sf short story reviews

It’s that time of year again, let’s see if I can have a positive effect on the Hugo nominations for short story. Since I can’t read everything, I’m focusing on those stories recommended in the Locus best of the year list, and that aren’t in some small press anthology. Except for the seven in “Eclipse One”, which I just picked up this weekend at Boskone. Here’s the first 3:

“Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse”, Andy Duncan (Eclipse One, Jonathan Strahan, ed., Night Shade Books)

With a title that stands alone, this story throws together several disparate ideas to great overall effect, although with no significant sfnal element. To begin with, we have the hapless Father Leggett, who has been called in by a concerned mother to see if he can do something about her young daughter Mary. Mary has adopted a pet chicken and discovered that it can walk backwards, and named it Jesus Christ, through an association with some biblical reference about chickens. The priest isn’t sure what to make of the situation, can’t seem to talk the girl into using a different name, and ends up somewhat obsessed with the image of that chicken. Duncan calls up a few questions about the nature of belief, relating this episode to all those sightings of the Virgin Mary in various ordinary objects. In the end, he fast forwards to years later to reveal that Mary is in fact a famous author, although I’m not sure why. The few characters are very well drawn, with some nice imagery in between, and enough obfuscation to compel multiple readings, making this probably the best Duncan story I’ve read.

“The Last and Only, or Mr. Moscowicz Becomes French”, Peter S. Beagle (Eclipse One, Jonathan Strahan, ed., Night Shade Books)

Last year’s novella winner comes back with a story much more to my taste, again without much of an sf element, told more as a fable about the eponymous Mr. Moscowicz, a college librarian and France enthusiast, who gradually finds himself turning into a Frenchman, to the point that he starts to forget English and can’t tolerate his fellow Americans. No one knows quite what to make of the situation, those who attempt to speak to him in French are subject to even greater scorn, his job and his very nationality are in jeopardy, although no one can say for sure why. Ultimately Moscowicz’s best course of action is to move with his wife to France, who welcome him with open arms and treat him like royalty. But as it turns out even the French aren’t French enough to suit him, and his constant haranguing at first puts people off, but eventually opens a dialogue that makes even the natives doubt their own qualifications to aspire to the true meaning of being French. Beagle takes a fantastical idea and follows it through in practical terms, taking the position that people exposed to this behavior would ultimately learn from it even if their first reaction is to scorn or ignore. That may be open to debate, but the fable aspect of this story gives it the manner of a parable, and there is enough here to inspire discussion and take sides, which makes it a success on its own terms.

“The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large”, Maureen McHugh (Eclipse One, Jonathan Strahan, ed., Night Shade Books)

This story is told as a nonfictional magazine-type article, with the authorial voice explaining her detective work and process of interviewing as she describes the case of a boy, William, who suffered traumatic amnesia. This happens when two “dirty bombs” are detonated in Baltimore while the boy is on a class trip in the city, causing him to become separated from his family and disappear for five years. McHugh supplies plenty of details of how this type of amnesia works, how rare it is, and cites a few other presumably real case studies of other amnesia victims. William’s mother seems to be intent on finding her son, but we don’t get the sense that she took it beyond a personal search, even after the emergency is long over. This story is on the short side, and the characters are only quoted briefly, so it’s difficult to get much of a feel for them. There’s some potential in here for a broader investment in the premise, the estrangement of a mother and her son due to amnesia would seem to have more potential, but given what McHugh comes up with, I can’t really tell what the point is she’s trying to make. McHugh excels at this type of evocative interplay of ideas, but in the end it’s a bit unsatisfying.

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