Sunday, November 9, 2014

1991 stories by Kathe Koja, Robert Silverberg and Brian Aldiss

No Godzilla, Cthulhu or dragon on this Eggleton cover
I was pleasantly surprised to find a large selection of SF books at the Salvation Army in southern Des Moines, and made two purchases, parting with a total of $1.50.  One of the hardcovers I bought was The Year's Best Science Fiction: Ninth Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois and published in 1992. This weekend I read three of the stories collected therein.  

"Angels in Love" by Kathe Koja

I have been curious about Kathe Koja ever since I read her collaboration with Barry Malzberg, "What We Did That Summer," and noticed Will Errickson singing her praises at his blog.  I bought The Year's Best Science Fiction: Ninth Annual Collection primarily because I saw her name on the cover, and I am happy to report my 75 cents was well spent.

Lurleen is a young single woman who works at a store where they sell classical recordings and sheet music.  Lurleen doesn't like classical music and her boss is a square who expects her to come to work on time and say "hello" and "good bye."  At night she hears the people in the next apartment having sex.  The sounds are unusual, mysterious, unlike those of any sex Lurleen has experienced or eavesdropped on before.  And so arousing that it becomes Lurleen's regular practice to masturbate while listening.  Lurleen becomes obsessed with the couple next door, and plots to break them up and take the woman's place.  But while she sees the woman next door in the corridors and laundry room, she never sees the boyfriend, until the final climactic reveal when Lurleen busts in on them and learns the startling truth!

The resolution of the story feels a little disappointing, but only because the build up is so effective.  "Angels in Love" is pervaded by a sense of dirtiness and sordidness.  Lurleen drinks from a can of beer as she drives home from work, buys cigarettes from a guy who stares at her "tits."  Apartments are described as "cramped," "dingy" and "ripe," a thin woman is "just chicken bones."  Lurleen, back home from a bar, drinks a glass of milk and can smell the sweat of a stranger she danced with on her arm.  Yuck!  Koja also skillfully exploits the whole weird mix of feelings inspired by hearing strangers in an adjacent apartment or hotel room have sex.

(Maybe I'm exaggerating how sordid the story is; I am a square myself, after all.)

Koja is good at generating an atmosphere, structures the story well (it is just the right length and has the exact density of description that it needs), and her writing is clever; she uses words like "tattoo," "pavane," "arpeggio" and "basso" to describe the sounds of sex Lurleen hears through the walls and the sound of Lurleen knocking on the neighbors' door, a sort of ironic reference to Lurleen's own lack of interest in classical music.

A quite successful horror story; Koja was able to evoke emotion and curiosity in me (without making me feel manipulated), like a good horror tale should.  I'll be keeping my eyes open for other stories by Koja.

"A Tip on a Turtle" by Robert Silverberg

New York art gallery employee Denise Carpenter has just been through a bitter divorce and needs to recover.  So she goes to Jamaica to lay in the sun and to get laid!  Down there at the resort hotel a Long Island car salesman tries to pick her up, but Denise shoots him down and instead shares the bed of a mysterious man, Nicholas Holt.  Holt has some kind of strange ability that allows him to pick the winner of the hotel's sea turtle races, and, more importantly, makes him a whiz on the dance floor and in the sack!  No man has ever danced with or made love to Denise like this, and after the initial thrill she finds it disturbing.  What is Holt's power?  Is he a mind reader?  Can he predict the future?  Is it the second sight?

In the end we learn Holt's ability to predict the future is more of a curse than a blessing, and the car salesman turns out to be a hero.

Silverberg is a pro, and this is an entertaining story.  As he often does, Silverberg unleashes on us some of the knowledge he has gathered in a lifetime of incessant reading and world travel; this time we learn all about the coral reef.  "A Tip on a Turtle" is definitely worth a read. 

"FOAM" by Brian Aldiss  

I never know how I will react to a piece of fiction by Aldiss.  I love The Malacia Tapestry to death, I thought the famous Helliconia books were a little boring, and I was incredulous at the popularity of "Who Can Replace a Man?"  I'm afraid today is one of those days when Aldiss and I are not on the same wavelength.

Dozois tells us this story is "complex and subtle;" I thought it disjointed, surrealistic and boring.  Plot and character take the back seat in "FOAM," which we learn stands for "Free Of All Memory."  Appearing originally (and appropriately) in an anthology titled New Worlds, this story feels like an homage to the New Wave, with an emphasis on what people who don't like the New Wave complain about.

In the near future, a British historian of architecture is in Eastern Europe, touring churches.  A war rages nearby, the result of the breakup of the Soviet Union.  American and British troops are involved in the war, which people call "The Soviet War" and "Operation Total Tartary."  The architecture expert is lured into the clutches of a sinister Hungarian doctor by a fellow Briton, an unscrupulous former literature professor.  The Hungarian sucks ten years' worth of his memories out of his brain and puts them on little tapes; he will sell copies of the protagonist's knowledge of architecture on the black market to academics, and his memories of having sex with his tall pretty wife to Saudis.  (In this world TV shows and other information, including other people's memories, can be installed directly in your brain.  I'm not sure why recording the memories erases them, or why the doctor tricks people into giving up their memories instead of just hiring them.)  The architecture dude wakes up, with no memory of the last ten years, in the English countryside, and eventually figures out what happened to him.  He returns to Budapest, gets copies of his memories, and has them reinstalled.

This is actually a decent plot, but because of the way the story is constructed and the style in which it is written it lacks any tension or human feeling; I didn't care what happened to architecture dude, he was like a prop.  Mostly Aldiss uses the story as a vehicle to issue his complaints about current events and the state of the world in 1991.  Europe is falling into decadence and corruption--nobody believes in Christianity or Communism any more, their god is not Jesus or Marx, but the almighty dollar!  And everybody is getting fat!  English people in the story are all jerks, and architecture guy's wife prefers life in California! Aldiss refers directly and indirectly to the Gulf War that followed the Iraqi conquest of Kuwait, and even has a US general named "'Gus' Stalinbrass" use chemical and bacteriological weapons in the Kutaisi area.  Besides trying to imply a moral equivalency between Christianity and Communism, and the US and USSR, Aldiss also attacks private gun ownership, including in "FOAM" a scene in England in which an unemployed dweller of public housing shoots a mother pushing a baby carriage, and the baby, with the Kalashnikov he goes to bed with every night.

Dozois thinks this is subtle?  I am entertaining the possibility that the over the top elements (e. g., the Battleship Potemkin baby-carriage bit, and the American general's name) are not "real," but are fake memories installed in the protagonist's brain, or maybe the brain of the reader.  This seems unlikely though.

If you were wondering what Brian Aldiss was thinking about in 1991, "FOAM" is the story for you.  Maybe if you are still bitter about the fall of the Berlin Wall or Operation Desert Storm you'll enjoy it.  Otherwise, I can't recommend it.


A mixed bag; the Koja was quite good, the Silverberg moderately good, and the Aldiss disappointing.  Aldiss, like Silverberg, is important enough, and often good enough, that I am always curious about what he is up to, so no regrets about picking up this volume of Dozois' Year's Best SF.

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