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Clockwork Phoenix 3 by Mike Allen, editor

Published by Norilana Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The Clockwork Phoenix anthology series was created to showcase tales of beauty and strangeness, stories that pushed boundaries while giving their readers an intense experience of that sense of wonder that comes from bumping our noses up against the intensely Other. This volume does not disappoint, yet again offering up a delightful selection of strange and wonderful stories.

After an anthology has been around for a few volumes, the individual installments often tend to develop their own themes, and it would appear that Clockwork Phoenix is no exception in that regard. This year's offerings include a number of stories about fairies, ghosts and other uncanny beings. How will mortal humans interact with them? How can we mortals interact with them -- is it even safe for our kind to have dealings with them, or are the two kindreds so utterly different that any such dealings must inevitably come to grief?

Mike Allen opens the volume with his usual acknowledgments and highly poetical introduction. While many editors simply summarize the stories in the volume, he has chosen to write an evocative and allusive essay on the nature of knowledge and understanding which at the same time delightfully clues us in to some of the themes that will be explored in the individual stories.

We see just that sort of allusive approach in the first story, Marie Brennan's "The Gospel of Nachash," which starts with language that is familiar to anyone who grew up on Sunday School stories and Bible readings -- yet we do not get even a paragraph in before we realize that things are oddly skewed, that this is not the Creation story we remember.

Or rather, it's at once both familiar and strange. The Creation story we're familiar with is written from a human perspective and deals with matters of human sin and salvation. This narrative is told from the perspective of another race of created beings, the bekhorim, whom God made not of dust, but from the air, and who are thus more subtle in their bodies and natures.

One of the most notable gaps in the J-text creation story of the Bible is the complete lack of any motivation on the part of the serpent for tempting Eve. Of course later scholars of the Peoples of the Book have reinterpreted the narrative in light of other sacred texts to argue that the serpent is in fact an incarnation or agent of Satan, the Enemy of God, and that the act of temptation was a deliberate and premeditated assault upon the majesty of God.

But in this story we see another interpretation, very different from the one we are familiar with. Instead of being the Cosmic Agent of Evil at work, Nachashis simply another created being, one frustrated that his divinely assigned duties seem to have no purpose. Thus the Fall of humanity is at the same time the Fall of the race of the bekhorim, not as a part of any grand cosmic battle for the control of the universe, but as the ordinary failings of a being who just wanted to have his job be meaningful and was willing to do whatever it took to make it so.

Thus instead of being forever beyond the pale, the bekhorim are like humanity in need of a Savior -- but because they are of a different nature and origin than humanity, they will need a different sort of Savior. But that story too has its tragedy, its betrayal that was an act of misplaced love, and its terrible consequences -- the bekhorim were redeemed, but only for the span of this world, during which they will have unending life. But when the day of judgment comes, it will be the end for them, utterly and irrevokably.

The author even sticks with the common folkloric notion of the fairies having no immortal souls, but rather having immortality only for the duration of the Earth, after which they cease to be. I've always found something utterly chilling about the idea of intelligent, spiritual beings completely ceasing to be -- something in the mind resists the notion. Now it could be simply psychological -- if its true that our notion of an afterlife has its origin in the process by which we develop the concept of person permanence (the idea that people continue to exist even when they are out of range of our perceptions, something which newborns do not yet have but which develops before the time we really start forming memories), then our resistance to the idea of annihilationism might be a result of the cognitive dissonance implied by our being able to remember someone having existed, but nothing of them being left at all.

In "Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's Day" Tori Truslow gives us a rich fantasy of a world in which the cosmology of the Middle Ages is in fact true, in which merfolk migrate seasonally between the earth and the moon, which far from being an airless rock is a wet world of water-laden atmosphere. Carefully documented from fictional letters of that other world, it tells the story of a Victorian explorer who travelled aboard a train made of ice to visit the mer-city upon the moon, where he became enraptured with a lovely young mermaid whom he named Opal, a relationship doomed to end in tragedy. When we read it, we are left with a sense of realness that confounds our knowledge of actual history, so effective is the mechanism of scholarly documentation employed by the author to create the illusion of a history rather than merely a story.

