Sufficing

By John Hertz: Here’s one I missed entirely.

I think it’s worth your attention.  It was certainly worth mine.

You now have an excuse given by me to rebuke my not staying in touch with Electronicland.

I knew Baen had started publishing Tim Powers.  I knew a new-assembled collection Down and Out in Purgatory had appeared in 2017.  I’d read the title novella happily – if that word may be used of a Tim Powers story – hmm – with pleasure – hmm – well, awestruckly, when it was published in 2016.

I knew the collection had some twenty tales going back to his first published short fiction from 1982 (which George Scithers, then editing Asimov’s, invited, but didn’t like, so Powers sold it to F & SF).  I saw a nice new copy in a bookshop but didn’t buy it.

Oh, fatal error.  Play in your mind your favorite “Shouldn’t have turned away” music.

I’ve just read it – two weeks after Hugo nominations closed.

At the end I found “Sufficient Unto the Day”, a new Powers short story from 2017.

Not only was it in the paper version – published November 2017; I had three months – it had appeared electronically in the Baen Free Library.

Alas, I can’t nominate it now.  I can’t urge you to.  We can’t vote for it either; it didn’t reach the ballot.  But neither did other things you or I or someone thought worthy.  So it goes.

While we’re all catching up reading so as to think or re-think about what did reach the ballot, I’ll try to tell you why I find this story so swell.  When I did that with another story it helped at least one person.

Powers’ writing is vivid, poetic, and neat.  That’s not the only way to deal with strange things or even the only mighty way. But it does make use of the suggestion The greater the reality, the better the fantasy.  Some of a Powers story seems so ordinary that it heightens the strangeness.

Also Powers is the opposite of Nothing is revealed.  A hundred thirty words into “Sufficient” the main-focus character is in her kitchen, and

At 4 PM on Thanksgiving afternoon she had put on an apron and tied her chestnut hair back in a ponytail and was preparing the accommodation water for certain of the expected guests.

She was preparing what??  All will appear (I’ve warned you about these puns).  I can’t say “Fear not” – this is a Tim Powers story – but it will.

Also once strangenesses arrive they operate quite matter-of-factly.

“So what does my brother say?” Nana asked Shortstack.  Uncle Scuttle had been mute since his death, never having got the trick of vibrating the water surface like a speaker diaphragm, and could only communicate by way of Shortstack’s automatic writing.

Some of his poetic quality is like that.  Only after you’ve imagined what he’s shown you do you notice what a good metaphor he made.

His stories are architectural.  There is a sense – I hesitate to say “plain”, but in a way it is – of a place for everything and everything in its place.  That place could be a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind – or indeed much worse.  You might not belong there, I might not belong there, but what we find there does.  The ribs and spans of the story hold.

“They’re not fishbowls tonight, and get out of here.  If you’ve got to upset your sister, see that you don’t do it in the dining room.”

This to a ten-year-old nephew will seven pages later have its result.

I happen to like the way he waves at outside reading as he goes by.

Her father had always liked Dylan Thomas’ poetry.  “You really think?” asked Biscuit.  Shortstack had paused in prying at a black blob on the muzzle of his revolver.

If you don’t, as with any ornament it’s not essential.

And he jokes.  There are jokes in Dante’s Divine Comedy, there are jokes in Shakespeare’s tragedies.  Powers doesn’t duck or belittle his own creations; their dilemmas are pressing, their horrors are shocking; but this can at the same time be comical.  He doesn’t duck that either.

There are endnotes from him at the end of each story in this collection.  At the end of “Sufficient” he says

This is as close as I’ll probably ever get to writing a James Thurber story like “The Night the Bed Fell”.

Powers fans, however, would not venture a prediction.

6 thoughts on “Sufficing

  1. One of my favorite writers, he adds a weird logic to the surreal until talking to ghosts or time travel seems like a natural thing that you just haven’t stumbled across yet.

    edit: Also fantastic of BAEN to have it in their Free Library.

  2. I stopped checking the Baen Free Library a few years back when it seemed they weren’t adding anything new. Or at least not adding anything new that I might conceivably be interested in. If they’re getting Powers, I’ll have to put it back on my “check regularly” list.

  3. The only way I can talk to John Hertz is via the comments here. I know I can call him, but not having any way to send him e-mail—hey, he always asks me for artwork, and I could send him stuff on-line—is a pain.

    I’m not on Facebook, but I communicate with so many friends around the world without using the phone. And I’m saying that, as the former (early 1960s) Phone Fan…

  4. John Hertz replies by carrier pigeon:

    Brother Porter has my real-mail address. It’s on every letter I write to him. It’s on my fanzine _Vanamonde_, for which I solicit his drawings – Heaven help me, I like them, and for years have been printing what he gets round to sending. It’s public, and can even be found with Directory Assistance. It’s been the same since 1982.

    And people ask me why I won’t dive into Electronicland.

  5. Cassy B: I stopped checking the Baen Free Library a few years back when it seemed they weren’t adding anything new. Or at least not adding anything new that I might conceivably be interested in. If they’re getting Powers, I’ll have to put it back on my “check regularly” list.

    There’s a nice Major Bhaajan novella (22,500 words) by Catherine Asaro in that same 2017 Baen Free Fiction Sampler, too, and an Under Jurisdiction short story by Susan R. Matthews.

    I loved Salvage and Demolition and enjoyed Down and Out in Purgatory (the novella), but “Sufficient Unto the Day” doesn’t really do it for me — although there is some interesting worldbuilding there.

  6. JJ, you had me at Susan Matthews. (For a person who really doesn’t much like grimdark, I find Matthews’ works oddly compelling….)

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