The Fantastical Ascent Of Jason Sanford
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/8/11
As I have often rightly been harsh on editors and critics who gladhand praise to their friends and associates in return for advancement opportunities in the fields of the arts and academia, let me state up front that I have known Jason Sanford for well over a decade, he attended maybe a dozen meetings of my old Uptown Poetry Group, and I have read a number of examples of his prose fiction over the last decade. That being my full disclosure (and, no, I have no financial investment in his person nor literary career), let me state that, having read Sanford’s two latest releases in e-book formats- his novella, Sublimation Angels, and his short story collection, Never Never Stories, I can say, with complete objectivity, that he is an excellent writer, at the minimum, and possibly a great one, especially if he keeps improving his craft.
A brief asides on reading work in a Kindle format (I have the free PC version), and while the font is highly readable, some technical issues remain, such as being able to report typos, a lack of page numbers per each screen seen- in Never Never Stories, the page numbers stopped at 193, midway through the book, and a lack of word counts available easily. Also, copying sections for quotation leads to the loss of paragraph and other formatting. Having said that, the text is most readable, and on a light handheld device, would be quite enjoyable to read.
Back to Sanford’s ascent in things literary: while I think Sanford is a high quality writer, even more so than his quality being of the essence and cogence here, this essay will descry why Sanford is an Important writer (capital I intended), because his excellence comes not in literary fiction, but in the much more plot-driven and banality-prone genre fiction, specifically of science fiction and fantasy.
Let me start off with the Never Never Stories. Almost a decade ago I was impressed with an autobiographical manuscript of short stories that Sanford allowed me to read, called Cold Pelts. As I recall, it had about a dozen stories- 2 of which were good, solid tales, and the remaining tales which were evenly split into not so good stories and stories one could debate over whether they were merely near-great fictions, or flat out great ones. Never Never Stories is a better manuscript, on almost all counts, and significantly so. Given that it is genre fiction, this leap upward in quality, from an already admirable skill level, is a rare thing in the whole of the arts. Period. Usually, if an artist ascends in their field it is a slow, steady thing, that crests or plateaus, and then begins a long declension with age. Never Never Stories contains 14 stories, split somewhat haphazardly into 9 science fictions and 5 fantasies, and I say haphazardly because almost all the tales contain major elements of both groupings, and some sci fi tales seem more clearly to be fantasies, while some fantasies seem to be more clearly sci fi. Of the lot, the only story which actually ‘fails,’ in any real way, is the shortest tale in the book, a sci fi one called Freelanga. This oddly unformed tale is about a person who can, ironically, shapeshift into a new body, and assume a life- real or imagined, yet is always pursued by some beast or thing (perhaps the person’s conscience?) called a mavich, which seems to pursue the person for crimes he/she may or may not have committed in the past. Or, the lead character may simply be insane, which would make Freelanga the only wholly reality based tale in the book, and provide an interesting object lesson on sticking to the dictates of a genre within a manuscript. Nonetheless, it’s an intriguing premise, and reads like some less fleshed out episode of the original The Twilight Zone television series, or is the written equivalent of some really cool science fiction film trailer, not the actual film. Much is promised, but for its brevity, little is delivered, and the tale’s ending is its strongest asset, and I quote it, not to give away a ‘spoiler’ (for if a tale cannot stand up to such scrutiny it deserves no consideration anyway) but to show how, even in the book’s weakest tale, Sanford can do much right:
But then the mavich pauses, flickers, the distortions which form its body fading for some reason. In that instant, I realize my body is going to run again, that it's going to reach Paul's jump bike behind the house. That my body will once again escape and change and create a new life and new memories, a life I'll only understand when I'm once again forced to abandon everyone and everything I've come to love.
However, even as I realize this my body’s instinct to run misses a beat. I flick the stinger at my legs and fire, shattering bones and muscles. I fall screaming to the ground.
The pain is almost too much to bear, but I take pride in having stopped my body. I brace myself and stare up at the mavich as it reforms even stronger than before. The beast opens its mouth impossibly wide, appears ready to envelope the entire world with its vengeance. I pray that Alis forgives me and close my eyes.
And open them again to find the mavich squatting before me, grinning. Kill me, I think. Give your creators the vengeance they told you to deliver.
But the mavich merely sits there, grinning. It then steps back and disappears into the forest.
That’s when I understand a mavich's true vengeance.
Paul runs outside and holds me, presses his hands onto my destroyed legs to slow the bleeding. He tells me a medical shuttle is on its way. They’ll repair you in no time, he says.
I think of Alis sleeping soundly in her bedroom, and realize Paul is right. I’ll be repaired in no time. And then my body will be running. And changing. And running again.
Thankfully, Paul believes it's merely the pain from my legs which makes me cry and cry and cry.
The ending of this weakest of the tales does augur something positive, and that is the reliance Sanford has on character as the primary source or engine of the narrative. One of the principle weaknesses of all genre fiction- be it sci fi, fantasy, romance, westerns, thrillers, mysteries, horror- is that they need to conform to certain elements to even attain genre status, whereas ‘literary fiction’ does not.
Let me state, up front, that I am not a genre fan, of any particular genre, for the above limitations I mentioned. But, in sci fi/fantasy/horror, I have read many of the classic works by such notables as Robert Heinlein, H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Clive Barker, Edgar Allan Poe, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, George Orwell, Yevgeny Zamyatin, H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley, Whitley Strieber, Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick, Richard Matheson, A.E. Van Vogt, Samuel Delany, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and a bevy of lesser knowns, and state that Sanford’s work, in just this collection, and his novella, Sublimation Angels (which I’ll get to below), outshines the best work of almost all of these notables, with but a literal handful of books by Asimov, Clarke, and three or four others’ BEST work being excepted. And there is a very good reason for this: characterization.