Although most of the stories in this volume lie firmly within the territory of fantasy, Georgina Bruce's "Crow Voodoo" takes us into the grim lands of horror, telling the story of a magical being known as a midnight crow, a supernatural being who has the characteristics of a corvid yet has an intellect equal to any human, if not superior to it (think the Japanese tengu, but more sinister). He practices dark magic, and as the price of one such working he has taken a little girl to raise, teaching her his magical arts. But when she masters them and decides she wishes to know the truth about herself, she discovers that she has instead given herself away. For a midnight crow will not be cheated of his bargain, not by its subject and not by its object, and he is willing to tear out whatever part of a little girl's self remains human in order to make her into what he wants her to be. This is a story that makes me shudder every time I read it.

In "Your Name is Eve" Michael M. Jones gives us a story as dreamlike as the activities of the protagonists, who visit the dreams of people and elaborate upon them. What nature of beings Clancy and Eve are is never explained in the story, although it is suggested that perhaps they are some sort of angels, or at least beings akin to angels who are merely going about their own business on Earth, serving neither God nor the Devil. It is a very allusive story, almost literary in the delicacy of its handling of the characters and their activities, and as such may not be for all tastes.

More conventionally fantastic in the dark vein is Gemma Files' "Hell Friend." In the previous volume of Clockwork Phoenix she was the co-author of "every thing that I show you is a piece of my death," a shuddersome story about art warping reality itself, and we see some of those themes in this story as well. However, instead of being part of the avante garde art scene of Western culture, this story draws upon Chinese tradition of the purchase of magical Hell stuff that is subsequently burned to send it to Hell for one's ancestors to enjoy while there -- since the Hell of Eastern religious tradition is quite different from that of Christianity and Islam, it is perfectly logical in that tradition to want to send the ghosts of one's honored ancestors nice things such as houses, refrigerators and cars.

Jin belongs to a family who makes such Hell-stuff, carefully crafting beautiful replicas of houses, cars and other consumer goods all year long so that they may be purchased during the Month of the Hungry Ghosts and burned in a splendid ceremony. But she does not live in traditional China -- instead she lives in modern Canada, to which her family immigrated. Furthermore, her mother was Korean, which makes her grandmother certain that she is irreparably flawed. This perpetual living on the edge of boundaries has led her to become somewhat secretly rebellious, such that she indulges some dangerous curiosity -- yet at the same time there's a strong desire in her to run away, one that leaves her dangerously open to the supernatural in the Month of the Hungry Ghosts. For her family has been hard at work on a beautiful Hell House for a young woman who died prematurely, and in it they have made her a Hell Friend -- a figure of a young man -- to keep her company. And when this handsome, mysterious young stranger begins to approach her, she does not think twice about seeing him -- until it is almost too late.

Conflict between grandmother and granddaughter is also center-stage in C.S.E. Cooney's "Braiding the Ghosts," although this seems to draw more upon people's popular notions of voodoo (although the cat named Behemoth might possibly be a reference to Mikhail Bulgakov's famous satire The Master and Margarita). Nin's mother Noir has just died, and her grandmother Reshka has taken custody of her. Off they go to grandmother's house, Stix Haunt (perhaps a reference to the River Styx in Greek mythology), but on the way Reshka drowns poor Behemoth in Lake Argentine, telling Nin that cats and ghosts can't abide one another. Thus we get our first clue that Grandmother Reshka is not exactly a nice woman, and Nin has reason to be wary of her.

