That’s a literature trick, of course, although even genre science fiction writers are not exempt from it. And a story can certainly be successful without completeness if it achieves success in other areas such as characterization, sense of wonder, philosophical depth, and exciting writing. And several of the incomplete stories in the book achieve such success.

Perhaps the best fragment is editor Straub’s “Little Red’s Tango”, an examination of the life of a Christlike figure whose talent is serving as a muse for struggling jazz artists. This story was fascinating reading and was most successful in creating sympathy for both the artists and Little Red himself.

Andy Duncan’s “The Hard Rock Candy Mountain” was a skewed but fascinating expansion of the traditional folk song into a story. As a “story” it did not make total sense, but as a reading experience it was delightful.

In a book filled with fragments, two novel fragments were included: Joe Haldeman’s excerpt from “Guardian” and Gene Wolfe’s excerpt from “Knight.” Wolfe’s was the more successful, about a knight who finds himself stranded in a fantasy world, while Haldeman’s story strove to be a sense-of-wonder tour of a truly fantastic universe. It failed because Haldeman is too much a linear plotter with little of the free-flowing nature of writers such as China Miéville or Roger Zelazny. Thus his fragment never achieves the level of wondrousness it would have in the hands of a more intuitive or emotional writer (few of whom, on the other hand, have mastered linear plotting nearly as well as Haldeman). The excerpt reminds me of when Kim Stanley Robinson wrote “A Short, Sharp Shock,” which was another attempt by a linear writer which also failed to rise to the intended level.

Karen Joy Fowler’s “The Further Adventures of the Invisible Man” was a non-speculative coming-of-age story, not much more than characterization, albeit enjoyable reading.

But it was the complete stories which really shone in the book. I don’t think there was a better story in recent years than John Crowley’s novella “The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines”. What might seem heresy to some readers is that this story is totally non-sfnal at all, although it is a story about fans living their lives centered around love of literature and growing up immersed in that love and becoming a part of the public world of literature for the first time. Except, as the story’s title indicates, the youths in the story do not love science fiction in any form, but Shakespeare’s plays. Still it is easy for a hard-core sf fan to relate to the story and its characters since so much of what they went through growing up is relevant to us as well, including the discussions about (in this case) the identity of Shakespeare and how the author becomes as important to them as his plays themselves. And Crowley has such a wonderful use of the language, worth reading for its own pleasure independent of the story, that I wanted this story to go on and on and on. It was easily worth the price of the entire book.

Another fine story is Jonathan Carroll’s “Simon’s House of Lipstick” about a middle-aged tour guide whose life has been an abysmal failure, and who encounters his third grade teacher whom he considers partially responsible for his failures. When he sees her one day on the street he summons up the nerve to confront her and finally exorcize some of the demons which have haunted him for so long. But exorcism does not necessarily proceed exactly as planned.

John Kessel’s “The Invisible Empire” is a tale of women’s lib turning into vigilanteeism a century before society was ready for equality of the sexes. Thus men reacted angrily and forcibly against comeuppity women which raised the women’s response in turn. It makes one thankful that women’s lib–like it or not–took place in an era where society was ready and/or willing to accept it.

Another outstanding fantasy was Elizabeth Hand’s “The Least Trumps”, a fascinating look at the world of tarot, tattoos, classic fantasy, and bittersweet relationships. Hand is a master of ambiance, drawing you into worlds which often resembles rich fantasy paintings. You come away from her stories impressed with their richness and visual splendor while simultaneously unsettled by her characters and their strangeness. This story was nearly as good as Crowley’s, and together they helped make for a strong anthology overall.


  • Mmmm... thanks for the heads up on this one. Am currently reading this (just done with Crowley and now reading Link) and the warning of the 'straddling' stories is timely for to expect. Maybe because I just finished Vandermeer's Leviathan and have certain expectations of certain collections?

    But then again, I like great 'reading experiences' anyway so it shouldn't matter. ;-)

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