Look at the best works of these so-called Masters, and ask yourself if any of them have ever sketched out a character with the complexity, realism, and detail of, say Tom Joad, from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath, Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, Huckleberry Finn from that same titled work, or Captain Ahab from Moby-Dick. Clearly the answer is no. Yet, all of those books’ major arcs of action, narrative, or plot, are outgrowths of what the characters do in the narrative or have done before it starts. This reflects literary fiction’s grounding in real life, for, in real life, most of our dramas are, indeed, outgrowths of our own choices and actions. Even the best of the works of genre bunch above are reliant on ‘exterior’ plot to propel their tales along. Borges’ and Marquez’s tales are very thinly disguised political morality treatises whose endings can be descried paragraphs or pages before their conclusion, and they have characters that are either all stereotypes or so unformed that they are blatantly obvious symbols. Writers like Dick and Ellison rely on ‘high concepts’ to begin their tales, then watch them founder as they unspool toward mostly unsatisfactory and ill-conceived ends. This is why adaptations of both of their works usually result in superior art. How about Asimov? While his Foundation books are good at dealing with human behavior in the macro, there are only a handful of characters that are developed in any sense of the words, with fullness and realism, and that is The Mule. This is not to say that Asimov’s work is not good. It is, and arguably great, but it achieves this through mass characterization and a sense of pseudo-history. Arthur C. Clarke’s books, especially those in the 2001 series, rely mainly on a sense of macro-history as well, and it’s no surprise that the best character he ever came up with was HAL 9000, the computer. But, even that character is better and more richly portrayed in Stanley Kubrick’s film version of the book, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I could detail many similar flaws in all the remaining listed writers, but the point is made.
Sanford, by contrast, crafts tales that use, for a genre work, an inordinate amount of characterization, and this leads to more realistic psychological denouements for his characters, even when thrust into situations for which there is no realistic analogue. As example, in one of the more intriguing tales (one which is almost equally fantasy and sci fi, although listed on the sci fi side of Sanford’s ledger), The Ships Like Clouds, Risen By Their Rain, we are introduced to a planet that is seemingly unlike any other planet in the known universe:
Like new mud pushing down the old, everything sinks to the middle of our world. There are no rivers, no oceans, nothing but land continually created from our rain of organics and other materials. Our skies are always hazy. Up high, one sees a dappled, silver sheen from the small mackerel ships passing at high altitude. Down low, the speckled dots and bulges of larger ships float by, bringing the biggest extremes of weather. All the ships contribute something to our world. Oxygen and carbon dioxide. Metal hail and organic particles. Water as rain, vapor, or ice. Every day our skies are filled with a thousand thousand ships, each one giving something before leaving again for the greater universe.
The first thing we do upon waking is to sweep our houses of the dust which fell overnight. Eventually, though, as the land builds up around us, sweeping isn't enough. So we build our homes higher and higher. Walls ten meters above the walls your grandparents built. A floor which used to be the roof your ancestors slept under.
The detritus and contrails of the ships seemingly add to the mass of the planet, and even distort its weather patterns, causing potentially massive disasters to strafe the surface, which requires the employ of several people to act as weathermen. One of them, named Tem, has a family tragedy that has stunted his personal growth over the years, and he imbues parts of this loss on to his assistant, a woman named Cres, who longs to be one of the few humans to get off the planet deemed a pre-industrial ghetto:
In one library, I pulled out a worn leather tome detailing three ship crashes over the last few millennia. In each case, our people had rescued humans from the downed ships. While strange differences had been noted – alterations to the head, bizarre tints and luminescence around their bodies – they had been able to speak with us. One account even briefly described the interior of a ship, which had been merely empty space. That account also swore the crash's two survivors had somehow formed out of the ship's very skin. Unfortunately, all of these accounts were frustratingly vague and sparse. In each case, rescuing ships had quickly arrived and taken away the survivors.
“See,” Cres said as we rode back to our town. “They're keeping us in the dark. Anyone who knows anything is removed from our world.”
The tale then rotates, narratively, on the balance between the personal angst of the weatherman and the seeming secret that his assistant determines to uncover, by violating the prime law of the planet, to never go below its surface; a violation of which results in capital punishment. Note too, how Sanford paints vivid brushstrokes of description of places and things but never overdescribes. Far too many sci fi writers would have spent a page or two describing the fall of matter into the planet, and giving it a very pseudo-scientific flavoring. In the course of the tale, it is revealed that the planet is made of bio-organic matter, but not that which is manufactured, as in so many other sci fi stories, but one which seems to have a natural origin; albeit ‘natural’ in a ‘fantastic’ way.
The tale end with the discovery of that oldest of genre ‘staples’: a secret. But, the main character chooses to delay his discovery’s knowledge, and does something prototypically heroic, albeit something that is not merely a robotic heroic response to a crisis, but something which evolves out of the heroic nature immanent within him, and which the specific set of characteristics limned in him allow. Now, herein a major difference between genre and literary fiction, and one which even Sanford’s characterizations are not strong enough to transcend, yet, and that is the fact that the tale is set and geared toward the discovery of the secret. In a literary approach, the secret may already have been a part of the character’s past, and he may have simply revealed it to the reader, rather than taken them on ‘the ride.’ Thus, the genre requirements of sci fi almost necessitate the ‘ride’ format of the tale, and the ending being like this:
I now know I have the potential to see the universe. I always thought I'd be afraid to give up my life, but that's no longer true.
I still watch the skies. However, instead of predicting the weather, I now simply know it. I caress each ship that passes through our world. I understand the beauties and wonders that ship and people have seen in their travels. In return for this knowledge, I gently remind the ship's people what it means to be human. I speak to them of the most important duty of humanity, which is to care for those around you. I also keep watch over this world's people, seeking out those with the potential to embrace the greater universe and helping them toward that goal.
