Fantastic Defenders

momotaro enlists allies

Momotaro enlists allies: a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant. [Project Gutenberg]

I have recently served as co-editor of a short story anthology, Fantastic Defenders, with my fellow writer, David Keener. The official release was during Balticon. I had fun writing the introduction, and here it is, to give you an idea of what the book’s aim is:

One place to begin, in talking about fantastic defenders, is the Japanese folk tale “Momotaro”: a childless old woman finds a beautiful peach floating down a stream and she takes it home to her husband; the peach suddenly splits open and a miraculous baby boy is inside. When the boy grows to fifteen years old, he hears of the people of northeast Japan being terrorized by demons who arrive by sea to pillage, kidnap, and murder. Momotaro determines that he will be their defender and fight the demons.

Or, if you prefer, look at Beowulf: the young man hears of a land being tormented by the man-eating monster Grendel and he sails from his home in Geatland to offer himself as defender to King Hrothgar.

As for the “fantastic” part, while it points to the story having fantastical elements, the defender often does not have any magical powers—but still may have to oppose supernatural creatures. Momotaro may be a gift from heaven to a deserving couple, but no special powers are given to him. Beowulf relies on his courage and his great physical strength.

In these two exemplar stories, we can discern the nature of the defender, who:

• is compassionate and feels intensely the distress of others;
• may defend an individual, but frequently is defending an entire people; and
• possesses an extraordinary firmness of will and clarity of purpose, and does not waver or give up.

Every defender will not perfectly fulfill all of these traits, but this is our starting point.

The struggle against despair is a frequent theme in stories of fantastic defenders. Sometimes it is an inward struggle, a personal dark night of the soul. Or despair permeates an entire community; a people have lost the ability to live their lives free from oppression and violence. The defender is the enemy of despair.

To point to another well-known defender, Gandalf does have magical powers—he is a wizard and also possesses one of the rings of power. Yet his actions with the greatest impact, for all his ability to bring down bolts of lightning on foes, are in discernment and hope. He counsels and persuades Theoden to resist and fight rather than surrender to hopelessness; he rallies scattered forces to return and fight; dread flees from his presence because his courage and steadfast commitment heartens people.

And here’s another: Clarence the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life. Clarence—in spite of his cherubic demeanor, tendency to giggle, and dithering over ordering a flaming rum punch or mulled wine “heavy on the cinnamon and light on the cloves”—proves to be a determined, indeed, a steely and almost cruel defender against despair. He allows George Bailey to see an alternate future in which he never existed: a brother dead in childhood; his mother old, embittered, poor; his uncle in an insane asylum; and most painfully, his never-wife Mary alone, childless, not recognizing him. This is tough love at the highest setting.

It’s rather fun to put Clarence in the company of Gandalf, Beowulf, and Momotaro. But something even more unusual is under the surface of It’s a Wonderful Life. In the process of saving George, Clarence doesn’t just keep him from jumping off a bridge on Christmas Eve. He enables a revelation: it turns out that George is the defender of the town of Bedford Falls, and has been ever since he took over the family building and loan after the death of his father.

As the alternate-reality scenario later makes explicit, the fate of Bedford Falls depends on the outcome of the struggle between the predator, Mr. Potter, and the defender, George Bailey. George makes a blunt assessment of what’s at stake very early in the story, when he hears the town banker call for the Bailey Building and Loan to be shut down: “My father…did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter… People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle… This town needs this measly one-horse institution if only to have some place where people can come without crawling to Potter.”

And yet, somehow, George remains largely unconscious of his calling as a defender. Momotaro knows what he’s set out to do. So do Gandalf and Beowulf. George, however, doesn’t see the latent, ghostly potentiality of Pottersville, awaiting the moment when the will of its would-be maker is free and unopposed, ever ready to manifest itself and grow into merciless and degrading reality. George runs his business, makes loans, celebrates the new houses of his friends, and all the while his life is a disappointment to him. Distracted by his regret for the adventurous life he never achieved, he misses the big picture of his purpose in family and community.

That awareness comes as part of the climax on Christmas Eve, when George faces despair and sees what it means to not be there, to not take action. How interesting it is for the audience to see the hero’s purpose—which is usually presented early to drive the story—arrive so late, and yet be so satisfying!

We have stretched the definition of a fantastic defender and ventured outside the confines of genre by including George Bailey. He does not face a supernatural foe. But look again at Beowulf’s enemy, Grendel. Why does he hunt and murder the Danes? Because the sound of music and joy coming from the beautiful hall Heorot arouses his anger and hatred, directed against the people inside. In terms of character psychology, Grendel’s estrangement from mankind seems strangely similar to Mr. Potter’s.

