Visions of fabulous and unearthly worlds in short stories and novels.

(Oleksiy Maksymenko/alamy)
By Paul Di Filippo
Sunday, January 27, 2008

Red Spikes By Margo Lanagan | Knopf. 167 pp. $16.99

Margo Lanagan's third collection after White Time (2000) and Black Juice (2004) is being marketed as for young adults, "14 & up." Aside from the fact that many of the protagonists herein are youths, I'm not sure about the need or accuracy of pitching Lanagan's complex, resonant, mature fables in this fashion. True, any bright, sensitive teen will immediately latch on to these emotive tales like a free-falling person snatching a parachute. But these are the kind of high-quality stories that will vibrate the nerves and heartstrings of readers of all ages.

Lanagan, like James Tiptree, believes in starting her readers "in the dark and a mile underground." Implacable, sourceless, often frenzied voices burst forth in each opening sentence, incrementally limning weird worlds and horrific situations. (Some of Lanagan's themes are infanticide, invasion, bereavement, damnation, sibling rivalry, religious inquisitions, drug addiction and bullying: hardly a feel-good catalogue.) But any reader exhibiting the same exemplary perseverance as the characters is similarly rewarded -- although likewise not without going through harrowing experiences. Typical is "Hero Vale," in which a curious schoolboy, secretly spying on literal gods, is transformed through pain and punishment into a public-school avenger.

Lanagan, an Australian, has a kind of frontier richness to her language, a slangy, juicy robustness of diction. In "Mouse Maker," magical mice arrive thus: "And fluffuther-fluffuther over the rim they came like boiling, only the boilings ran away on little gray and pink legs." Her fantastical inventions are equally vivid: In "Winkie," the monstrous bogeyman wears a patchwork gown assembled from the tiny nightshirts of all his victims.

Lanagan is one of those rare writers of miniaturist intensity who is forging a name and career solely on her short fiction. A novel from her is much anticipated.

A Companion to Wolves By Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear | Tor. 302 pp. $24.95

If Jack London and A.N. Roquelaure (Anne Rice's erotic avatar) had been commissioned to write a novel that would appeal simultaneously to lovers of yaoi (X-rated manga featuring gay men and favored by female readers) and to furries (fans in fur suits who enjoy pretending to be anthropomorphic animals), the result might very well have resembled A Companion to Wolves. In their explicit, soap-operatic depiction of a Nordic-inspired fantasy world where an elite corps of hunky bisexual men and boys bonds emotionally and telepathically with giant fighting wolves to protect citizens against the ever-present threat of trolls and wyverns, Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear have achieved a kind of febrile interspecies utopia that will appeal to readers who feel that only their dogs truly understand them.

Science fiction has always featured the dream of man-animal bonding, telepathically or otherwise, most notably in the work of Andre Norton, arguably culminating in The Beast Master. (As a teen, I adored the giant otter companions to be found in James Schmitz's The Demon Breed.) But generally these relationships have been ancillary to the plot, not the very heart of the text. Monette and Bear strive for some of George R.R. Martin's majestic decline and fall of snowy empires, but due to the denned-in nature of most of the action, they achieve instead a kind of musky, anthro-lupine Peyton Place.

The Sunrise Lands By S.M. Stirling | Roc. 453 pp. $24.95

At one point in The Sunrise Lands, the fourth book in a series set in a post-technological landscape inhabited by toughened neo-pagan survivalists of varying stripes and dispositions, one character explains a resurgence in widespread do-it-yourself craftsmanship thus: "Perhaps it's because they don't have great cities full of professionals and critics and academics telling them what to like, or television and books to bring it to them." And there in a nutshell we have the hypnotic allure of this kind of after-the-bomb story, of which Stirling is currently the sharpest exponent. The loss of billions of people, antibiotics, central heating and other such refinements is more than counterbalanced by a return to primal virtues, honor, adventure and joie de vivre. If, like David Byrne in the song "(Nothing But) Flowers," you miss chocolate chip cookies and the 7-Eleven, then you're plumb out of luck.

After establishing a wild-eyed premise (aliens change the laws of physics to suppress electricity, gunpowder and other high-energy phenomena), Stirling proceeded with scrupulous and ingenious realism to show how the survivors of the Change could reconstruct a tolerable level of civilization. In this book, his focus has shifted from the elder generation to those born into the new world and raised to adulthood knowing no other. A stranger riding into peaceful Oregon from the East attracts the attention of a militaristic cult known as the Church Universal and Triumphant. The man seems to play a part in their prophecies, and dangerously questing into the very heart of their empire seems to be the only way for him to deal with the matter. Sword-arm strength and a pure heart are no guarantee of victory in Stirling's suspenseful story.

Eclipse One Edited by Jonathan Strahan | Night Shade. 263 pp. Paperback, $14.95

Everyone from Stephen King on down has been lamenting the current state of the short story. So it's refreshing to find an editor who is sanguine about short fiction, and who, moreover, can assemble a volume of fresh wonders to justify his optimistic stance. Such is the case with talented compiler Jonathan Strahan and his Eclipse One.

This is a strong, non-thematic, non-programmatic assemblage of great stories that affirm the power of fabulation in a variety of voices. There are realistic tales harboring fantasy at their core, such as Andy Duncan's "Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse"; Gonzo romps like Eileen Gunn's "Up the Fire Road"; and sober day-after-tomorrow tales like Maureen McHugh's "The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large." A horror nightmare like Terry Dowling's "Toother" finds a kissing cousin in Jeffrey Ford's bardo excursion "The Drowned Life." And Bruce Sterling's unique Stapledon-meets-steampunk mix, "The Lustration," brings a far-future alienness to the collection, counterpointed by the fairy-tale ambiance of Margo Lanagan's "She-creatures" and Gwyneth Jones's "In the Forest of the Queen."

Explaining the genesis of this series's name, Strahan says, "An eclipse is a rare and unusual event." But with luck, we'll experience more such volumes on a regular basis. *

Paul Di Filippo's forthcoming novel is titled "Cosmocopia."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company