One day Cres and Llin will return, singing to me of all they've seen. I'll join them on that day and go off to see eternity. Until then, I enjoy the warm water falling from the skies and the dust of other people's dreams. And while I never speak a word of this to anyone, I also know that the ships don't bring the weather to our world.
Instead, we are the weather, and the ships rise off our rain.
It’s a very good ending, and the last line is highly poetic and evocative, but a more character-based, non-genre approach to the story would have had the narrator open the tale in a fashion similar to its closing, then use character elements of the narrator and other major characters as illustrations of what is revealed at the start. Imagine an opening like:
I have the potential to see the universe
I watch the skies. However, instead of predicting the weather, I simply know it. I caress each ship that passes through our world. I understand the beauties and wonders that ship and people have seen in their travels. In return for this knowledge, I gently remind the ship's people what it means to be human. I speak to them of the most important duty of humanity, which is to care for those around you. I also keep watch over this world's people, seeking out those with the potential to embrace the greater universe and helping them toward that goal.
One day Cres and Llin will return, singing to me of all they've seen. I'll join them on that day and go off to see eternity. Until then, I enjoy the warm water falling from the skies and the dust of other people's dreams. And while I never speak a word of this to anyone, I also know that the ships don't bring the weather to our world.
Instead, we are the weather, and the ships rise off our rain.
Now contrast this to the actual opening to the tale:
Mares' tails blew in from the west, clear sign that a big storm was heading our way. As I watched the hundreds of small, wispy ships float silently by on the breeze, I was tempted to keep quiet. After all, I'd warned for years about our town becoming overbuilt, making us vulnerable to the flash floods created by big storms.
But with memories of the last flood fading, people now ignored me. The mayor even called me a nervous old woman, afraid of my own shadow. It would be just deserts for everyone to be washed away when the big ship's rains hit. But wishing for revenge is one thing; actually hurting people over it, quite another. I grabbed my wooden mallet and rang the alarm bell long and hard, taking pride in a moment when my sworn duty actually mattered.
By the time I climbed down the weather tower, the mayor was waiting impatiently for me. “What is it this time, Tem?” he asked. “Water or shit?”
I smiled in irritation.
It is a good opening, but notice how it has the classic genre opening of being in medias res, which, naturally, places an event- or plot device, above the character.
Now, this is part of what makes a genre tale a genre tale, in this case a science fiction one, but to fully revolutionize the medium, it will be interesting to see if Sanford eventually does start placing character at the forefront of his approach, not just a major part of it. Thus, he will be immediately placing the reader into an alien environment, and letting the action and needed descriptions of things render that world on an as needed basis, letting the reader become a partial co-creator of the diegetic reality of the tale.
That stated, Sanford does swiftly entangle the reader into peregrine realities, such as in the tale Where Away You Fall, which combines terrorism with space pollution problems, and a very realistic near future (as in a few decades hence) scenario:
My parents joined the Seekers before I was born, drawn to the religious movement by the teaching that salvation lay in living simply and reaching one's God-given destiny. Each Seeker's destiny was secret, decreed by your preacher on behalf of God and not revealed to the world until you achieved it.
Even though I grew up in a staunch Seeker community, I never was very devout. While all my friends wore brown chastity dresses or refused to use cells and access the net, I obsessed on science fiction novels. I sat through church services reading old Heinlein and Clarke stories. I couldn't recite the hundred and one supreme destinies, but I knew Asimov's three laws of robotics by heart.
This passage instantly gives a snapshot of this future cult/terror sect, as well as paying homage to the very genre Sanford’s work often transcends.
But, an interesting aspect of the stories in this collection is how several of them deal with similar themes in different ways; ways that one single writer rarely explores the nuances of, in or out of genre constraints. A good example is the clash of identity with physical form, the most dominant of several parallel themes in the book. But, while these themes recur in different stories, it’s worth noting that all the tales in the book seem to occupy their own inviolable universes. Sanford’s is an omniverse, many worlds in many ways in many times; not the encompassing cosmos of the Asimovian Robots/Empire/Foundation series, nor is it the quirkily distinct and fated universe that Kurt Vonnegut’s menagerie of oddball characters call home. Thus, the repetition of some themes does not seem forced, for they are put through different paces in their different places.
In When Thorns Are The Tips Of Trees, this clash comes in another tale that is more fantasy than sci fi, wherein the infected dead, from a phage, first turn into zomboid creatures called thorn die, before morphing into trees with thorns, that contain all the memories of the dead person, and can be communicated with by physical interaction with the living:
Near the center of the grove, I accidentally brushed against a tree and a thorn stabbed through my shirt. Jackie, a cute-faced nine-year-old who'd turned thorn several decades ago, said hello. The fogginess of her thoughts told me no one had talked to her in years. Not wanting to be rude, I held my bleeding arm against her long enough to say hello back.
“Have you seen my doll?” she asked. “Mom gave it to me on her last visit.”
I didn't know what to say. How do you explain to a child who can't grow up, or even change, that her mother was long dead? That the doll had existed only in her mother's mind and, with her mother gone, there's no way to find it. Because of the thorn connection, for the briefest of moments Jackie understood what I was thinking. “My mother's not dead,” she cried, before the built up static of time returned her to the fresh-faced nine-year-old she'd been moments before. “Have you seen my doll?” she asked innocently.
In Here We Are, Falling Through Shadows, the displacement comes in the form of substanceless alien intelligences who seem to be psychic vampires, or parasites, causing, then feeding off, human fear of the unknown: themselves (aliens and humans), by allowing their victims to feel safe under certain circumstances. Depending on how a reader initially takes them, or even what mood the reader is in, the tale has a number of ways it can be read: straight on horror/sci fi, allegory, myth/legendry, even as a satire on the materialism of most human cultures. These monsters can be taken as evil, or not, but they are a truly interesting creation, albeit clearly based on others’ creations (see Forbidden Planet’s MOTI- i.e.- Monster Of The Id), however unique in their own right; just as the tale is unique in its ending ambiguously. The tale’s creatures are called rippers, whose very forms seem to be portals to other realities:
I saw the rippers – ancient, powerful, their way of life completely alien to humanity. They traded consciousness the way we communicated words. Their shadow bodies were merely containers to hold an eternal parade of souls – souls which continually merged and changed with each interaction among the rippers. A strong consciousness might absorb a weaker, only to be enveloped by an even stronger soul moments later, and split into two new rippers the next second. But nothing was ever truly lost as the rippers merged and split and merged again.
