Feb 19 2013 3:30pm

Short Fiction Spotlight: Apex #45

Short Fiction Spotlight: Apex #45Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. This time around, rather than picking out various stories from here and there, I’ll be talking about a single issue of a magazine: Apex #45, edited by Lynne M. Thomas, freshly released for February. The reason? It’s a Shakespeare theme issue. I have a series of feelings about and investments in the work of William Shakespeare—it’s sort of unavoidable as a member of an English department—and the concept of various authors writing speculative pastiches and other tales set in the worlds of Hamlet or Macbeth is, shall we say, seductive.

There are four stories in the issue (in addition to an essay by Sarah Monette and an interview with Kate Elliot): “Mad Hamlet’s Mother” by Patricia C. Wrede, “Zebulon Vance Sings the Alphabet Songs of Love” by Merrie Haskell, “The Face of Heaven So Fine” by Kat Howard, and “My Voice is in my Sword” by Kate Elliott. The last is a reprint from 1994’s Weird Tales from Shakespeare, edited by Katharine Kerr and Martin H. Greenberg.

Patricia C. Wrede’s “Mad Hamlet’s Mother” is the only story of the lot set within the actual world of a Shakespearean play; giving us Gertrude’s angle on her husbands and son, Wrede weaves a story-underneath-the-story in which all the men of the play are villains. It is not the strongest piece of the lot. It could have been, but the strategy of having Gertrude’s realizations merely narrated to us is not entirely effective. While the subject matter is something I appreciate—the Gertrude of this Hamlet is caught in a family of men as bad as poison, and makes what decisions she has to make to extricate herself—the narrative lacks the emotional kick I would have hoped for. Lines like these—

Her eyes met his unguarded ones, and she saw in them the truth she had denied for months.

Her husband, her dear, kind Claudius, was as mad as his elder brother had been. She had only thought him better because he had hidden his treacherous cruelty in private, as well as in public.

—miss their mark, as they’re more explanation than immersion. All the same, I appreciated the story for how it deals with what Gertrude perceives as the “madness” of her husbands and son: less an art, after all, and more a patriarchal monstrousness.

“Zebulon Vance Sings the Alphabet Songs of Love” by Merrie Haskell is, simply put, a love story with robots, and I found it pleasant. The Zebulon Vance figure has echoes, to my mind’s eye, of Elvis; the pop-culture pastiche of this story is what differentiates it from a hundred other android-falls-in-love pieces. Robot!Ophelia slowly becoming conscious of her own self as she falls for this impersonator-of-his-own-self is a playful and, somehow, still romantic narrative. It’s light and rather joyful—Zebulon buys out what amounts to an indenture for Robot!Ophelia so that they can go learn more stories together, in the end, and it’s quite “happily ever after.”

Kat Howard’s “The Face of Heaven So Fine” offers an interpretation of a modern-day Juliet with a gothic—in the late-nineties aesthetic sense—touch. As a child of that decade, I have a weakness for stories with untouchable dangerous young women who leave a mark on their lovers; that she’s tragically in love with a dead boy and makes new stars out of other folks’ flesh to memorialize him is just bizarre enough to create a strong impression for me as a reader. The story is rather short, a touch and then gone; that works well, thematically, with the ways that people come to Juliet, love her, and rather quickly fall out of love with her, after the fact. Howard’s prose is lush, and her characters believably embody a sort of disaffected youth that is, nonetheless, full to bursting with emotion.

Finally, “My Voice is in My Sword” by Kate Elliot explores an offworld production of Macbeth that is mediated by the understanding of an empathic race of aliens: a production that goes uniquely wrong, or right, as the case may be. The reprint is a point of structure for the rest of the issue, I suspect. It provides the strongest interpretation of the Shakespearean theme, in the sense that it is the deeply concerned with the putting on of a Shakespeare play. That it’s all about the comeuppance of a sexist, abusive, awful rich-boy with entitlement the size of a small planet—well, that’s just a dirty-good bit of narrative.

The aliens’ cultural misunderstanding is at once perfectly logical and perfectly eerie; imagine the context of an artform misinterpreted slightly, so slightly, but enough for a death. Admittedly, the death is of someone that every character and the reader has come to hate, so the story’s not as focused on the frightful component as it might be—but all the same, it’s hard not to think about the implications for other cultural misunderstandings. Additionally, the prose is clear and swift, particularly in that sudden climax and dénouement. The explanation that the aliens offer for their little nudge of “help” is one example:

“We hope,” continued one of the other two—I couldn’t be sure which—”that in this small way we have spared you the distress of failing to complete your work of art.”

