Clockwork Phoenix 3: New Tales of Beauty and Strangeness, edited by Mike Allen
Reviewed by Hannah Strom-Martin
21 January 2011
Biblical faeries. Braided ghosts. Distinctly American dragons. Yep. We must be in Clockwork Phoenix land. For the past three years editor Mike Allen has been publishing his unique Clockwork Phoenix anthologies, inviting authors like Tanith Lee and Catherynne M. Valente to give us their take on the concepts of, as the title has it, "beauty and strangeness." The result has been a critical and artistic success and, if volume three is any indication, the spell won’t be lifting any time soon. Allen continues to assemble some of the most adventurous, beauteous, and just plain weird stuff our current crop of speculative authors are capable of producing. Adventurous minds are invited to attend.
As fans of the previous volumes know, the delight of a Clockwork Phoenix tale lies not only in the story’s often strange setting—in this volume we are treated to John C. Wright's Fritz Langian "Metachronopolis," a mer-city on the moon in Tori Truslow's lovely "Tomorrow Is Saint Valentine’s Day," and a "land of black salt and white honey" when Nicole Kornher-Stace's compelling Lady Explorer goes "To Seek Her Fortune"—but in the writing itself. Whether describing a derelict airship or the complicated relationship between humanity and its more esoteric counterparts (there are a number of delicious ghost stories in this collection) Allen prefers prose that is lush and full-bodied. A passage like this one from C. S. E. Cooney's "Braiding the Ghosts," about a teenage girl whose sorceress grandmother teaches her the paranormal equivalent of human bondage, is typical:
When Nin was not reading she wrote letters to Noir. She drew pictures of live cats and dead grandmothers. She never spoke. Most days she slept. Not in her bed which, due to the ghosts, could not be trusted, but out under the willow tree. This was where Nin had buried the little curl of Noir's hair, safe in its white envelope, the envelope sealed in a plastic bag, and the plastic bag placed in a small metal box. A small grave. Nin's special place. (p. 97)
There is, however, very little that is typical in Phoenix land. Gemma Files's evocative "Hell Friend" has, as its root, a basic lonely teenager story: young Jin is obsessed with Twilight and the latest screen heartthrobs—but she is also a Chinese American whose family fully participates in the ritual of Hungry Ghost Month. Files uses the divisive nature of Jin's situation—that of a young person clashing with the beliefs of their elders—to underscore feelings of horror and isolation when those same beliefs lead Jin to an encounter in the world of the dead, but none of this unfurls in the expected narrative fashion. Specters appear without obvious narrative transitions to lead the story to its deadly denouement, and Jin's lively, often humorous inner monologue is frequently intercut by visions of ghostly phenomena, including her "hell friend," his "perfect teeth shifting askew in that kissable mouth … perfect hair already fire touched, sending up sparks. His face, far too gorgeous to be true, a mere compilation of every Clearasil ad, every music video, every doll Jin'd ever owned, or coveted" (p. 84), creating some genuinely hallucinatory passages.
John C. Wright's "Murder in Metachronopolis," for my money the collection’s crowning achievement, also starts with a basic scenario: a gumshoe is offered a commission. But Jake Frontino, the titular "Meta" in this noir/SF mash-up, is no ordinary detective—he's a detective in a world where time travelers have seized control and the murder he's investigating is his own. The irritating nature of this conundrum is not lost on Jake, or on Wright, who is smart enough to employ satire as a literary weapon against the expected time travel clichés. As Jake explains it to a pesky Time Lord:
"I don't take cases from Time Masters, see? All you guys are the same. The murderer turns out to be yourself, or you when you were younger. Or me. Or an alternate version of me or you who turns out to be his own father fighting himself because for no reason except that that’s the way it was when the whole thing started. Which it never did, on account of there's no beginning and no reason for any of it. Oh brother, you time travelers make me sick." (p. 226)
Sing it, child. Wright's own tale avoids these pitfalls by understanding the time travel narrative perhaps better than any author who has yet attempted it. Just as time travel can produce several stories out of the same event, Wright crafts several narratives out of his premise: the one he initially gives us, in which events and possible events are told out of order through a series of thirty "chapters," a second narrative with a completely different tone that is revealed by reading the chapters sequentially, and an implied Choose Your Own Adventure option, which results in an infinitely entertaining mish-mash. Nice trick, that. But Wright isn’t done. His grasp of character—and of the moral dilemmas inherent in playing around with time—are no less keen. The world-weary Jake is an appealing narrator, guiding us through the chrome-plated wilderness as seemingly familiar territory blows up in our faces. How did Wright manage to use the requisite "Do we go back and kill Hitler?" question as both a joke and the moral center of Jake's tale? You’re going to want to go back to the beginning and figure it out. There are infinite realities in time travel—let’s hope one of them contains an award for Mr. Wright.
This is not to suggest that the other participants in this anthology are in any way lacking. S. J. Hiron's "Dragons of America" is a poignant bit of alternative history in which a socialist boy pines for dragons "green as dollar bills" who smell of "hamburgers, hotdogs, buttered popcorn, and beer" (p. 172). Cat Rambo's tart "Surrogates" (not to be confused with a certain Bruce Willis movie) satirizes our dependence on entertainment and its associate technologies by having its heroine fiddle with an implanted "insanity chip." And Marie Brennan's "The Gospel of Nachash," an alternative version of Genesis featuring a lovelorn Satan figure, gets more haunting the longer you mull it over.
Not every story is entirely comprehensible. In John Grant's "Where Shadows Go at Low Midnight" the weird, alternative werewolf mythology underpinning the imagined world is too abstractly concocted for the sudden, shapeshifting conclusion to resonate, and Shweta Narayan's Alexander the Great epic "Eyes of Carven Emerald" sacrifices clarity in favor of gorgeous prose. In this sense they too are typical of Phoenix authors—their desire to create offbeat beauty sometimes resulting in stories that teeter just on the edge of inaccessible. In "Emerald," Narayan's mix of alternative history with invented myth and a dose of steampunk yields a heady, hyper-sensual setting filled with the "musical shiver of wings" (p. 171). But whatever universal truths of power and leadership she hopes to divulge in this tale of kings clashing with mechanicals gets lost somewhere between the heroic Alexandros marrying a robot and his penchant for long, riddling exchanges with a silver bird. The story is certainly not bad but one has the sense that it wished to pierce our hearts, not merely tap our shoulder with an ethereal hand.
In Phoenixland, of course, the triumph of beauty over clarity is to be expected. If not every story comes to a fathomable conclusion, well, getting there was fun—and Allen has still made good on his mission statement. It is indeed a strange and beautiful table he keeps. Pick up your crystal chopsticks and feast.