Friday, March 25, 2016

Microreview [book]: The Flesh Made Word, ed. Bernie Mojzes

 There's probably a "the pen is mightier" joke I could make here but I'm classier than that.

There are collections that I would recommend to people to highlight just how much fun speculative erotica can be. And then there are collections that I would recommend to people to highlight just how heartbreakingly beautiful speculative erotica can be. This falls into that later category. Not that some of the stories aren't fun, but the collection as a whole foregoes the more conventional happily ever afters for stories that hit, that sink like the weight of history, that rise like a phoenix to burn for a brief, glorious moment before descending into ashes again. These stories are no doubt erotic, but they are also no doubt incredibly literary and inky in their depth and focus. If you ever wanted to weep openly while reading a collection of erotic stories, well then this anthology is for you!

The subtitle of the collection, "Erotic Tales About Writing," provides a solid theme as well as a heavy dose of meta-ness. After all, these are written tales about the act of writing as erotic. Typewriters become needful ghosts, and tattooing becomes entangled with touch and resistance and betrayal. Playwrights will their characters into existence to disastrous results and prophecies bloom in aches finally eased, frustrations finally released. The stories all blend the theme in with their speculative elements in wildly imaginative ways, creating worlds of beauty and darkness, pleasure and pain. The anthology as a whole maintains a balance between happy stories and more tragic ones, but this is not a light read. The stories are almost entirely dense, challenging, and very good, but not what I'd call appropriate beach reading. As such, the stories flit between incredibly sexy and, well, not so much. "Rival Pens" by Benji Bright, for instance, maintains a rather charming voice and solid pacing in a story about two competing playwrights whose ambition and spite and arrogance destroys more than they know. It is definitely an erotic work, but for me it struck much closer to devastatingly disturbing than fun-sexy-times-go, though still very much worth the read.

And many of the stories center on loss and longing and healing or the inability to ever fully heal. In "All the Spaces In-Between" by A.C. Wise, which kicks off the collection, features a man who tries to repair typewriters, not just of their physical problems but psychically as well, finding in them the ghosts of those who used them. And by exorcising their pain, their history, their loss, he seeks to exorcise himself as well, his drive an attempt to fill with words the hole inside him, the hole a war made in people disappeared, lives destroyed. Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the book, Sunny Moraine's "Capitalia" reveals a story of bodies and the power of writing your own story, your own identity. Because words can be prisons and words can be keys and words can fail and words can set free. It's a delightfully sensuous story about crossroads, about change, and it's an satisfying way to end the collection, a spice of rebellion and resistance and a lingering promise that words are tools and that we can wield them to tell the stories we want. And, to further highlight that fact, the collection leaves space after the last story for the reader to write something of their own, to add their voice and mark to the chorus, to the call. To engage in writing as an erotic act. It's a very nice touch, though I might be too much a book-purist to actually write something in my copy.

I'd say most of the stories in the collection tend toward the fantasy side of things, which I have absolutely no problem with. There's a great amount of second world settings with strange and richly-built societies and situations. "Paper Skin" by Sasha Payne, creates a world ravaged by war and sustained by resistance. Karl is a man whose skin can bear messages in tiny scars that fade quickly, and his story is one of despair and longing, hurt and betrayal. His world is overrun, brutally controlled, and so Karl lives for his small resistances, his moments of stolen pleasure. The setting is vivid and crushing, the story erotic and heartbreaking, Karl's heart as fragile as paper, as strong as iron. "The Prophet Scroll" by Delilah Bell builds no less intricate a world, ruled by ceremony and starring Zia, a woman with no real interest in court politics or magic until she discovers she's the Scroll, the intended mate for the Prophet, who is part leader and part spiritual figure and entirely a rather frustrated man because of the…restrictions of his office. What follows is a sexy and elaborately rendered story that mixes performance, prophecy, and pleasure.

All in all, the collection succeeds not only in capturing a truly impressive range of stories tackling the erotic act of writing, but also in demonstrating just how deep and meaningful speculative erotica can be. For readers who enjoy deep and lyric prose but are hoping for a bit more explicit eroticism than most short speculative fiction markets put out, this collection will not disappoint. For those looking for a fun and sexy read…well, that's not really what this collection sets out to do. The stories carry with them a pervasive darkness and grapple with despair and loss and emptiness. They look at what it means to write, what it means to have sex, and what it means to write about having sex.

The Math:

Baseline Assessment: 8/10 

Bonuses: +1 for a very dense collection of speculative erotica, +1 for a great range of stories and great use of the theme

Negatives: -2 for breaking my heart (numerous times!) and making me cry while reading erotica

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 "very high quality" see our full rating system here.

POSTED BY: Charles, avid reader, reviewer, and sometimes writer of speculative fiction. Contributor to Nerds of a Feather since 2014.

Reference: ed. Mojzes, Bernie. The Flesh Made Word [Circlet Press, 2015]