“Russian Vine” by Simon Ings: A Digital Domains Review

Copyright © 2010 by Ellen Datlow. Cover design by Stephen H. Segal.

“Russian Vine” is a short story by British sci-fi author Simon Ings that was published on SCIFICTION on June 6, 2001.

Onto the last review!

The Story: Colonization From The Alien’s Point Of View

Connie is one of the Puscha, an alien race descended from avians that has overrun the planet Earth and enforced itself onto the human race, turning the species into some hybrid of labor class and livestock through “human husbandry.”  Despite his role as one of the dominant race, Connie finds himself drawn to a human woman named Rebecca, focusing in particular on how different their languages sound and what it says about their two races.  However, this contact is not quite so diplomatic and ends in tragedy for the conflicted alien Connie.

The Cast: An Alien By Any Other Name…

Connie is interesting in that he seems to be there solely for the contrast to the human beings he’s encountered, comparing their women to the females of his race, comparing the sound of their language to the song-like dialects of his people, and so on.  He doesn’t seem to be so much hostile or in contempt of humanity as he is strangely attracted to and befuddled by it.

In contrast is Rebecca, who sings beautifully and tells stories of what happens among her fellow humans–a very oral person, which makes sense given that the Puscha have tried to suppress all literacy amongst their subjected races.  Yet for her companionship with Connie, it appears that she may not be the benevolent ally he thought he could rely on.

The Setting: Strangers In An All-Too Familiar Land

The story takes place first in Paris and then in the English countryside.  For the most part, human dwellings and cities seem to have been left intact, and the now-colonized Earth appears to be the same except for one key difference: literacy and the written word have been actively suppressed, since languages and their differences lead to strife, which is what the Puscha have never wanted among themselves, let alone among their subjects.  This has the side effect of producing a more oral culture among human beings, as stories are shared  as they were in the days of the Greek poet Homer.

Final Verdict: Spoiling The Spoils Of Conquest

Much like how “You Go Where It Takes You” brought a mellow feeling to a horror story, this tale is all about a mellow observation of Earth after an alien invasion and conquest.  It gives a sympathetic view to one of the colonists–or perhaps conquerors, if we were find out a little more about Connie–and also sets up for the ultimate human response to such conditions.  It’s new and interesting, which is just what a good story evokes.

Rhapsodist’s Note: This is the last story to be reviewed from the Digital Domains anthology.  Starting Thursday, I’ll be reviewing a Joe Haldeman novel, and next week, the famous science fiction novel Enders Game by Orson Scott Card.  Thanks for reading!

Bibliography: Ings, Simon.  “Russian Vine.”  Digital Domains: A Decade of Science Fiction & Fantasy.  Edited by Ellen Datlow.  Prime Books, 2010.

“You Go Where It Takes You” by Nathan Ballingrud: A Digital Domains Review

Copyright © 2010 by Ellen Datlow. Cover design by Stephen H. Segal.

“You Go Where It Takes You” is a short story by horror writer Nathan Ballingrud that was published on SCIFICTION on July 16, 2003.

Onto the review!

The Story: Shouldn’t Go Riding With Strangers

Toni is a waitress at a diner in Port Fouchon, Lousiana, who comes across a mysterious hulking man named Alex.  He slowly seduces her with said air of mystery, although her toddler daughter Gwen can see right through the disguise.  But things get even weirder when Toni finds the collection of masks in Alex’s car: masks made of human flesh that let you become a whole new person, so long as you’re willing to take off your own face first…

The Cast: A Bunch of Broken Innocents

Toni–short for Antoinette–is a waitress and a single mother.  She’s weary of the world, but she also cares deeply for her child, although both attitudes change drastically once she meets Alex.  This stranger is horrifying not out of cruelty or malicious humor, but because he’s so calm about the horrors he possesses in his stolen car.  And then there’s Gwen, a little girl who accepts everything at face value, which includes the natural self-interest of a toddler, but also sees just how wrong a man like Alex truly is–something she tries to warn her mother about before it’s too late.

The Horror: More Poignant Than Outright Terrifying…

It seems like there’s so much that’s standard about modern horror stories: the small and quiet town where the Event takes place, the strange man who came into town, an older woman being preyed upon, a child who sees the monster for what it is.  All of this can be found in this story, which doesn’t make it bad, just fitting to some conventions.

And then there are the masks.  They made me think of famous monsters like Ed Gein, Buffalo Bill, and Leatherface–those killers who evoke the horror of mutilated flesh, of having our humanity desecrated by callous individuals.  The masks and their function are not graphically described, but they serve as unsettling plot devices.

Final Verdict: …But Still More Than A Little Eerie

Much like its title, this tale has a kind of mellow nature, although it was listed in the anthology as a horror story.  Still, it’s less shocking than it is unsettling, even with the human-skin masks and personality changes.

Bibliography: Ballingrud, Nathan.  “You Go Where It Takes You.”  Digital Domains: A Decade of Science Fiction & Fantasy.  Edited by Ellen Datlow.  Prime Books, 2010.

