“Magic for Beginners” by Kelly Link (Magic for Beginners, Small Beer Press; Fantasy & Science Fiction September 2005)
There is no magic in this story, or if there is, it’s more of the Clarkeian variety that is indistinguishable from technology. And who are the beginners in question? Link doesn’t answer that either, so while the title may set up a standard fantasy milieu, what she delivers is anything but, rather a hodgepodge of disparate ideas thrown together to keep the reader guessing from beginning to end. The story mostly follows a group of five teenagers (told from the perspective of someone who knows them but who never interacts with anyone in the story). One of them, Jeremy, is taking a trip to Las Vegas with his mother, who just inherited a phone booth and a drive-up wedding chapel from an aunt. His father is a writer and a kleptomaniac, who feels guilty after writing a fictional story featuring his son that ends up killing him off. Jeremy and his friends are all obsessed with a tv show called “The Library”, which features an ongoing set of characters like a soap opera, but you never know when it’s going to be on, or who any of the actors are playing any of the parts. They are starting to wonder if maybe the show is really happening. The story seems to set up the idea of an infinite regression, hinting that the teenagers may either be fictional themselves, or else playing out their own tv show without realizing it. Jeremy can even talk to the Library’s recently deceased hero, Fox, or someone who purports to be him, by calling that phone booth in Vegas that now belongs to them. There’s a lot going on in here, Link expertly weaves a spell through all the various events and characters that has you totally off kilter without being willfully obtuse, as though there really is a perfectly reasonable explanation for all this, but she’s not telling. The story doesn’t provide enough clues to draw obvious conclusions, but leaves you feeling intrigued rather than annoyed, or else with your head spinning too much to notice.
“The Little Goddess” by Ian McDonald (Asimov’s June 2005)
Once again McDonald plunges the reader into a seemingly alien setting that this time turns out to be near-future Nepal, where the title character tells her own story of how she was selected as a young girl to be a goddess based on her ability to witness disturbing or violent acts without reacting negatively. Mixed into this traditional practice (which is still observed in real-life Nepal) are some genetically and technologically modified ruling class including a young prince whom she is eventually arranged to marry after the goddess thing doesn’t work out as well as people had hoped. McDonald hits the right tone in telling this story from the girl’s perspective, where she can describe what people are saying but can’t necessarily comment on it because she is too young to understand, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps in her knowledge. The story jumps ahead a few years at a time, but still ends with the girl (who I don’t think is ever given a name) at a relatively young age, trying to get back to Nepal and using her newfound upgrades to give medical advice and help fix a truck. With each advance in the story, the girl’s maturity grows, and her ability to relate what is happening around her grows with it. This is not my favorite type of story, but McDonald creates a vivid and certainly unusual backdrop for the action. It’s not hard to follow, he gives you no clue as to where the story is going, I suppose at the end its been about a journey of discovery, a sheltered young girl forced to adapt to the outside world, but while she may have learned from the experience, the reader may not feel the same. This is typical of McDonald’s work, pretty to listen to, some arresting imagery, but in the end all you have are impressions, and they tend to fade sooner or later.
“Inside Job” by Connie Willis (Asimov’s January 2005)
Haven’t read a Willis story in a while, this one doesn’t disappoint, although she doesn’t exactly break any new narrative ground either. Two people, Rob and Kildy, work together to debunk various types of paranormal phenomena, but run into trouble in trying to figure out the angle behind a channeler named Ariaura, who is supposed to be channelling some ancient diety named Isus, but whose expensive seminars are gradually being interrupted by the ghost of H.L. Mencken, who doesn’t believe any of it. Willis has internalized every scrap of information about Mencken ever conceived, as is her usual m.o., although she tends to embue Rob with more foreknowledge of Mencken’s life than anyone could possibly have. The story takes a more leisurely pace than Willis’s usual style, there is only one plot going on, so the characters have time to do other things and no lives are in danger. What’s interesting about this setup though is how it calls into question the nature of belief. Rob and Kildy know they’re dealing with a charlatan, but they can’t prove it unless they can catch her displaying a gap in her knowledge of Mencken. But they have trouble doing it, and come to realize that even if they do, that still doesn’t constitute proof, because there could be legitimate reasons that Mencken wouldn’t be able to answer one question or another. Rob even suspects for a time that Kildy is in cahoots with Ariaura and has set up the whole thing. Fortunately the paranoia angle proves short-lived, and in the end nobody is sure what really happened, was Mencken for real or not? Willis doesn’t preach, but the idea of “extraordinary evidence” as a means of convincing someone to change their mind on something is convincingly challenged.