Polyphony 4 (Wheatland Press, edited by Deborah Layne and Jay Lake) makes it clear enough that a spirit of experimentation exists among those writers who have chosen to work within the uber-genre of science fiction/fantasy, much more so, if this anthology is at all representative, than among those who still aspire to the putative respectability of "literary fiction." The latter category encompasses a small subset of writers who are in effect granted a license to call themselves "experimental," but the degree to which these writers are truly willing to reconsider the ultimate purposes and unexamined proprieties of fiction is really quite limited. And while occasionally this or that ostensibly unconventional approach manages to create a modest stir or even for a time to catch on as the latest in literary fashion, only a few experimental writers are able or willing to stick to their chosen course very firmly in the face of both complete commercial irrelevance and a general lack of informed critical attention.
SF/Fantasy of all the genres presumably offers through its fundamental enabling conventions the most explicit alternative to mainstream literary fiction, which, even at its most experimental, mostly aims, in one way or another, directly or indirectly, to capture present circumstances, things as they are, or at least as they can be seen to represent abiding concerns in human existence more generally. Science fiction deliberately foregoes a direct engagement with the world literary fiction confronts more squarely, preferring instead imaginative extrapolations from existing conditions in that world; fantastic fiction ignores the restraints of realism in coming to terms with that world altogether. But the stories in Polyphony 4 don't just exemplify the alternative strategies embodied in their genres. They manifest an obvious effort to question inherited assumptions about storytelling, the basic principles of fiction-making.
And yet my most immediate response to this anthology was disappointment, even boredom. While the ambitions motivating most of these stories are entirely admirable, the realization of these worthy ambitions is not often equal to the potential for "making it new" the anthology itself represents. Too frequently the stories seem to settle for, at worst, an indulgence in superficial whimsy, at best, a cultivation of the bizarre in situation and event that, at least as I read them, can't bear the weight they're asked to bear when left to provide the primary source of dramatic interest. Sometimes, the piling-up of bizarre details and frankly silly conceits simply substitutes for any further attempt to additionally develop the work into something more aesthetically compelling, as in "Ataxia, the Wooden Continent":
ATAXIA: A floating continent, entirely composed of wood. Populated by various races of arboids, celluloids, and laminates. Ruled by the priest cult of the Great Lectern at Shellac-Veneer. This magnificent city surrounds the sacred lectern's base. The cupolas and minarets of Shellac-Veneer rise from the Plain of Lath, Ataxia's central plateau. The Lectern's high priest administers the Holy Ataxic Empire from the Shrine of the Thrones of Nails. Defended by armies of Drillers under the command of the Walking Barn Roof. . .Major Cities: Shellac-Veneer, Cambium, Silo, and Wharftown. Main rivers: The Timber, the Pellet, and the Tanbark. Chief imports: screws, bolts, and brackets. Chief exports: Shovelers and toothpick hay.
Moreover, the editors have not made it easier to appreciate the worthwhile stories that are included in Polyphony 4 by arranging it so that the most tiresomely whimsical and/or hackneyed stories are the ones at the front of the book (the very best story, in fact, is literally saved until last), thus only increasing the possibility that a casual or curious reader will give up on the anthology and conclude that sf/fantasy may not reward further sampling. By my count, the first really good story doesn't come along until page 169 ("The Storyteller's Story"), although at least four of the following eight stories ("Memree," "Baby Love," "Hart and Boot," and "Bagging the Peak") are also quite good. Of the remaining 100 pages, readers might disagree about the quality of such stories as "The Journal of Philip Schuyler," and "The Wings of Meister Wilhelm" (historical fantasies of a sort), while "Tales from the City of Seams" and "Three Days in a Border Town" are two of the best stories to be found in Polyphony 4, almost (not quite) redeeming the tedium one must unfortunately endure through the largest part of the anthology.
Perhaps the most significant contributing factor to the general lassitude Polyphony 4 induces is that, with exceptions, the writing itself in most of these stories is really quite lackluster, not at all commensurate with the colorful concepts from which the stories seem to emerge. The very first paragraph of the very first story sets the tone for the mostly flat and stale style of writing one encounters in too many of the stories:
Emelia's home is in a city where only children are allowed to draw graffiti on the crumbling walls. The old bricks and stones are covered in crude pictographs and stick figures, smoking chimney houses and bicycles with four wheels and two seats. Chalk is a penny a piece, any color to be had. A little old lady with gnarled fingers and crooked eyes sells the sticks out of cigar boxes on street corners, even in the rain.
The open-eyed wonderment conveyed by this passage cannot mitigate the otherwise bland prose and the cloying and cliched effect it produces. Overall, the most lasting impression the writing in many of these stories leaves is the sense that all too often their authors are so enamored of the "idea" being pursued they can't really bother with composing satisfying prose to go along with it. In the most extreme cases, I could only conclude that the sensibility informing the stories was finally more cinematic than literary, more concerned with narrative immediacy than with the opportunity to do something interesting with words, at least where style is concerned.
Nevertheless, if I were to point interested readers to stories in Polyphony 4 that would reward the effort to locate a copy of the anthology, regardless of one's interest in genre, there would be two: Michael Bishop's "Baby Love" and Jeff VanderMeer's "Three Days in a Border Town." I would be hard put to classify the former story as science fiction or fantasy at all: It tells in a more or less straightforwardly realistic but effectively understated way the story of a man who loses his wife in an auto accident and must care for his infant daughter by himself. It is an engaging story that concludes in a quiet but really very emotionally crushing way. "Three Days in a Border Town" is to some extent a fairly familiar tale of the postapocalypse, but its central conceit is executed very effectively (it is thematically integrated in a manner that succeeds in purely literary terms and is not merely clever or fanciful) and the writing is evocative and assured: "When you come out of the desert into the border town, you feel like a wisp of smoke rising into the cloudless sky. You're two eyes and a dry tongue. But you can't burn up; you've already passed through flame on your way to ash. Even the sweat between your breasts is ethereal, otherwordly. Not all the blue in the sky could moisten you." If VanderMeer's story more reliably exemplified the kind of work being done in contemporary science fiction, I would indeed want to read more, but I have a feeling that its virtues are finally more the product of a generally superior writer, however he might be classfied, than of the typical practices among writers in this genre.