When they arrive at Stix House, Nin finally gets to see what her grandmother means about ghosts. The old woman has bound a number of ghosts to herself and compels them to labor as servants in her house -- and she is going to teach Nin how to bind ghosts of her own to herself. But Nin is very much her mother's daughter, and although her grandmother may be able to force her through the process, she has not been able to force her to adopt the attitudes. Although Reshka repeatedly warns Nin that she must not be soft with her ghost, lest it eat her up, Nin is determined to approach the process with love rather than fear and hate. She understands the principle of being willing to set free what you love and seeing whether it will come back to you of its own free will -- and thus in the end her grandmother discovers an astonishing reversal of fortunes.

Cat Rambo's "Surrogates" takes place in a future that's vaguely reminiscent of some of Spider Robinson's work, mostly in the sense of a counterculture or hippie ethos woven throughout the society. In this future, everyone is entitled to a Surrogate, a sort of android stand-in that does all the unpleasant tasks of life, and is available for certain other services as well. The plotting may be a little too literary for some tastes, and the straitlaced will probably find the countercultural morés disturbing, but it's a very interesting extrapolation of the social consequences of robotization that resonates with some of the things Marshall Brain has been discussing. And that may be the coolest part of it -- envisioning a world in which the existence of sophisticated humanoid robots means greater freedom and self-actualization for human beings, rather than mass unemployment and creepy welfare dormitories little better than prisons.

"Poor Poland -- so far from God, so close to Russia and Germany." Poles of the last several centuries have had far too many reasons to say that, their country having been partitioned out of existence at least twice, and having been subjected to the horrific depredations of two of history's most abominable tyrannies one right after the other. And in Gregory Frost's "Lucyna's Gaze" it would seem that Poland's current status as a free nation may well be a temporary respite, for the protagonists are fighting valiantly against a conquering enemy every bit as vicious as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, but with equipment so far in advance of the Primary World's that it is clearly not either of them. Yet even as these brave characters face an act of genocide, there is a glimmer of hope for humanity in love that refuses to be crushed.

From the future Shweta Narayan takes us to Classical antiquity in "Eyes of Carven Emerald," a clockpunk story of autonomous, self-aware androids of sophisticated clockwork and maybe a little magic. When Alexandros the conqueror (whom the alert will recognize in spite of the transliterated Greek spelling of his name instead of the more usual Aglicized form) conquers Persia, he is confronted by a mysterious clockwork bird who in stages tells him the story of a prince who sought the hand of a lovely clockwork woman and to win her heart became a gem-cutter, a skill that would serve him in a surprising way -- but exactly what message Alexandros takes away from this episode of storytelling reminiscent of the fabled 1001 Arabian Nights is left quite ambiguous at the end. Will he carry on as he did in history, or will he choose a different path?

S. J. Hirons brings us back to the present for "Dragons of America," an alternate War on Terrorism in which American power rests upon its dragons, magical beings whose exhalations are the dreams and ideals of America. The young protagonist is fascinated by them, and even as his curiosity becomes the target of both sides' hostility, he finds a little hope that maybe somehow human and dragon can rise above this conflict and become something more.

From the present we go to the far future in John Grant's "Where Shadows Go at Low Midnight." The protagonists are a second-generation civilization living amidst the ruins of the civilization of the half-remembered Ghosts. As the story progresses with the accumulation of myriad tiny clues, we realize that the Ghosts are humanity, now extinct, and the new civilization who ponder the hidden workings of the universe are of canine origin -- whether wolves, coyotes or domestic dogs is never completely made clear, yet it is equally obvious that their canine way of thinking and looking at the world fulfills John W. Campbell's famous dictum to "give me a creature that thinks as well as a man, but not like a man." And oddly enough, while so many after-humanity stories are relentlessly grim, there's something warm and homey about the notion of the earth being inherited by our tail-wagging friends.

Ancient people saw the world as filled with spirit beings who could guide and strengthen mortals in their times of need. We rational moderns have discounted such notions as primitive superstition, but in Kenneth Schneyer's "Lineage" a group of scientists discover artifacts from vastly disparate regions and times which all bear the resonance pattern that indicate their having been handled by the same entity. Behind this seeming impossibility lies the story of an elemental spirit of courage and self-sacrifice -- but to say more would be to spoil the story.

