Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a weekly column on Tor.com co-curated by myself and the splendid Brit Mandelo, and dedicated to doing exactly what it says in the header: shining a light on the some of the best and most relevant fiction of the aforementioned form.
In early April, the Editor in Chief of Night Shade Books announced that his struggling company was in the process of being bought out. We won’t dig into the reasons it began hemorrhaging here, nor the well-documented deals offered to its stable of authors since, except to say that however successful Skyhorse and Start’s emergency surgery is—or isn’t—it’s been a bleak few weeks for readers and writers alike. However badly mismanaged said small press was, the books themselves were almost always good.
One of the less visible casualties of Night Shade’s continuing collapse was Eclipse Online, the continuation of the esteemed anthology series pioneered by in print by Jonathan Strahan before the sad realities of purveying short fiction for profit made a fifth volume essentially untenable.
It was with happiness in my heart, then, that I heard Eclipse would live on as a venue along the lines of Subterranean Magazine and Strange Horizons. Unfortunately, it did so under the auspices of an enterprise evidently on its last legs, and just six months on from its launch, in the wake of the aforementioned Night Shade news, Strahan stated that Eclipse Online would “cease publication effective immediately.”
To wit, in tribute to Eclipse, we’ll be reading the first story it published during its brief second lease of life, and saying goodbye with a review of what looks to be its last.
Fittingly, “The Contrary Gardener” by Christopher Rowe is very much a fiction about beginnings; new beginnings, and the endings they spring from. In a world where tomatoes are used for blood transfusions and beans can be bullets, Kay Lynne is a farmer living in the long shadow of her father, “a peas and beans man under contract to the Rangers at the fort forty miles south, responsible for enormous standing orders of rounds for their side arms that pushed him and his vassals to their limits every year.”
Given this, it comes as no surprise that the government of this rationed society keeps a close eye on gardeners like our protagonist, who are expected to produce crops according to strict quotas. But somehow, Kay Lynne always end up with an excess of vegetables. It’s all to do with how she programs her produce....
In any case, on the bus back from buying supplies in the city one day, Kay hears the robot driver, Mr. Level #9, say something strange. Something unprogrammed that she considers asking her father about:
If a talking machine failed in the ’Ville, her father knew about it, knew all the details and wasn’t afraid to exaggerate the consequences. He even harboured a conspiracist’s opinion that such machines could do more than talk, they could think.
Ultimately, Kay doesn’t have to ask, because her father has come to her. He wants her to meet with some people who share his anti-mechanical mindset... to consider explaining the tricks of her trade to aid an uprising against the robots. But if they’ve become self-aware, as Kay suspects—and her suspicions are soon confirmed—wouldn’t her help amount to mass murder?
Though the landscape of “The Contrary Gardener” put me in mind of Panem, and Kay does rather recall Katniss, the judiciousness of Christopher Rowe’s prose makes his thoughtful short distinct from Suzanne Collins’ moreish storytelling. Which isn’t to say I didn’t want more from this future after the fiery finale of “The Contrary Gardener.” Indeed I did. Hell, I’d take a trilogy, largely because of the wonderful way the author builds out his world, elegantly suggesting setting instead of stating dystopia in boldface.
Long story less long, one senses this milieu has much more to offer, and in terms of character too. Kay comes into her own quickly, as does her dad—and their changing relationship proves pivotal to the tale. It’s wholly appropriate that the tense centrepiece of “The Contrary Gardener” showcases a strained conversation between the pair, one of whom clings to the past while the other looks to the future.
“You were at the office this morning,” he said. “Making a withdrawal from the seed vaults. What’s it going to be this year?”
“Yams and potatoes. Radishes and beets.”
Her father’s lip curled in disgust. “The whole ugly array,” he said. “You did this just to challenge me.”
Kay Lynne stood her ground. My ground, she thought. This is my ground. “I did it because the market for roots is excellent and I’ve never tried my hand at rootwork.”
Her father snorted. “And oh yes, you so very much like to try new things.”
The optimistic note with which “The Contrary Gardener” concludes seems practically tragic, looking back. It appeared to pave a positive way forward for Eclipse Online, when we know now its foundations were laid on unsound ground from the first.
Fast-forward to late March, immediately before the bad news broke, and the publication of the final short story Eclipse Online was to call its own: “In Metal, In Bone” by An Owomoyela is an absolutely harrowing narrative about the importance of identity, which is the very thing Benine has come to the front of an awful civil war—fought for reasons no-one really recalls—to establish. As the camp’s commanding officer clarifies:
“The President is a believer in witchcraft,” the Colonel said. “And he feels strongly about pacifying the dead of this war. Do you know why you’re out here?”
“It’s because I can read the history of things,” Benine said, and inhaled the smell of the sun-baked dirt to chase off the last vestiges of the cottage.
“Things like bones,” the Colonel said. “Mountains of bones, from mass graves the rebels have piled up from here to the coast. Are you willing to do this for your country?”
Benine is, though he’s understandably uneasy. He’s read odds and ends before, occasional objects and possessions, but never bones, and never anything in such incredible measure. Yet these are unknown bones; they are all that remains of the many thousands of soldiers who have died unidentified over the course of this conflict, and whatever his personal politics, Benine believes they deserve this last decency, at least.
And so he sets to read bones by the barrel, subjecting himself to vision after vision—of murder amongst other malevolencies—all to bring some peace to the deceased before the war comes to his front door.
Excepting his nervous determination, I don’t suppose we get a great sense of Benine as a character... but this is telling if anything, because Owomoyela’s story is more about how he disappears—into the memories of other men—than who he is or was or will be. He gives himself wholly to the terrible task at hand, until there is next to nothing left of his own identity.
“In Metal, In Bone” is an exceptionally upsetting story, rendered with clarity and bone-chilling coldness. Owomoyela doesn’t event try to prettify this picture: Mortova is dark and dry, dusty, dead, and as the war encroaches ever closer to the scene of our protagonist’s desperate endeavour, no-one has time for feelings. Actions speak louder than words in this fiction; actions the author depicts deftly, without warmth or ornament.
And the last section knocked me for six. I re-read it immediately, not yet ready to let go of Benine and the bones he has made his own. But in a sense, the disquieting dénouement of “In Metal, In Bone” is inevitable—right and true however wrong and horrible.
It’s a great shame that Eclipse Online had to end, but we can at least take heart in the fact that it ended very well. As indeed it began.
Eclipse: you’ll be missed.
Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On rare occasion he’s been seen to tweet, too.