“I don't understand,” I said.
“Imagine we're talking,” Sammy said. “Imagine human souls as simple words. Each time you spoke, your consciousness would go out, mixing with each person who heard you speak. As people repeated what you said, you'd continually be turned into something new. But you'd also remain. Changed. Different. But still partly you.”
Such a simple explanation allows the reader to imbue into the tale his or her own fears and biases, as mentioned above, within the parameters the writer (Sanford) dictates.
In Memoria, this displacement comes in two classic forms- that of a hologram- specifically the image and character of an ‘ancient’ human entertainer, and also of putative ‘ghosts’ that somehow interact with the planet earth, as it exists in multiple realities. Here are two samples:
As the texture of Andy Kaufman races my mind, I taste a childhood memory and realize I used to love Mighty Mouse. Somehow I understand this is a real memory and not one copied from Andy and the other ghosts. I once loved that ancient cartoon.
But even as the memory rises, Andy Kaufman explodes in my mind, outraged at our shared love. “No more truth,” he says as he stomps my memories, cutting them down like a lawnmower through daisies. He grows new memories within my mind of him on the Improv's stage reading The Great Gatsby. He sits there reading the damn book until the audience – angry at paying good money to watch such shit – pelts him with dinner rolls. I laugh even though it isn't funny. Most of the other ghosts inside me nod their long-gone heads, satisfied with their new neighbor.
There's nothing to see as you approach the barrier surrounding Earth. One second you are on your Earth, the next second on another. But that moment in between also stretches – reaches out and holds you tight, like Len on the night she first met Couran. Holds you and kisses you and whispers that you and the barrier are one forever, no matter what may happen to the flesh which, while it seems so important right now, is only temporarily in need of caresses.
As we pass into the barrier, I feel our moment stretch before us. But where before this was when the ghosts always came, this time the barrier feels empty. For some reason the barrier god stays away. I miss its laughter. How it always knew exactly which ghost to throw into my sad excuse for a mind.
Now, this tale repurposes old ideas and fears (that of artificial intelligence unleashed and ghosts able to affect the material realm) to new ends, which is always the sign of a writerly mind aborning, and growing.
In Peacemaker, Peacemaker, Little Bo Peep, one of the best stories Sanford’s ever written, this displacement again comes in the form of a disease that kills people and turns them into zomboids, as in When Thorns Are The Tips Of Trees, but these near-dead, or dead, called trillers, are more in the classic George Romero Living Dead vein, and this post-apocalyptic tale twists twice, to really play with the reader’s mind. First, its heroine is a sheriff’s deputy who makes a proverbial deal with the devil- a (possible serial) killer named Victor, that allows him to torture and kill the trillers if he helps her:
What I'd offered Victor was the hidden speakeasy in that old Prohibition-era hotel. No one but the few deputies who'd investigated the murder-suicide knew the hidden rooms were even there. When I'd explained the speakeasy's location to Victor, and how that crazed druggie had been able to slowly kill his victim with no one else hearing or seeing, he'd instantly seen the potential. I told him if he sniped the trillers while I saved my daughter, he'd have the perfect lair to fall back on. The perfect place to remind his sheep of the true meaning of fear.
By twisting an unresolved moment from earlier in the tale, Sanford totally shifts the emphasis of the real monsters in the tale from the zomboid trillers (staple of countless films over the last half-century) to regular humans. But, that’s not as unique as it sounds, for Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend pulled that sleight of narrative almost sixty years ago. What really makes Peacemaker, Peacemaker, Little Bo Peep a great story (even eclipsing genre constraints), is its characterizations, its subversions of the expected, and its second and final twist wherein we find out that the trillers have basically been tamed, but they were merely puppets of an even greater, unrevealed danger. Herein the tale’s chilling close:
“Doesn't take another predator to know you attack the sheep when they're peaceful,” he said. “The creatures who tricked us with this dream of peace will be coming. I suggest keeping your eyes on the up and up.”
Victor waved goodbye with his gloved right hand – the shock red hairs peeking and wafting to the breeze – and walked on.
I gripped my shotgun and watched the road and waited for more to come.
If I were a Hollywood producer, looking for a sci fi/horror property to make into a major motion picture, I’d buy the rights to this story and, much like The Planet Of The Apes novel by Pierre Boulle, run with this as a possible film franchise and/or possible television series.
And this is one of the things that is amazing in reading these stories; not only how well written they are, but how easily commercial they could be with the right exposure. Where is the agent or press that is looking for work like this that can break big? The plenum of nonsensical excuses that most agents give- the market is so competitive at this time; there’s no more room for a story about ____, I wasn’t drawn in by the character/story/plot, etc.- simply do not fit these tales. From the first paragraph, Sanford draws the reader ineluctably in to a new place, a new world, a time different enough to intrigue, but grounded enough in human character to familiarize that which is initially peregrine. Agents and editors claim- especially in genre work- that they want writers who push boundaries, blur lines between the tried and true and the novel; well, Sanford does. What the hell are you people waiting for?
