IN A THOUGHTFUL afterword, the co-editor of Tesseracts 4, Michael Skeet, calls for an end to literary cliques, manifestos, and labels. He's speaking specifically to the SF crowd but, based on the contents of this Canadian SF anthology, his remarks could well apply to modem literature in general. In any case, Tesseracts 4 sings with thought-provoking, engaging stories that make us forget all about the questions of genre.
One of the stories is so emotionally and politically powerful that it alone is worth the price of the book. Candas Jane Dorsey's "Death of a Dream" is a heart-tugging assault on the senses that totally involves us in a story all too familiar from newspaper headlines. The subject of incest and child abuse is a dangerous one to tackle in fiction, and this is where SF allows just the right distance from which to see ourselves; Dorsey takes that distance and shows us a brutal, dangerous society that we will, uncomfortably, recognize all too well.
While Dorsey's story stands out, a surprising number of the other 28 stories and poems are not far behind. Lesley Choyce's "The Best of Both Worlds" is just that: the best combination of science and fiction. This cautionary tale about mankind's inability to keep up with our technological leaps is a gem of a story that provides much to think about after we've finished being entertained by Choyce's deft plot. Allan Weiss's grim take on the same theme, "Ants," is an evocative mood piece that has much to say about the relationship between man and machine, but doesn't rehash old ideas.
For sheer reading enjoyment, it would be hard to beat "The Toy Mill," a deliciously irreverent approach to the Santa myth. David Nickle and Karl Schroeder take a curious little girl on a search for the "real" Santa Claus, which leads into a land as dark and dangerous as any the Grimms dreamed up. The language crackles with creative intensity and would be a joy to read even if it didn't tell a compelling story: "The runners hit hard against the tarmac with a butcher-shop crunch." The description of Santa's post- industrial toy shop is menacingly mesmerizing: "Dazzling light and knife-edged shadows cut through a vast space filled with huge machines in rows, like headstones."
John Park's "The Falconer" is the most satisfying offering on a narrative level. Park is such a good storyteller that it feels like an excerpt from an epic tale, and his canny combination of fantasy/adventure and literate language make us yearn for this bittersweet story to expand and continue.
More briefly, Phyllis Gotlieb's clever, concise "We Can't Go On Meeting Like This" manages to lightly prance along the line between SF and wry eroticism.
Tim Wynne-Jones is always good for a thoughtful, witty read, and his short tale "Time Shrink" delivers just that, with some fresh thoughts about the old time-machine concept; what starts out as a dark, threatening story becomes a tale of redemption, with a twist. "Eternity, Baby" is Andrew Weiner's hip, spooky love letter to the "children of the Sixties" about romance, nostalgia, and getting on with life. It barely qualifies as SF ... but, hey, that's where we started this, isn't it? It qualifies as a good story, and that's what all the above have in common.
Another genre-stretcher is Sean Russell's Gatherer of Clouds, the conclusion of an epic story begun in his debut novel, The Initiate Brother. Gatherer of Clouds is listed and marketed as a "fantasy," and it certainly is that. But it is not the kind of swashbuckling action/adventure that many readers might expect from the cover art and back-cover blurb. Indeed, the action sequences are few and mild. Most of this story about the mythical Oriental "Empire of Wa" involves talk: ritualized, subtle exchanges delineating the characters' exact rank in society.
The pace is so tranquil that Russell has in effect created a fictional treatise on feudal Oriental society, complete with armies, warlords, and the plague. Many scenes play out like painstakingly detailed comedies of manners. The mostly bloodless power struggle among members of the royal, military, and religious castes virtually steps off the pages of history books.
The lack of action and magical elements will likely disappoint a number of "fantasy" readers, but anyone interested in imaginative historical fiction will find much to enjoy in Russell's sweeping tale.