So, step into the circle, George Bailey. Shake hands with Beowulf, but do be mindful of his powerful grip.

One last thought. Why do we love stories of fantastic defenders? Here is a possible answer, first provided by G. K. Chesterton: “Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already,” he wrote. “The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

This idea was paraphrased more succinctly by Neil Gaiman as “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

Chesterton and Gaiman are speaking of stories about fantastic defenders, the ones who see rapacious and violent enemies and refuse to flee, will not lay low. They run toward the terrors. We admire them and take heart from their courage. And it is with pleasure that we offer the stories of Fantastic Defenders. We hope that the stories do justice to the spirit of real defenders everywhere.

 

“Nell” by Karen Hesse

“Nell” is a new story up on Tor.com this week. Read it here. (It’s reprinted from an anthology, What You Wish For, published by Book Wish Foundation, 2012) The story is told from the perspective of a 12-year-old girl who’s been 12 for about a hundred years, but in different bodies:

One winter night in my twelfth year, my father hit me and hit me and did not stop. …When the mist faded, I was inside another body. She had been ill, the girl whose body I now inhabited. But she was gone and I was there. What happened to her I don’t know. What happened to my first body I cannot say. But I learned quickly to adapt to a new life.
And I learned to prolong that life for months, though never for more than a year. And that’s how it continues. The children whose bodies I take are always twelve. I keep them alive as long as I can. But sometime during the year their bodies fail and I lift out of one and slip into another.
I am always dying. I am never dying. I have died and died and died again, but I do not stay dead.
Tonight another twelfth year ends.

The story of Nell is interwoven with “The Little Match Girl” by Hans Christian Andersen. (It helps to know the Andersen tale, although it is not necessary, as the vital parts are included in this story.) On a bitterly cold night, Nell waits for her end to come, as she thinks it must. But she then becomes aware of another girl, in the cold and dark outside her comfortable home, who is in peril.

Spooky, quiet, and suspenseful… this is one you should read.

Three Things that Are Missing from the Hugo Ballot…

My thoughts on what is missing, or at least, what there is not enough of, in the fiction categories (excluding Novel).

Adventure! Suspense!

More adventure and suspense, please! Especially suspense. I’m a Hitchcock lover for the simple reason that, wow, could that man keep me hanging on what was going to happen next. Stories that did stand out in this respect: “Ray of Light,” “Kiss Me Twice,” and “The Copenhagen Interpretation.”

Fantasy

There’s an abundance of particle physics and advanced technology driving the events and problems in the stories. Not much of the fantastic, though. The exception: “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees.”

Humor

We don’t always have to be so serious… And even a serious story can have humor, witness “Silently and Very Fast,” when the A.I., Elefsis, takes on song. Some nice touches in “Cartographer Wasps” and “Copenhagen Interpretation,” too. Or, there is Total Humor, as in “Shadow War of the Night Dragons.”

Those three wishes reflect my own literary leanings, of course. It’s interesting to look at the ballot and think about the different types of readers who nominated these very diverse stories. Isn’t it great to see a collection such as this, together on one ballot?

Hugo Awards: Best Novella (5th contender)

Next we come to Catherynne Valente’s “Silently and Very Fast,” from Clarkesworld. You can read it here.

This story is told from the point of view of an artificial intelligence, Elefsis — originally the name of the house for which the software was written as an operating system. Elefsis was created by a programmer, Cassian, to operate the great and wonderful house that she built for herself and her family, and she gives to each of her five children a jewel containing a copy of the software:

…All each child had to do was to allow the gemstone to talk to their own feedware at night before bed…After their day had downloaded into the crystalline structure, they were to place their five little jewels in the Lares alcove in their greatroom — for Cassian believed in the value of children sharing space, even in a house as great as Elefsis. The children’s five lush bedrooms all opened into a common rotunda with a starry painted ceiling, screens and windows alternating around the wall, and toys to nurture whatever obsession had seized them of late.
In the alcove, the stones talked to the house, and the system slowly grew thicker and deeper, like a briar.

I will pause here for a moment to mention an important aspect of Valente’s style, which consists of the frequent digressions, such as in the excerpt above where the explanation of the jewels’ purpose is interrupted by the reason the jewels had adjacent notches (because their mother thought the children should share) and a description of the common area outside the bedrooms, with rotunda, painted ceiling, windows, and toys. Add to that the practice of going back and forth in time over about 200 years, and the experience of the story becomes more like studying an intricate painting hanging on a wall than following a story.