“Oh, my God,” said Caraglio, an eerie echo of Bax’s last words. “I’ve got to get back to the office.”

“My Voice is in My Sword” is a good story to close an issue of Shakespearean speculative fiction, I think, at once driven by character and world, questions of “what if?” and problems of interpersonal communication or lack thereof.

And, though it’s outside the realm of fiction, it’s also worth noting Sarah Monette’s essay on the Reformation and the spiritual/spectral contexts of Hamlet as well. I remember the first college class I attended where I read a text about religion and popular sentiment around the time of Hamlet, and it blew my mind to think that I’d been taught the play wrong for so many years. Monette sums up that important argument quickly, funnily, and with panache.

Considered as a whole, Issue #45 is not necessarily the most mind-blowing of all Apex issues—but it is genuinely fun for folks who enjoy a bit of the Bard, from time to time. That in and of itself is a virtue, particularly since Shakespeare (or Lovecraft, or Poe, etc.) themed collections, issues, or anthologies tend to be wildly hit or miss: great fun, or awful mess of terrible decisions. Apex #45, to my distinct enjoyment of an afternoon, comes down on the positive side.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.

1 comment
Sharat Buddhavarapu
1. spinfuzz
I bought the issue of Apex as soon as I read the opening paragraph of this post so that I could read along! Thanks, Brit, for choosing such an interesting issue.

"Mad Hamlet's Mother" was just lackluster. Not only was the "telly" quality of the narration a technical mistake, I didn't buy the bit about Gertrude finding her previous husband or Hamlet so repulsively mad, or on the other hand Claudius so amazingly perfect. I have no issue with giving Gertrude a powerful narrative, something she lacks in the original; It's a chance to give female agency to a story that doesn't have much of it given when it was written. However, I found the bit about the men being mad as a curse weak writing rather than an inspired premise. I think those two issues together (the failed "telling" and the weak premise) killed this story. The only words that lifted off the page were the last few lines, where she borrows the perfect line from Shakespeare and ends the story:
"I will, my lord," she said, and added softly. "I pray you, pardon me."

Then, with clear eyes and a steady hand, she raised the poisoned cup, and drank.
I enjoyed "Zebulon Vance Sings the Alphabet Songs of Love" a lot. The amount of worldbuilding it needed to begin was so little thanks to Haskell's simple premise "robots bred to put on renditions of historical productions," but by the end with the moment where Robot!Ophelia gets ordered back there's an awesome bit of insight into the world where her memory isn't wiped simply because she's too useful. That is just too scary, sends chills down my spine.

For almost that same reason I disliked “The Face of Heaven So Fine.” It felt too vague, not that I don't get the goth-punk aesthetic, or even that wonderful image of her cutting the stars out of people's flesh to turn into stars in the sky. But I didn't buy that moment where Juliet runs into our protagonist and conveniently knows her name already. I'd have liked a little more exposition related to setting: Do they meet at a high school dance?; Or a club? And having situated them in a concrete setting to expose how they meet. It's a small issue, but it kept me from enjoying the story. That despite Kat Howard's wonderful language, which had a lyrical quality.

Finally, Kate Elliot's "My Voice is in My Sword" is soooooo good. One nitpick here, as it was with the Howard, is that the aliens are so thinly fleshed out. The worldbuilding here, as Elliot mentions in her interview at the end of the zine, is thin. She created these aliens solely to manipulate them to the shock ending. Not only is that insulting to the reader, but the race she creates. It carries the bad taste of colonial tones. She also apparently got the snooty villain of the story from a friend who told her about an experience making a television show in which a big-name movie star acted this way. She calls it "a double revenge." This, too, seems petty, and explains why the villain is a one-dimensional character. It says something that these issues, which are rather glaring in my mind, in no way diminish my pleasure in the story. This I attribute to Elliot's wonderful control of the narrative structure. Elliot mentions that she manages the large cast by having each character have two identities and making the first easy to remember because they are Macbeth's characters. That was a skillful bit of narrative artistry. She also brings in class tensions. And finally, as much as the ending is manipulative of the alien race of her story, it is the perfect ending for the story. Wow! Go read this.

As a huge Shakespeare fan, I am happy that things like this are made, just for the joy of the few stories that get this homage right. It's worth it.

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