A few weeks ago I pledged to Matt Kressel that I'd take a crack at blogging about the latest issue of Sibyl's Garage. I am, both by nature and by time constraint, an extremely slow reader. So I only finished the issue last week, and have been contemplating how to say what I want to say.
Then a review of the issue came out this Sunday in Green Man Review, which at least gives me a riff to start with, because I want to correct an injustice. My favorite story in the issue by far was Barbara Krasnoff's "All His Worldly Goods," a brilliant short-short piece with a tranquil surface spread just a hair's-depth over razor-sharp satire. Though I agreed with her on other things, reviewer Elizabeth Vail seems to me to have missed the point of Krasnoff’s story by a mile, and that point is the one made by answering this question: if Western society outlawed extramarital sex for religious reasons, what would happen to the time-dishonored tradition of prostitution? Krasnoff's answer, while hilarious, also rings of bitter truth. (I actually had the pleasure of complimenting Krasnoff on her story in person at ReaderCon.)
I did not like everything in SG5 — I even actively disliked one or two things — but I admired Matt’s willingness to venture into eclectic territory. His star has risen rapidly since he started publishing Sibyl's Garage a mere five years ago — he’s the publisher of one of the most important anthologies of the year, squirrel_monkey’s Paper Cities, and recently became co-curator with ellen_datlow of the prestigious KGB Reading Series in New York. He smartly promoted his first color issue, No. 4, with a group reading at ReaderCon last year that I’m sorry I didn’t attend.
As a fellow “grass roots” editor — and I must say up front, one with extremely jaded tastes — I found SG5 to be an intriguing mix. Not every story worked for me, and I often longed for more tales to brandish an edge like the one that glints in Krasnoff’s piece. Despite their surface differences, I would define the mood that permeated nearly every story (and poem) in the book as “sad yet sweet.” Two sad yet sweet stories that I found great value in reading were Daniel A. Rabuzzi’s “Last and First” and Gary Moshimer’s “Salesman.” Both, down deep, have essentially the same structure: a group of characters suffering because of tragedy needs a miracle; backstory further explains the nature of the tragedy and the desperation of the need; actions and circumstances combine (without much in the way of obstacles) to grant the miracle. This structure, which I call the “wish-fulfillment” story, can often be overfamiliar, but Rabuzzi’s thoughtful and touching sf scenario and Moshimer’s magic realism both in their own ways make these stories rewarding.
Another standout comes toward the end, as Hazel Marcus Ong’s “Roses” begins as a deceptively ho-hum fairy tale retelling but veers suddenly into disturbing and nasty turf. At first, to me, the transition seemed clumsy, but “Roses” builds from that turn of the screw into a compelling nightmare narrative of the twisted and Grimm. It’s a flawed story; it’s happy-ever-afterlife conclusion seemed to me to dull the power of what came before; but it’s also a brave story (and one that would give critic David Truesdale a mini-stroke, heh.) I could easily see this story in one of my own Mythic volumes alongside catvalente’s “Temnaya and the House of Books.”
The other major highlight was a surprise, something you don’t see often in a “genre mag” — and proof that Matt is up to something different — Mercurio D. Rivera’s “The Best-Dressed Man on the Court,” a moving real life memoir about paddleball, eccentric acquaintances, the transient nature of friendship and the way a tragedy can unite strangers who otherwise have nothing in common. It’s an excellent piece of writing that fits well within the issue’s milieu despite being a slice of Mundania — although Rivera’s depiction of paddleball culture in the Bronx is at least as entertaining as any fictional extraterrestrial society. The other non-fiction piece, an interview with writer Lauren McLaughlin, held my attention, though just a sentence or two explaining what exactly her new book Cycler is about would have enhanced the experience enormously.
As for the poetry, standouts for me were tithenai’s moving musings on “Orpheus” and David M. Rheingold’s weirdly funny AI poem “Macduff’s Lament.” Much of the other work didn’t affect me much, though I would be hard-pressed to explain why. (Despite the fact that I’m a former SFPA president, and I’ve both written and published several Rhysling Award winners and runner-ups ... I find it very difficult to dissect and articulate my impressions of poetry. My system of evaluation tends to be binary: either a poem moves me in some way, or it doesn’t.)
This is getting long. I’ll wrap up with this: Sybil’s Garage has generated some buzz with the way it recommends music tracks to accompany the various items it publishes. I approve in principle, but in practice this didn’t do much for me, because I’d only heard of maybe one or two of the recommended songs in this issue. Some of them looked suspiciously like “easy listening” to me. But then, to me, most everything is easy listening. The fact that I just bought concert tickets for a show featuring Judas Priest, Black Sabbath and Motorhead might go some way toward explaining this.
Because I’m going to make sure Matt sees this, I’m going to issue him a challenge: do a heavy metal issue. You put it together, man, I’m so there.