Sanford’s stories pull you into their realities, no matter how silly, scary, nor vague. Why? Because it is effective writing, and that is what effective writing does, it envelops a reader within its world. Sometimes, Sanford achieves this in the best sci fi tradition of having a pseudoscience sound plausible enough to be explained by a lay speaker, thus not having to bog himself down in a Rube Goldbergian explication, and able to get away with it because of the source of the information, such as in When Thorns Are The Tips Of Trees:
I also wondered about the people who'd created the phage which caused all this. A few fanatics like Mrs. Blondheim still praised the gened virus's creators for giving beauty and eternal life to our world. Most, though, cursed them as simple enviro terrorists. Whatever the intention, the phage had removed that most basic component of human culture – touch. Almost 90% of humanity carried the phage, but it only activated if you touched someone with the same phage combination. Since the phage continually changed versions like a madly spinning lock, the odds that touching any one person would turn you thorn were not extremely high. However, a person you could safely touch one day might be untouchable the next.
Other times, the descriptions of the setting are almost Matissean in their simplicity. The story Rumspringa reminds me almost of the beginning of an old The Twilight Zone episode- many of which were set on ‘asteroids with atmospheres, which were almost desert-like, or like the planet in Sanford’s tale:
New Lancaster was an Earth-size planet, but lacked sufficient quantities of water, with little standing liquid and only modest underground reservoirs. Since settlement began four centuries ago, periodic comet impacts had been used to terraform the still mostly deserted planet.
While we get a few minor descriptions of the landscape here and there, later on, this is basically it, in sizing up a whole new world. Now, think of how much this leaves to the imagination. Having been in the American West, this is the image it conjures up for me. But, it could as easily apply to the Gobi, the Kalahari, or high deserts in the Andes Mountains. But, is there a reason Sanford NEEDS to tell the reader more? No. Why overexplain when, in essence, that’s not the central raison d’etre of the tale? Yes, the larger issue of the story is an impending directed comet crash to the planet, but the actual narrative involves cultural differences from far-flung future descendants of the Amish in this world (although probably they are spiritual copycats, for no real Amish would likely ever get in a spaceship), and their less stringent techno-counterparts, simply called the English. One suspects that these are not Brits, as we know them, merely non-Amish accorded a sobriquet to acknowledge their difference.
Similarly, Sanford doesn’t tarry over the reasons for why things are in his tale, either. Think of many of the so-called Masters of sci fi and fantasy mentioned above. I’ve read many of their works, and usually you get pages of setups on societies, monsters, plot, character: think of Heinlein’s lengthy descriptive passages in Stranger In A Strange Land, any attempt to get ‘deep’ by Stephen King, Samuel Delany’s attempts at characterization via soft core porno, or the ridiculously puerile political posturings of Marquez, Borges, and their ilk.
Now read this:
As all Amish youth discover during rumspringa, an eighth-grade education can't compete with enhanced humans who can download libraries of information. While charity ensured that none of us starved – after all, what were a few crumbs to nanoforges – there was little hope for advancement in a society where only access to a socket ensured one's success.
Enter the devil's bargain. Any Amish kid could earn their own socket in exchange for the one thing we had which others wanted: Our lives. In an age where nothing about humanity was stable, where any person might possess a thousand distinct personalities, what the Amish owned were our experiences. Our beliefs. Our years of hard, physical work. Our secure love from growing up in a deep, nourishing community.
Most Amish youth refused to sell their lives and returned to their family farms. Not me. I not only uploaded my memories, I allowed others to experiment on me. The English exposed me to endless personality proxies and shared in my reaction. I became a woman, a baby, a genius, a warrior, an idiot, a bird, a whale, and more. For a bit of money, anyone could see through my naïve eyes as I reacted to each startling mental change.
As the tale plays out, we end up with a very Serlingesque end to the tale, albeit lacking the tendentiousness of a typical Rod Serling story. In short, many of Sanford’s tales are de facto great examples of Serlingesque writing, at its best. But, Sanford goes beyond even that, when at the top of his game.
Millisent Ka Plays In Realtime, as example, is a devastatingly accurate satire of the recent economic woes the world, especially the United States, has endured the last few years, with its futuristic takes on art, capitalism and commercialism. People in this world are often born into debt (not unrealistic- ask Japanese with family-based 100 year mortgages), and exercising their talents for freedom:
When the performance ends, Alessa and Milli kiss as the audience jumps into a standing ovation. Even His Lordship joins in. The performance has been amazing. The best he's ever witnessed.
“So what happens now?” Milli asks His Lordship, well aware her words are still being broadcast around the world.
“You two live your lives,” His Lordship says. “And maybe what you've revealed makes a little difference.”
And again there is a Sanfordian pandemic not far from the center of the tale:
And that should be, could be, our end. Except with the future, there's never truly an end. Milli and Alessa keep performing and keep loving. Alessa honors his new debt to His Lordship by not allowing Milli to erase it, but that doesn't stop a steady stream of others from seeking her help.
Milli erases the debt of all who ask. In return, those she helps protect her from the wrath of the lords and lady lords who like their world as it is.
And already there are rumors. Of new experiments. Of others infected with the phage. Of the world changing again, in ways no one can foresee.
This isn't the way the future should be. But as Milli tells Alessa on a not-so distant night, the two of them snuggling in their double bed, “This is the only future we have. Might as well make the best of it.”
Astute readers may notice that the tale ends with a seeming cliché and cringe over it, but two things mitigate the cliché and undermine it, and these are signs that Sanford is not merely a writer who stumbles into a great phrasing, but one who knows the whys and wherefores of his writing. First, at the start of the second excerpt, Sanford neatly, and quite unobtrusively, breaks the fourth wall to the reader, and does so without a direct address. Think of how many tales break that wall, and almost cast neon lights about the break, to advertise that, ‘Yeah, I’m doing something cool right here.’ Then, Sanford further cauterizes the potential cliché by having it spoken by a character. How does this kybosh the cliché? By having a character speak like normal people do, which is use clichés. And the good part is that the tale’s ending actually mirrors the statement (not in triteness but general affect), so that the utterance is almost inevitable. To have the character state something of seeming profundity would be a break too extreme, and plunge the tale’s end in to pedantry and contrivance. Not that this is the best of all possible endings, but this tale’s ending shows how a possibly poor ending can be rather easily turned about into a good, if not great, ending. Again, this is the sine qua non of effective writing.
