subterraneanThe Winter 2014 issue of Subterranean Magazine was edited by guest editor Jonathan Strahan, the editor of a popular year’s best anthology and a number of other anthologies. He has good taste, as the stories chosen for this issue demonstrate — with the exception of the longest and last piece, a snarky bit of irreligious, virtually plotless prose by Bruce Sterling (about which more below).

“The Scrivener” by Eleanor Arnason is structured as a fairy tale often is, with three daughters each setting out on an errand prescribed by their father. This father wants his daughters to be writers of stories, a goal of his own he has never achieved because, he thinks, he lacks the divine spark necessary to such an endeavor. When his daughters are grown, he takes them to a famous critic, who reads their stories, which they had written reluctantly, fearing their father would be disappointed in them. And, in fact, the critic finds that the daughters have no talent. So each of the young women is sent to a witch in a nearby forest to seek her help, even though witches are notoriously capricious and often have their own agendas. The daughters go one at a time, and each has an adventure that is all hers. These adventures are the meat of the story; they are not the expected tales of things happening to the women without their agency, though such things do happen, but much more about how the women act and react when called upon to make choices.

Greg Egan’s “Bit Players” imagines a universe in which a Calamity has occurred: at some time in the not-too-distant past the gravity suddenly shifted from downward to eastward. Or so, at least, is the explanation given to those who wake up in a cave with no memory, once they are told that they have been ill and are now recovered. Not a one of these individuals buys into the “gravity from the east” story, though, pointing out the many inconsistencies in the universe, beginning with “What’s holding us up?” When Sagreda awakens, she performs a number of experiments that demonstrate the fallacies inherent in the Calamity explanation. She finally starts looking for mirrors to explain the geography outside the cave, and looks likely to fall until the woman who cared for her wearily explains that it’s all a virtual reality, and they’re the inhabitants of a videogame based on a bad novel. And they have to pretend to believe it all, because otherwise they’ll be deleted. It’s a great twist on the “we’re living in a computer” theme, especially if the reader tries to follow the physics. What happens after the big reveal, though, is even more interesting, as the characters figure out how to manipulate their strange world without attracting undue attention from the players.

Because Jeffrey Ford is one of my long-time favorite writers, each new short story is a cause for celebration. “The Prelate’s Commission” is no exception. It begins in the Cathedral of St. Elovisus, where the master Codilan has just finished “a masterpiece of perspective and illusion” illustrating the fall of the rebel angels into hell. The Prelate who has overseen the creation of the artwork has noted that one of the master’s assistants, Talejui, is an artistic prodigy. The prelate calls Talejui in to give him a mission from God: find the Devil and paint his portrait. Talejui laughs at first, but the prelate is serious. He gives Talejui some vague directions (“an abandoned summer palace on an island in a lake somewhere amid the Carapace Mountains”), 12 pieces of gold, and send him on his way. To his own surprise, Talejui gets a bead on his quarry. The story weaves a spell through smart plotting and excellent attention to detail. Ford has always been especially good at describing art and the artistic process, and when he crosses it with religiosity and pride, the result is itself a work of art. I expect to see this story on award ballots in 2015.

“Nanny Anne and the Christmas Story” is vintage Karen Joy Fowler, full of misdirection and pleasing ambiguity. Fiona and Dacey are eight-year-old twins, completely different from one another; Dacey is easily frightened and not much fun, while Fiona is not a very good girl with a wicked imagination. It’s a few days before Christmas, and Nanny Anne is caring for the children while their parents are at a conference. They are supposed to be home for Christmas, but things are looking fairly bleak because the weather has comprehensively snarled air traffic. Nanny Anne is playing strange games with the children, asking them to pretend that she is their mother, “borrowing” their mother’s things in order, she says, to make the game more realistic. One of the things Nanny Anne does best is tell stories, even though they’re often too spooky for Dacey, and Fiona is always asking for more to the story. Nanny Anne finishes one story for Fiona’s ears only; and what effect does that story have? You’ll have to decide for yourself, just as Fiona must.

“Hayfever” by Frances Hardinge is a tale of a prisoner’s last meal, told from the point of view of the chef who must prepare it. Prisoners are entitled to anything they request, so long as it meets certain ethical constraints: it cannot demolish an ecosystem or cause direct harm to members of a sapient species. Pyne of Mabar has a request, even though he will not be allowed to eat the meal — not after what happened to the Realm of the Indigo Dawn — but the meal will be made, and Pyne can ask a proxy to eat it in front of it. Pyne asks for mimblebat meat marinaded in wine made from lute-grapes and seasoned with gashpepper, strike-powder and yellowgrass, all of which could be found on the Painted Plains. It’s one of the easier requests Stephen, the chef, has had to contend with —at least, it seems like it will be until difficulties arise. How Stephen resolves those difficulties is what makes the tale. It’s a fine blend of science fiction and fantasy, seasoned with politics.

Ellen Klages has set “Caligo Lane,” a tale of a witch, in foggy San Francisco. The fog is critical to the story, as is origami, which also seems intrinsic to the city many Japanese-Americans call home. Caligo Lane is a street that is sometimes there and sometimes not, and Franny has lived there since the Great Fire. She is a cartographer who plots journeys for those clients who are able to find her. The request she is presently working on has special import, as the knowledgeable reader will discern. It is a sad story, beautifully written. There is poetry in Klage’s descriptions of San Francisco, the folding of paper, the art of the witch. This story, too, is one I expect to see on awards ballots.

K.J. Parker is another of my favorite writers. No one knows anything about this writer except the work; the name is a pseudonym; even the gender of the writer is unknown. That means nothing to the story, of course, and “I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There” is a fine, funny one about a man who wants to learn magic and the infuriating man who proposes to teach him. Who is conning whom in this little gem? Parker’s characters all speak with a modern inflection, even though the stories are written in a time before technology ruled the world, and one cannot help but like them.

“Pilgrims of the Round World” by Bruce Sterling was a disappointment. It concerns the closing of the Inn of Saint Cleopha in Turin because the innkeeper has taken up a position as an ambassador to the Crusader Kingdoms of Cyprus and Jerusalem. The story begins with the last meal served at the inn to its multinational clientele, the inn ringing with many different languages that are somehow all understood as much as they need to be. It continues with the innkeeper and his wife distributing the last of their possessions, with one long conversation after another; wine goes, books go, lace goes. The Shroud of Turin makes a cameo appearance. Between the lines, one reads the mockery of religion — not an evil of itself, but it isn’t amusing here. The conversations are boring, the history the people discuss is complex and arcane, and nothing happens.

This issue of Subterranean is as indispensable as the magazine has ever been. It remains one of the miracles of the internet that it is available for download for free.


  • Terry Weyna

    TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She reads all day long as an insurance coverage attorney, and in all her spare time as a reviewer, critic and writer. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, two rambunctious cats, and an enormous library.

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