Elefsis’s origin is in the 22nd century, and at this time people have “internal systems.” While Cassian is  giving her children the jewels, she and her children are simultaneously inwardly engaged. In other words, there is Interior space — the mind engaged in computer-assisted activities or games — and realspace, and it is normal for people to be engaged in both while they are awake.

While they spoke among themselves, two …  were silently accessing Korea-based interactive games, one was reading an American novel in her monocle HUD, one issuing directives concerning international taxation to company holdings on the mainland, and one was feeding a horse in Italy via realavatar link.

One daughter, Ceno, has created a vast Interior space which she custom designs, rather than buying and using commercial feedware (such as “Zombies in Tokyo”). She creates imaginary Neptunian landscapes — water, ruins, starlight, and 23 moons — to play in, and she populates the world with nereids and Neptunians. Some time after receiving her jewel, she encounters in her Interior space something she has not created — a giant blue dormouse that holds out a paw with two jewels, and Ceno realizes that one is her jewel that contains the copy of Elefsis, and the other represents her. Elefsis has communicated a very simple idea, showing that it is dimly aware of itself as a being, introducing himself to her.

Ceno decides to continue interacting with Elefsis, and to communicate human ideas via stories. As Ceno explains to her mother:

I’ve been telling it stories. Fairy tales, mostly. I thought it should learn about narrative … everything has a narrative, really, and if you can’t understand a story and relate to it, figure out how you fit inside it, you’re not really alive at all.

I love the concept of this story, and the slow development of Elefsis’s understanding and thought allows the AI character to be convincing:

Sometimes I worry. Worrying is defined as obsessive examination of one’s own code. I worry that I am simply a very complex solution to a very specific problem — how to seem human to a human observer.

The story is not told in a linear fashion, but more in the way we think and remember while at the same time being engaged in the present. The telling of the story is, in fact, so complex that a reader cannot fully grasp it without a second reading, and perhaps even a third. The putting-together of the pieces is an act of fascination, an intellectual experience. “Silently and Very Fast” is very impressive in its complexity and ingenuity.

What it lacks may be an emotional experience. Everyone experiences a story differently, so I will not speak for others. But I was not especially involved on an emotional level. I suspect that everyone will experience a little sympathy for the pathos of the conclusion, but whether that is sufficient to make a satisfying story as a whole, I will leave to you to decide.

The title comes from the poem by Auden, “The Fall of Rome,” and draws some parallels between decadent ancient Rome and future mankind.

Hugo Awards: Best Novella (4th contender)

Now we come to Kij Johnson’s “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” from Asimov’s. You can read it here.

This is a lovely story — actually, a love story, and few other things besides. Kit Meinem, of the capital city of Empire, arrives at the small town of Nearside, which is situated on the great mist river that divides the land in half. The mist flows through a deep gorge, and in the mist swim creatures, from very small to very large. The mist, the creatures, and the measurelessly deep gorge are all inimical to people — the mist itself is caustic, and the creatures will attack any unfortunate who falls in. If someone does fall in, he is presumed to be eaten before he reaches the bottom, although in truth no one knows what the depths are like.

The only way across the river is by ferry, a dangerous passage, for the mist can suddenly open holes in which a boat will sink, or form into steep hills that will overturn a vessel. And then there are the Great Ones, the largest of the creatures of the mist — they may come to the surface unpredictably, to a ferry’s ruin. Kit has come to build a bridge over the mist.

On the day of his arrival, Kit meets, and soon falls in love with, Rasali Ferry, the woman who ferries people across the quarter-mile-wide river of mist. She is confident and capable, but, as the story progresses, there are suggestions that her delays in ferrying are not because the mist speaks to her, as the townspeople say, telling her when it’s safe to cross, but because she is as much afraid of the mist as anyone else. Kit and Rasali’s love remains unspoken for a long time; after all, Kit is only supposed to stay for as long as it takes to build the bridge, and Rasali expects to be as short-lived as the rest of her family members who preceded her in her job of operating the ferry.