Let me now turn to the tales in the collection labeled Fantasies, with the caveat that, as mentioned earlier, many of the sci fi tales could be fantasies and many of these tales could be sci fi. In an Introduction to The Fantasies, An Essay on Archeology And Fantasy, Sanford writes:
Time carries away the old lands we knew as surely as a quarry carries away gravel piece by tiny piece. All that remains are the people who live on through us and the stories we tell. It doesn't matter that things may not have happened exactly as our fantasies spin them. What matters is that we dream of what could have been and what might one day be.
What matters is that we carry humanity's fantasies forward, long after everyone who originally told those stories is gone and forgotten by all.
But the same can be said of most stories, not just fantasies, and art- in this case writing/literature- does the best at carrying such forward. At the beginning of the book Sanford, in its Introduction, writes:
So it is with the science fiction and fantasy. There are a thousand different definitions for these two literary genres. Depending on whom one asks, science fiction has been defined as everything from “realistic speculation about possible future events,” “the literature of ideas,” and so on. Fantasy is alternately described as the literature of dreams, the soul, or longing.
But to me, perhaps the most useful definitions are given by longtime genre fan Nancy Lebovitz:
“Science fiction: the unknown is to be understood and thereby changed. Fantasy: the unknown is to be loved for its strangeness.”
I have to disagree. Science fiction is the possible unrealized, whereas fantasy is the impossible realized. Yet, Sanford’s tale often carry both strains in a breeding that makes him unique, and is likely the single most identifying thing in his canon, aside from the straightforward general excellence of his writing, on a technical level. And, on a purely personal, subjective level, I like the fantasies of Sanford more than I do the sci fi tales, and there’s not a weak one in the bunch. Most of the fantasies also reuse classic tropes in new ways, just as ghosts were repurposed in the sci fi story Memoria.
Probably the best of the fantasies is a story I read some years ago, in a shorter form, but which Sanford has now fleshed out into a near-masterpiece of character, plot, romance, and the human condition, called Into The Depths Of Illuminated Seas, which turns inside out much of the romance of tales about pirates. This is a short story just BEGGING to be made into a novel, and I can easily envision Sanford doing this by expanding some characters, scenes, and lengthening the chase between the story’s lead protagonist and its lead antagonist, and deepening the mystery of what connects them. I would also eliminate the tale’s lone flaw, a flaw that recurs in some of the other tales, which is something I will discuss at the end of this essay.
Some centuries ago, a young woman, Amber Tolester, in her teens, started to get names of her town’s sailors painfully and instantaneously blazoned upon her skin. This meant the men were fated to die at sea. This brings into her life her one true love and her eternal nemesis, a fiend named David Sahr, who turns out to share something very profound with her. Here is their first meeting:
Miles O'Shaughnessy frowned. “Isn't he a friend of yours? He's been delirious ever since we've found him floating in a half-sunk lifeboat. Keeps muttering your name over and over.”
Amber stared at the unconscious sailor's peaceful face. She'd never seen this man before. But before she could say so, Miles handed Amber a tiny silver and glass frame. “He had that in his pocket,” Miles said.
Amber glanced at the tiny picture, which fit easily in her gloved hand. The daguerreotype showed Amber standing on the bow of a ship. Amber tried to convince herself that the picture merely showed another woman who resembled her, but then she turned it over. There, etched into the silver backing, were the words “To Amber Tolester, with eternal love. David Sahr.”
The tale ends quite well, and gives way to another outstanding tale, which I also read some years back, and, upon reread, found even more engaging. Either this is proof of the tale’s immanent power, or Sanford made it even better in the interim. It recycles fairy lore, and is titled A Twenty-First Century Fairy Love Story. It revolves about just what its title claims, the lives and loves of a fairy in modern life, who saves the baby of Puerto Rican drug addict, in what could be a PC (politically correct) nightmare of a story, but which, through precise rendering of moments over decades, does not; instead turning into a tender tale on bias and love, one which makes deft use of repetons, such as the last sentence which ends the tale (and excerpt):
Aithne held her hand to her chest, feeling the three beats inside. Her own human heart. The fairy hearts of Uncle Gill and Aithne Glaistig.
Aithne suddenly remembered the handsome assistant gardener who'd recently come to work in the arboretum. How he talked on and on about his love of everything Scottish. On an impulse, she clipped a branch off the silver birch standing beside her and wrapped the cutting in a small glamour. A gift for the new gardener.
Aithne smiled. She still had plenty of time to find her own love.
And so began the love story of Aithne Cortés.
The next tale, Maps Of The Bible, takes a familiar trope- a ghost looking back on his existence and then his progeny, and then accepting it all. Here is a typical slice of what the story is like, and gives a good sense of the dead man’s character, as well as being a beautiful and excellent piece of prose:
“Did you tell him?” Eliz asks when they're down the road a bit. The air around me turns cold – Did Dan already tell Eliz the shameful way I died? But instead of saying what I expect, Dan simply takes hold of Eliz's hand and says, “I figure there's no need. Just be around a while and he'll get used to me.”
If I'd still been alive I'd scream and kick at the sight of them holding hands. Instead, I think about how Dan's always done right by me, and I think about how my son needs a father. Thinking these thoughts gets me happy and sets little winds to blowing. I send them to rustle Dan and Eliz's hair and make them feel nice and calm on their walk.
Later, on their way back to Hank's house, Eliz tells Dan she received another letter from the Marines, who still can't find my body.
“He's dead, Eliz,” Dan says. “I was with him. We talked about you and Jed and how much he loved both of you and then he was dead.”
I float over to Eliz, who is smiling. I wish I had said that before I died, I tell her, but I didn't. I was too busy begging Dan to forgive me.
