Speculative Fiction Reviews
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Ideomancer, September 2004

Over the last couple of years, Ideomancer has been making its name as a consistently interesting source of new fiction. Unfortunately, it has recently changed publisher, with the departure of Chris Clarke, and been forced to drop from a monthly to a quarterly schedule.

July, by Jay Lake
Throughout this year, Jay Lake has been providing a series of flash stories thematically linked to the months of the year. It is perhaps unfortunate that “July” is published in September, but inevitable given the change in schedule. In this case, it also doesn’t particularly matter, as the link between the month and the story is only tenuous.

Because this is flash fiction, it is almost impossible to say anything about the story without giving too much away. Julie Quintilis is a fighter in a ring who has beaten, killed, nearly two dozen men in his fights. Now he is losing, apparently abandoned by his god.

Like most of the stories in this Lake series, July gives us an imaginatively sketched alternative world. In this one, Quintilis is a son of Rome, his god Caius. Lake’s great skill in this series has been his ability to make us believe and see his alternative world in just a few lines. The story itself is, of course, simple, but the effect is intense. This is perhaps the most successful of Lake’s series so far.

The Ladder at the Bottom of the World, by Terry Dartnell

Science fiction in this issue is represented by Terry Dartnell’s The Ladder at the Bottom of the World. Here Dartnell blends hard physics, philosophy and a comic book plot to produce a slightly odd piece. In 2073, a manned expedition to Triton discovers a frozen woman, who appears to be still alive. When the temperature of her body is reduced bringing it close to absolute zero, the woman begins to move. The scientists studying her are left in a dilemma: should they continue to reduce the temperature so that the woman comes fully to life, and if so, would that be dangerous?

The story is told almost entirely in dialogue and concerns the scientists’ and a philosopher’s attempts to understand these questions. The choice of dialogue for most of the body of the story leads to a rather flat telling with little variation in pace. Part of the problem, perhaps, is that the characters aren’t sufficiently delineated in terms of their voices. As a result, it is not always clear, without backtracking, as to who is speaking. On the plus side, this very flatness in the earlier parts of the story adds to the heavy drum-beat rhythm that thumps in at the end when the story switches to the final action and the scientists reduce the temperature.

The Ladder at the Bottom of the World touches on some interesting physics and brushes lightly against philosophy, enough so on both that it is always interesting, but perhaps not deeply enough to raise any fundamental questions outside of the story itself.

What Chaos Feels Like, by Ron Sering

In his introduction to What Chaos Feels Like, Ron Sering says, “People often lead lives of quiet desperation, says Thoreau. But what’s going on below the surface of those lives? What is the emotional price of that desperation? What does it say about us that we continue on in spite of it all? And what does it mean when someone has had enough?” These are the questions that appear to have motivated Sering in this slipstream/science fictional piece.

What Chaos Feels Like takes place in a near-future that isn’t so different from the present. The extrapolation is a depressing if familiar one: today’s problems--crime, environmental disintegration, the depletion of resources, Middle-East violence--have become exacerbated. Larry is burned out journalist who is given the job of looking into a new trend: increasing numbers of people are getting their cars converted to propane engines that will run for days without refuelling, taking off on their vacations, and not coming back. Larry, like these people he is investigating, has been living a life of quiet desperation. His marriage is failing. His career is grinding to a halt. When, in the course of his research, he meets a young woman, Belinda, preparing to head out, to get away from it all, it is inevitable that Larry too has had enough. He goes with her and discovers what is happening to all of the other people who have gone before him, leaving behind the disintegrating society, the chaos of the city.

Sering makes little attempt to answer the questions that he sets himself. What Chaos Feels Like instead simply illustrates the questions. If there is any answer to the questions in the story, it is that desperation eventually leads to despair. It is not a comforting answer, and there is little comfort in the story, even in its resolution.


Jay Lake’s short piece is the strongest story in this issue of Ideomancer. The other two pieces are decent, even reasonably strong semi-pro stories, but they lack the spark that the Lake story has. This isn't the strongest issue that Ideomancer has recently published, but everything in it deserves reading nonetheless. It will be interesting to see how Ideomancer develops with its new publisher. It would be a shame if they cannot overcome their temporary problems and continue the progress they’ve been making over the last few years.

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