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Albedo # 35

01/02/2009. Contributed by Eamonn Murphy

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pub: Albedo One Publications, 2 Post Road, Lusk, County Dublin, Ireland. 66 page squarebound A4 magazine. Price: 5.95 euros.

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Reading this latest interesting offering from the land of poetry and stout, the land of my ancestors, it struck me, not for the first time, that Science Fiction stories are strong on plot and ideas but fantasy stories are good for character and elegant writing. Happily, I have a taste for both but if forced to express a preference, I'd probably go for SF substance over fantasy style.

When criticised for his own lack of style, the substantial Isaac Asimov liked to point out the clarity of his prose. Reading him and his ilk, the reader always knows who's who and exactly what happened. Some fantasy short stories leave you with an ambiguous ending that I find a bit unsatisfactory. 'Dress Rehearsal' by Michael Furlong is such a tale. I know that Daddy has left Mommy and little girl Kilsby is a bit upset and dresses up in her dead Granny's clothes. I can see that the mysterious bloke on the phone is probably Mommy's lover but I'm not sure who climbs the ladder to her bedroom and the ending left me mystified. But it's all written beautifully.

So is 'Beauty' by Fred Johnston. The steady, elegant, understated prose is worthy of the finest Quality Lit and deserves to be studied in the nation's schools but again I'm not entirely sure what happened. It's set in Brittany and rough locals duffed up the English ex-pat for being a bit too raving mad about the beauty of a little girl. But was she a ghost or a devil or a walking corpse? No doubt the ambiguity in these tales is deliberate, for the writers are clever chaps, but I'm a plain fellow and don't care for it much. The stories are a pleasant read but leave me with an empty feeling. I enjoy a tasty soup, too, but I like something substantial to follow.

'Gladstone' by Dermot Ryan was another insubstantial fantasy about a magician at a children's party who is obviously doing real magic but no one notices except the shy, lonely protagonist 'like a single Christian in a Colosseum filling up with lions.' The kids 'circled the illusionist and looked at him with insolent curiosity, the way large cats watch antelopes'. One doesn't expect a lot of plot in a three-page story but the atmosphere was nicely conveyed and Dermot's rare gift for simile and simple but memorable prose reminded me of P.G. Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler. If he can attach this talent to longer, more substantial stories I reckon he'll go far. Damn few people write this well. I loved it.

Creating a mood takes talent, elegant prose is nice, memorable characters are groovy but the essence of a tale is - as John D. Macdonald wrote in an introduction to Stephen King, 'Story, story, damnit! Story'. The fiction magazine is certainly the place for experimental and quirky works and if they feature shorter tales they can squeeze in and encourage more new authors. However, some of us like to read a good story with a plot and quite a lot happening and a surprise or two thrown in and a satisfactory conclusion. The sort of thing Asimov and Heinlein used to write. It takes 6,000 to 9,000 words to do properly.

For this reason and not because he lives near me, my favourite in this issue was Colin Harvey's 'On the Rock' a solid Science-Fiction work set in a far future when humans are colonising the stars. Earth has been abandoned, left to Radicals who want to become 'altered, even post-human.' Our hero, Joseph Martaens is sending reports back to his homeworld about Tiraete, a colony where Greek-Orthodox types crash landed many years before. Their bad start means they have only just achieved 20th century levels of technology. Their big problem is the native Solani, intelligent marine creatures given to savage attacks on humanity for reasons unclear. Their other big problem is strict interstellar rules about interfering with aboriginal species. This excellent piece of work might have come from a classic magazine of the forties or fifties such as 'Astounding' or 'Galaxy'. For me that was the Golden Age of short SF and if modern magazines emulated it they might get the common readers back. I think some editors prefer to be an arty farty niche market for geeks.

'Albedo' strikes a pretty good balance though and is of amazing quality for an outfit that pays only token sums to its contributors. Despite obvious budget restrictions, the magazine is of the same size and format as 'Interzone' and the stories are better. The writers aren't as famous but the stories are better and not nearly as miserable. There was an interview with Alastair Reynolds which made me keen to read his space operas and an excellent review section. I wish, I wish, I wish, I wish that short fiction could recapture the mainstream. I'd like to see magazine racks laden with 'Albedo', 'On Spec' and their ilk instead of celebrity tosh and diets. Oh well, maybe the recession will lead to power cuts so we'll have to switch off our television sets and go and do something less boring instead. Maybe.

Eamonn Murphy

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