That's when I know that it doesn't matter if Dan tells people the truth about me. Everything I've done and been is passed. It don't matter anymore who I am. Maybe now, in death, that's all I am – a passing comment to my son, a word or two about something I did here or there, a story about how Hank once punched me through a restaurant door.
The weakest of the fantasies is still a good, solid tale, and reimagines the mythos of an ancient beast. The story is The Dragon Of Tin Pan Alley, which I also previously read, and it nicely follows a down and out black musician’s rise at the turn of the 20th Century, due to the protections and banes of his pet dragon. At its weakest, the tale veers into some PC screeding, especially toward the end, when it delves into the music of the future, but most of the story deals with the obvious- American racism- in a deft manner, such as this, which early on, tells us that the main character, Seth Thomas, is black
“May I help you?” a white secretary asked warily. Seth shoved the dragon back into the knapsack and asked for Mr. Witmark – any of them, even the father. But before the lady could answer, the doorman stepped into the room holding a large wooden bat.
Note, it’s not the appearance of the bat that brings home the lead character’s race, but the simple use of the adjective ‘white’ before secretary.
The final tale in the book, The Never Never Wizard Of Apalachicola, also reuses the titular fantasy element in its tale of an astronaut coming to grips with his life back on earth, as well as an encounter with the preternatural. It ends with this line, which, if one substitutes ‘artist’ for ‘man of science’ and ‘readership’ for ‘wizard,’ aptly applies to all the best writers I can think of, Sanford included:
I laugh as I take the raven in my hands and whisper to my sister the many many ways a man of science can rationalize serving a wizard for a few hundred years.
Let me now turn to Sanford’s novella, Sublimation Angels. For those wondering what the title means, note this definition: to cause to pass directly from the solid to the vapor state and condense back to solid form. According to the book, the novella was a finalist for the 2009 Nebula Award for Best Novella, won the 2009 Interzone Readers' Poll, and was longlisted for the British Fantasy Award. I am not sure the significance of these awards, save for the first, but it’s an excellent book, and one in a planned series of works set on the planet Eur, which is located somewhere near the Crab Nebula. It is a frozen world with an eccentric orbit about its star, and human descendents have taken up residence there, under the thumb of those endowed with artificial intelligence. The two most powerful of these AI ‘moms’ are Big Mom and Handle. Yet, even they are subservient to the whims of the planet’s original inhabitants, aliens called Aurals (de facto gods), who are claimed to be as far above the AIs (de facto masters) as they are above the humans.
There are many familiar elements to the tale: the enslavement of mankind by superior powers (natural and of their own making), a cold world headed for better times, and a ‘savior’ of the oppressed, although Sanford deftly undercuts all of these memes throughout the tale, so that none of them are what they first appear. And the characters are never stereotypes, but realized beings with lives not wholly devoted to the monomania many tales want to impose on them. Only a few characters fall in to archetypes, but since many real people do, this never detracts from the thrust of the world-building the prose engages in, thus allowing the archetypes to only enhance situations, not detract from them. In some ways, this novella most reminds me of the film, Forbidden Planet, with the never seen Aurals in the role of the Krel. But this work is less dour on the power of humanity, and Sanford exerts what I can only call an authorial death grip on this story that is the hallmark of a great writer, or potentially great one.
On this frozen world we get an almost Logan’s Run like belief in reincarnation of the dead, expressed here-
Like many low kids, she believed clouds of air like this were sublimation angels, or the spirits of those denied rebirth.
I laughed. This was silly. My dead brother wasn't bubbling into the sky. Instead, frozen air naturally sublimated when the light from Eur's mother star hit it.
Sanford well uses his language in novel ways, often taking new and unfamiliar terms, unique to each story, and making them accessible. In this tale, we immediately know that moms are the AIs and that bubs refer to the housing units within Eur, called bubble homes. We intuit these definitions, and others, from the contexts that the characters or narrator mentions them in, which forces a patina of familiar reality on the terms. This is something that is so seemingly obvious, but which is rarely done in sci fi and fantasy tales.
He similarly, as mentioned earlier, renders the complex problems of the characters into neatly compiled asides that belie the cogency of the stated matters to the tale. Here, the lead character, Chicka, speaks of his martyred twin brother and his predicament, in a memory:
Angry that I couldn't study and learn like he did, I wrote four questions on the back page of his physics book – the asking of any of which was a death sentence.
My questions were simple:
Why did the Aurals throw their home world into a new orbit and preserve it under mirror ash, thousands of years before humanity reached space?
Do the Aurals hate humanity's high tech, or do they hate us?
Why hasn't this planet's orbit taken us back out of Aural space?
If Big Mom is now human, why is she still alive after 600 years?
For a moment I considered letting Omare take the book to school, and imagined his professors' reaction when they saw the questions their beloved chosen one dared to contemplate. But in the end I couldn't risk Omare's life. I woke my brother and showed him what I'd done. He read the questions slowly, nodded solemnly, then tore the page out of the book.
“You truly are my twin,” he whispered. “I've pondered the same questions. But you forgot the most important one.”
“What are you going to do about this?”
Everyone else in the expedition loved it when the chosen one was cryptic and sage-like. Me, I hit him and fell asleep angry.