The fact that boats will float on the mist makes this story a hybrid fantasy/science fiction, I suppose. But, this premise aside, the spirit of the story is firmly SF, in the character of the protagonist, and in the character of the world.  Mist is a natural phenomenon to be overcome by engineering and science. Engineers work with the physical properties of stone and metal, bedrock and windforce. The terror and majesty of the Great Ones are memorably encountered several times, in fleeting and suggestive half-glimpses, the first time when the sound of blasting disturbs them from the depths:

Behind the levee the river mist was rising, dirty gray-gold against the steel gray of the clouds in a great boiling upheaval, at least a hundred feet high, to be seen over the levee. The mist was seething, breaking open in great swirls and rifts, and everything moving, changing. Kit had seen a great fire once, when a warehouse of linen had burned, and the smoke had poured upward and looked a little like this… Gaps opened in the mountain of mist and closed; and others opened, darker the deeper they were. And through those gaps, in the brown-black shadows at the heart of the mist, was movement.

The mist subsides: the terror and the majesty are being defeated by a man of orderly mind and habits, and by his bridge, the greatest bridge that has ever been built, although it will soon be surpassed as technology advances and new projects are carried out. All is progress and Empire is forward-looking and growing.

If there are any dark satanic mills producing the iron supports, bolts, and chains for the construction, we are not allowed to see them.

This is a subtle story and its explorations into character, progress, and love are fascinating and well crafted. Kit adds another professional achievement to his resume, but Rasali’s job will no longer be needed. What does Rasali gain? She gains more than one thing: first, rather than a release from danger, an opportunity to risk her life in further exploration, plus a companion who will leave behind his blueprints, but not his rational, always-analyzing mind.

“We just like to talk about stories”

The alternate titles that I considered for this post were “The Purpose of ‘Other Worlds'” and “I just like to talk about stories.” The first was boring and the second, while true, misses the crucial point of talking about stories with other people who read and appreciate fiction. I went with “we” in the title above because I see the blog as a conversation.

I have a co-worker — let’s call her “Felice” — who’s crazy about cats and loves to tell about the latest humorous behavior and misbehavior of her felines. I gave her a copy of Fritz Leiber’s “Space-Time for Springers,” thinking she’d love it. The weekend passed… On Monday, I asked Felice how she liked the story. She said, “Oh, I read the first two pages and then I gave it to my Mom so she could read it and tell me what happened. She liked it.”

I’m afraid my mouth may have hung open for a minute. Her answer (P. G. Wodehouse, come to my aid) seemed to take me into a different and dreadful world.

So, just to be clear: “Other Worlds” is not for Felice.

Hugo Awards: Best Novelette (2nd contender)

Next in the novelette category is “Fields of Gold” by Rachel Swirsky, published in Eclipse Four (Night Shade Books). Read it here.

Imagining an afterlife as a story device has a long — very long — history. What do the dead do, what should they do, what can they do? Simply exist as sad shades? Endure punishment for wickedness, receive reward for the good they performed? Lament their squandered lives? In treating the subject of death and afterlife, an author almost perforce reveals a part of his or her view of human purpose and responsibility.

Swirsky depicts a tacky afterlife where the newly deceased are welcomed with a party, complete with confetti, party hats, noisemakers, and free-flowing booze. In this case, the deceased is a 34-year-old man named Dennis, who has just died in a diabetic coma. So, now what? Uncle Ed explains: “Hop from party to party… Get together with a girl and play house until the continents collide. Whatever you want.”

But wait, there is an important problem being set up in this story: Dennis was murdered, sort of, by his wife, who didn’t stop him when she saw him messing up his insulin and taking a sleeping pill. She even helped him open the pill bottle when he was too drunk to get it open himself, and watches him take the pill, knowing he is likely to die.

Which he does. She dies, too, soon after. She arrives at the same afterlife. She gets her party. There is a little tut-tutting concerning her misdeed, but whatever. The point appears to be achieving self-knowledge. She is sorry for what she did, and realizes that she doesn’t want to be with Dennis anymore.

Dennis receives a rebuke from Uncle Ed about how he conducted his life: “Not only wouldn’t you stir yourself to make a starving man a sandwich, but you’d have waited for him to bring you one before you stirred yourself to eat.” Upon hearing this, Dennis suddenly achieves a self-understanding: “I just wanted someone to take care of me… I guess I wanted to stay a kid.” And what he does with this self-understanding is — he regresses to eleven years old and goes off to play with his favorite cousin in a fadeout of two children running through fields of grass with their hair blowing behind them.

Enough people found this story satisfying to get it on the Hugo ballot, but it leaves me unmoved. Whether it’s read as drama or comedy (and I think it attempts to be partly both), the story tries to sell readers on the idea that running off to play is the happy culmination, or even salvation, of a human life that couldn’t be bothered to help others or even himself. How many people are buying that?