“All Of Us Can Almost…” by Carol Emshwiller: A Digital Domains Review

Copyright © 2010 by Ellen Datlow. Cover design by Stephen H. Segal.

“All of Us Can Almost…” is a short story by Carol Emshwiller that was published on SCIFICTION on November 17, 2004.

Onto the review!

The Story: Dem Birds, Dem Birds!

So there are these birds–I mean, these “avian-like creatures”–and they coexist with these other “ground dwellers” who think the bird people can fly.  But they can’t, though they’ve got an impressive wingspan.

So there’s this female bird-person who’s trying to pacify this little ground dweller and letting him think she can fly and give him a ride on her back because, hey, it means the little guy is so eager to get her all the food she could want.

So the female and her friend do take flight, except the “flight” is more of a cliff dive to escape this one lustful male bird-person, which ends surprisingly well for the female and her ground-dwelling friend, but not so well for the idiot male, who gets his legs broken in the act of pursuing them.

I realize that this sounds like a bizarre story and not too interesting.  Well, you’d be half-right.  It’s bizarre, but a strange treat for the courageous reader.

The Cast: Our Feathered Friends On The Center Stage

There are three characters worth speaking of: the female avian who narrates, the enthusiastic ground dweller who reads like a spastic six-year-old kid, and the male avian who can’t take a hint and must satisfy his “need” on the female, which is actually a pretty normal animal behavior when you think about it.

The Setting: Gonna Have To Get Back To You On That…

The story is about ten pages long, so there’s not a whole lot of action, but a healthy amount of description.  Of course, the whole point of this story is to tell the reader how things look from the point of view of a bird.  And since a bird’s language isn’t too comprehensible to human beings, it’s upgraded to the words of a bird-like person.  So things are described as part of the natural world, with relations between the avians and the ground dwellers who live among mountains and forests and rivers, without any hint of civilization.

When I was in the middle of reading this story, I was convinced that it might have been a story about dinosaurs and primitive simians, since the former are the ancestors of birds (few of whom could fly) and the ground dwellers are described as agile, fast-talking, and featuring paws.  However, I don’t know that it was supposed to read that way, but that was the impression I got as I kept reading.

Final Verdict: Now Hear The Word Of The… Bird!

While I might poke fun at how strange this story is, I have to admit that it’s kind of fun in and of itself.  Carol Emshwiller does actually try to write from the perspective of an avian, which would come off as different from that of a mammal due to biology and other environmental factors.  It’s all too easy for many authors to get caught up in their own human perspective, so it’s a nice breath of fresh air to get a story extrapolated from the view of another race, be it real or fictional.

Rhapsodist’s Note: One year ago today, I wrote and published my first post as “The Rhapsodist” on this site.  It’s been an interesting year for me and I hope to have a few more writing reviews and finding new books, movies, and shows to enjoy.  Thanks to all my readers and comment-contributors for your time and your input.  You are all my reasons for continuing with this site.

Bibliography: Emshwiller, Carol.  “All of Us Can Almost…”  Digital Domains: A Decade of Science Fiction & Fantasy.  Edited by Ellen Datlow.  Prime Books, 2010.

“There’s A Hole In The City” by Richard Bowes: A Digital Domains Review

Copyright © 2010 by Ellen Datlow. Cover design by Stephen H. Segal.

“There’s a Hole in the City” is a short story by Richard Bowes that was published on SCIFICTION on June 15, 2005.

Onto the review!

The Story: A Slow Walk Through The Aftermath Of Tragedy

A New Yorker narrates his life in Soho in the days following the September 11th bombing of the World Trade Center.  Like so many others, he tries to go back to his old routine while paying tribute to the lives that were lost and the grief that still permeates the city.  However, things get even stranger when the narrator’s friend Mags becomes convinced that she’s seeing more than just victims from the recent bombing, but from other tragedies in New York’s history, like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911.  Beyond the hole left by the attacks, there appears to be a hole in the city’s own timeline, as victims from other eras begin to pass through the modern-day chaos.

The Cast: The Ghosts Who Linger, Both In The Flesh And Out Of It

The unnamed narrator is less of a character and more of an observer for the sake of the reader, reacting to and commenting on the pain he sees among the young people who pass by his Information Desk at a college library.  In contrast is his friend Mags, whose point of view we never get, but who is always out doing something, following up leads on the ghostly people she encounters, like their friend Geoff, who died long ago, and Jennie Levine, a young lady who worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.  What makes their relationship interesting is how ghost-like the modern characters become in the wake of the attacks: just passing through the city, feeling disconnected in the middle of the cataclysm.

The Setting: The Smoldering, Silent, And Sorrowful City

Bowes captures the heartache of living in New York after Sept. 11, 2001.  He doesn’t hit the reader with visceral pain like fire and screaming, but with the fallout that results from it.  Through his writing, you can envision the empty streets of Soho, the people at the library crying at their desks, the candlelight vigils at the park, and the closed-up stores owned by Arabs and Indians.