He works with his brother’s widow, Alna, in fomenting a revolution, while his own life complexes by falling in love with a woman named Luck. Naturally, he and she survive, while the secondary characters do not, but, aside from this convention, there is a twist in who the tale’s true hero is, and the well defined characters are never subservient to the plot; the plot flows from the characters. And the novella’s actual title could just as easily not be referring to the air clouds seen on the surface or Eur, but to the humanity on Eur, once they achieve their goal
The lone negative in Sublimation Angels is one that has varying degrees of effect on a number of stories in Sanford’s canon, in both books and beyond, and that is the Hollywoodization of many of the female characters into action hero stereotypes- you know, frail little women who can do all the physical things your average (or buff jock) male can do, including leading revolutions, such as the character Alna does in Sublimation Angels. While female characters need not be the blushing flowers of yore, to make them tough surrogate ‘men with tits,’ able to endure the rigors that the action oriented male characters, that populate sci fi and fantasy, do is just as bad. Women simply are not physiologically able to fill this role, unless one wants to make all women American Gladiator types. There are many ways that ‘toughness’ can be shown in females, but a real inner toughness, rather than merely slapping female names and faces on to essentially masculine characters; and setting the tales in the far future does not alleviate this woe; it even denigrates the reality of the feminine half of the species. And it does place a bar between an astute reader and the ability to be wholly subsumed into whatever fantasy world is conjured.
This lack of fully realized female characters, with a few exceptions, such as in A Twenty-First Century Fairy Love Story, is the biggest impediment to my declaring Sanford an undeniably great science fiction and fantasy writer. Be it the female leader in Memoria, or the lead character in Peacemaker, Peacemaker, Little Bo Peep, or the otherwise memorable Amber Tolester in Into The Depths Of Illuminated Seas, all of these characters have excellent moments that define them, but just as many moments that distance them from a reader looking to lose themselves in a tale.
Earlier, I’d mentioned that Into The Depths Of Illuminated Seas has the makings of a fine novel, but if Sanford were to undertake such an endeavor, I would recommend two significant changes in the tale: the first is a relatively minor one, which is adding more realism to the story, in terms of the era it’s set in. This does not mean going gung ho into the wasteful exploration of minutia, such as writers like Charles Frazier do; rather setting up a realistic since gone world, in just a dozen or so two to three paragraph long strokes (such as those used to describe other worlds, above), so that the reader is brought back into that world familiar to readers of Herman Melville’s Omoo, Typee, or Moby-Dick, thus making the supernatural element of the lead character’s condition all the more believable.
The second change would be to, again, make the lead character, Amber Tolester, a real woman, and less of a ‘man with tits.’ As example, this excerpt:
As Amber stood up, she glanced at the waters all around them. Sahr's name burned white hot on her body. The sea screamed for Sahr – begged Amber to throw the vile man overboard so it could have its way with him. Amber dragged the bound man to the railing and leaned him over the water. The choppy waves threw spray at them as the sea reached for Sahr.
I mean, a dress wearing woman of the 1700s able to drag a grown bound man? Please. There are, however, a number of simple ways to make the tale more ‘real,’ which is what art does at its best; it does not tell ‘truths,’ for truths require volitional acts; it makes the unreal real, which puts the percipient of the art in a more comfortable position, able to take in the art more fully and easily. This can be accomplished by transferring all the ‘heroic’ burdens from Amber, and shifting some of them on to the man she later marries- rather than, in PC fashion, portray him as a wimpy loser. Make Amber a ‘lesser’ main protagonist, within her physical limits, give her more flaws, and have her need more help from the male characters she surrounds herself with. And, if Sanford really wanted to make the story more radically real, he would have the main character succumb to one of the deadly ends the tale hints at could await her, yet which the reader knows is not going to happen. The point is that a fantasy need not be PC, and is most effective when all else, but the fantastical element, plays out as real. This ground into the everyday heightens even the slightest deviation from ‘normal.’
But, these are minor things, easily remedied, and far less of a leap than that Sanford took to get to this current high point in his fiction. That he still has not hit his ceiling is encouraging for fans of fiction, literary or genre. That’s, again, on a qualitative level. There is also at play the less quantifiable aspect of Sanford as an Important writer, especially within genre contexts. This importance is mostly derived from Sanford’s ability to background the exotic elements of his tales and foreground the human element. Can he do this even more, and more radically, and likely greatly? Yes. But one need first acknowledge the creative strides that Sanford has taken to put himself not merely at the vanguard of a movement within a movement (the genres of sci fi and fantasy, and for which he coined the term SciFi Strange), but the leading tip of that spear as it rips into realms previously unheard of for such genres to pierce. It is this sort of mark that also connotes influence, and given the superiority manifest in Sanford’s still relatively young career in genre, vis-à-vis the well known writers previously mentioned (Heinlein, Asimov, Poe, Verne, Borges, etc.), it’s only a matter of time that Sanford will establish bars not only in terms of qualitative heights, but in their placement about the realms of writing.
Earlier, I wrote asking why a writer like Sanford has not been able to get published, especially by a major press, but that was based on just the qualitative aspect of his work. Given that Sanford is lauded in the sci fi genre, itself, it makes this lack of interest a display of the utter lack of business acumen most agents and editors possess, for the whole of an issue of the influential Interzone magazine (December, 2010) was dedicated to him, so there are fans out there who are dedicated would be readers. The genre needs to embrace writers like Sanford, that don’t crank out easily codifiable ‘franchises’ for film (sci fi’s best medium, actually- see my earlier comments on 2001: A Space Odyssey- book vs. film), but challenge the very subjects that the genre can explore, re-center the genre upon different axes (such as character over plot), and transcend any other limits the less visionary and daring dabblers within it (editors, agents, readers, lesser writers) seek to impose or maintain because genre, by its definition, is a limitation (lest it could not be genre), so restricting the already restricted makes no sense. Sanford lets few restrictions weigh upon his work, save for the most basic genre-defining formulae (a strange planet, a monster, a hero with issues, etc.), but he tempers that with writing well wrought for the mind and which can move the spirit at its best, for art that’s emotion first rarely is good. Sanford seem to intuit this in his words and the genre, and readers, in general, are better for it. Sublimation Angels and Never Never Stories need a wider audience than the current e-book reach can give. Hopefully some agent or editor reading this will grasp the obvious. Until then, if you are appreciative of the sci fi and fantasy genres, or just appreciate high quality writing, I urge you to go to Amazon and read the books for yourself. I doubt you will be disappointed.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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