As the mystery genre developed, there was a vogue for twist endings in which the murderer proves to be none less than the detective himself -- perhaps through the device of multiple personality disorder or some other psychological crisis which causes the character to perform criminal actions while in an altered state of mind, the memories of which are not available to the character's normal mind. However, moving the murder mystery into the science fiction genre opens additional possibilities, as John C. Wright demonstrates in "Murder in Metachronopolis," in which the detective is none less than the victim.

Or will be, if he doesn't find out who the killer is and prevent him from doing the foul deed. As befits a time travel story, there is a metatemporal sequence to the sections of the story which can be teased out by their numbering, which adds yet another level of puzzle for readers to tease out in this fascinating work of imagination which inevitably homes in on the metaphysical and ethical issues of time travel.

Were this story written in third person or omniscient point of view, I might have had one very small quibble with it -- Stalin's mother is described as a Russian, but in fact Ketevan Dzhugashvili was a Georgian, a member of that minority nationality of the Caucasus who in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union have successfully won themselves sovereign nation status (throughout her life she never succeeded in learning Russian, and her notorious son never succeeded in ridding his Russian of the accents of his native tongue). However, since this story is told in the first person, I have to ask myself whether the point of view character would recognize, or even care about, the finer points of the various ethnic groupings of the old Russian Empire. It's quite possible that to this tough-minded hardboiled detective, anybody who was a subject of the Tsar was a Russian, end of discussion. So in fact the seeming mistake could in fact be a sharp little bit of characterization -- a feature rather than a bug.

Another form of time travel is the central theme of Nicole Kornher-Stace's "To Seek Her Fortune." Although the expression usually refers to the quest for monetary wealth, this story deals with a woman's obsessive search to glimpse a future that will be to her liking. She travels the world in a wondrous airship, bartering bit by bit her wealth to visit one more diviner who may tell her fortune in a way she wishes to hear. There's something shuddersome about the effects of her monomania, even if the story doesn't bear any of the usual hallmarks of horror.

From the dark depths of obsession we go to a more positive view of the human spirit in Tanith Lee's "Fold." In a beautiful city on the border of a vertical sea, Jintha closed himself up in an apartment in a high tower and for decades wrote love letters to the people he saw passing on the street below. Letters which he then folded into the form of birds which he launched into the air, and which often mysteriously came into the possession of their subjects months or even years later, yet which somehow had seemed to be able to sustain them through physical and mental crises even when the individuals knew nothing of their existence. And then, at the close of this peculiar life, he wrote his final love letter to all the city, one so extraordinary in its nature that to even begin to describe it would be to spoil this wonderful, delicate story.

Finally the anthology is closed with the statements of the various authors. Although in most anthologies such things are brief summations, these are often surprisingly lengthy essays on the development of their stories, showing that very seldom is the creative process tidy and linear. An idea may grow over months or years, starting from some chance remark that sparks the creative process and accreting elements as the author comes to recognize gaps in the mechanism of story that need to be filled. And often the insight that comes from looking into the creative process is as beautiful as the story itself.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction by Mike Allen
  • "The Gospel of Nachash" by Marie Brennan
  • "Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's Day" by Tori Truslow
  • "Crow Voodoo" by Georgina Bruce
  • "Your Name is Eve" by Michael M. Jones
  • "Hell Friend" by Gemma Files
  • "Braiding the Ghosts" by C.S.E. Cooney
  • "Surrogates" by Cat Rambo
  • "Lucyna's Gaze" by Gregory Frost
  • "Eyes of Carven Emerald" by Shweta Narayan
  • "Dragons of America" by S. J. Hirons
  • "Where Shadows Go at Low Midnight" by John Grant
  • "Lineage" by Kenneth Schneyer
  • "Murder in Metachronopolis" by John C. Wright
  • "To Seek her Fortune" by Nicole Kornher-Stace
  • "Fold" by Tanith Lee
  • Pinions by the Authors

Review posted May 2, 2010.

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