There’s also the logistical pain: restaurants that don’t get enough customers, people who can’t commute to work, erratic phone service, and the need for “survivor parties” to try and relieve some of the tension.  All this is filtered through the narrator’s sad and tired eyes, offering a view of post-9/11 New York that some Americans (especially those of us on the West Coast) might not have been able to see.

Final Verdict: There’s A Hole In The Heart Of The Reader

The idea of the “hole” in the city’s timeline is one that doesn’t directly affect the plot too much, but serves to illustrate just how badly the attacks affected the collective psyche.  In some ways, the attack could be seen as bringing all those older tragedies into the light, so that the pain has always been there for the people of New York and thus becomes a little easier to bear.

It’s also strangely appropriate that I’m writing this review as earlier this week, Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the World Trade Center attacks, was killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan.  Much like this story, though, it won’t do anything to bring back the fallen of Sept. 11, but for some it might be a way of moving on, and if nothing else, the former may be a turning point in the War on Terror, but only time will tell which way it turns.

Bibliography: Bowes, Richard.  “There’s a Hole in the City.”  Digital Domains: A Decade of Science Fiction & Fantasy.  Edited by Ellen Datlow.  Prime Books, 2010.

“Tomorrow Town” by Kim Newman: A Digital Domains Review

Copyright © 2010 by Ellen Datlow. Cover design by Stephen H. Segal.

“Tomorrow Town” is a short story by award-winning author Kim Newman that was published on SCIFICTION on November 15, 2000.

Onto the review!

The Story: The “WORLD OF TOMORROW!!!” Is Not What We Expected

Richard Jeperson, an agent of the Diogenes Club, and Vanessa are sent from London to a small experimental community known as Tomorrow Town, where science fiction writers and editors are attempting to illustrate how their ideas about the future might be put into effect for the world of today.  But as Richard and Vanessa conduct their tour of the town, they discover that its innovations may be a mask for injustice and perhaps the leadership is not as benevolent or competent as it appears to be.

The Cast: A Brilliant Scientist And His Traveling Companion (Now Where Have I Heard That Before…?)

Richard Jeperson is an agent of the Diogenes Club, a fictional branch of the UK’s intelligence services that’s frequently seen in Kim Newman’s works.  He brings an eye for discrimination to Tomorrow Town, along with a very dry and sarcastic wit.  Accompanying him is Vanessa, who is less experienced but not lacking in her own expertise, and who on occasion provides as much wit as Richard.

There’s also the residents of Tomorrow Town, who are all trying to make the best of their new environment and integrate the futuristic jargon into their everyday language (substituting “desiyears” for months, “kronons” for hours, etc.).  They also try to reinvent themselves with new names like “Jor-G” (for George Gewell), Sue-2, and Jess-F.  However, their earnest attitudes aren’t much help against Richard and Vanessa’s skepticism, and even they can do little more than despair as how their social experiment begins to go south.

The Writing: Paying Homage Through Parody

I’m not sure if this was intentional or not, but I couldn’t help feeling that this entire story read like a typical episode of Doctor Who: the Doctor and his companion arrive at a strange new world or in a new era of history, which is all very alien and wonderful until they uncover some danger about the whole environment that they have to defeat, explaining to the residents just what went wrong and how they could fix things before taking their leave.  Take out “the Doctor” and “companion,” stick in “Richard” and “Vanessa,” and you have this entire story in a nutshell.

I was also reminded a lot of The Prisoner, wherein another snarky gentlemen is brought to a smiling community of the future and constantly harps on the utter wrongness behind everything.  In particular, I’m reminded of the episode called “The General,” where a supercomputer is hailed as the great authority of the future, only to fall apart at an unsolvable question from Number Six.  Again, this might have been intentional, given that the author’s British.

Newman also tackles the cliché customs of the future that were predicted by so many science fiction writers in the twentieth century: modern clothes replaced by jumpsuits, modern food reduced to pills, robots to clean up your room, and all important matters handed by the most amazing computers ever built.  It’s this last idea that Newman really tears into, considering that the supercomputer of this story lacks true sentience and can’t do anything more than crunch some data.

He is decent enough, though, to include a small glossary at the end of his story, just as great sci-fi authors like Frank Herbert would.

Final Verdict: A Lot Of Fun (But Not Much As A Good Plate Of Fish N’ Chips)

As a mystery story, “Tomorrow Town” isn’t bad, but it’s best read as a good-natured poke at so many sci-fi tropes and conventions.  It’s got a decent cast and a nice message, one that all science fiction writers should take to heart when they start planning out their own utopian visions of the future.

Bibliography: Newman, Kim.  “Tomorrow Town.”  Digital Domains: A Decade of Science Fiction & Fantasy.  Edited by Ellen Datlow.  Prime Books, 2010.