Helen Madden's collection of speculative erotica dazzles with its diversity. Ms. Madden is an accomplished writer, but it is the originality of her premises and the variety of moods and styles that she adopts which set this compendium apart. Perhaps I should mention that sexually, her stories are equally diverse, offering heterosexual, lesbian, gay, and ménage relationships as well as alien couplings that do not fit into any category on earth.
Future Perfect ranges from satire to horror, from sweet, raunchy satisfaction to agonizing loneliness. Ms. Madden's characters include a foul-mouthed dyke mermaid, a creature half-man and half-plant, a hermaphroditic empath, a gaggle of part-animal super-heroes with names like Atomic Eagle and Rabid Rodent, an obese woman drawn to the moon to be free of gravity, and two porn-loving slacker dudes who get more than they bargain for - not to mention the angels Gabriel and Michael and Lucifer himself. When you begin one of these stories, you really can't tell where it will take you.
I'll focus on one of my favorite tales, "Husbands and Wives", to illustrate my point. It begins with a young man, come to seek a wife at an annual festival
Davy sat alone at a scarred wooden table outside a small café. Twilight draped the sky above him in velvet shades of blue and purple. Stars studded the far horizon like crystalline splinters of ice. Their glinting light sent a chill down Davy's spine. This was his ninth evening in the city of Matrimony, and he still had yet to find his bride.
At this point, we may already have an outline of the story in mind. The situation is familiar from fairy tales, the boy on a quest, seeking a bride but finding something quite different. We expect a happy resolution, from our history and also from the story's title. Still, there's darkness in this initial paragraph. Something is haunting poor Davy, filling him with trepidation.
A bit later, we think we know the answer.
Davy gave a weak smile in response and the matron shuffled off. The hinges squealed, the door swung shut, and he was alone again. His hands shook as he lifted the drink to his lips. He hoped the old woman was right. His mother and sisters were depending on him to make a good match, to marry a wealthy woman who would support her husband's kin. Of course, the richest brides had long since wed, having snatched up the most promising husbands on the first day of the festival.
Davy winced as he recalled that day, the day he had ruined his best chance. He had stepped off the dusty train that had carried him all the way from his home on the East Coast to Matrimony and was thrust into a maelstrom of shouting, frantic females.
In this world, we think, women have the power and wealth, and men are useful only for breeding. Poor Davy is concerned about disappointing his family and leaving them in poverty. But he's grown up sheltered from the outside world; he doesn't know how to attract the sort of bride he needs.
We know that he'll find true love, though, because that is what happens in fairy tales.
A woman stood on the dusty path leading into the café. She was tall, with long dark hair and a flowing cotton dress. Swirling tattoos trailed down her bare arms in delicate henna spirals, depicting the traditional symbols of life and fertility. A smile played over her lips as she studied Davy.
"Hello," she said.
Davy stared at her. He had seen so many women in the past several days, more than he ever would have believed existed. No two had been exactly alike, but his reactions had always been the same. Alarm, dismay, frustration, apathy - he had run through a gamut of adverse emotions. But this woman was the first to elicit something different from him, something new and positive.
She did not stalk toward him, preparing to pounce on him and carry him off to the wedding chapel if he turned out to be good husband material. Rather, she approached him quietly, the way he'd once watched his mother approach a fallen baby bird before picking it up to put it back in the nest. A strange but pleasant prickle ran over Davy's skin as the woman walked toward him, and he felt as though he'd just woken up for the first time in his life.
Aha, we nod smugly to ourselves. She's the one. And she is, the wife and the lover he has been awaiting, the woman he is meant to marry. As the tale proceeds, they talk, they wed, they consummate their relationship. Then suddenly the story twists in a terrible, tragic way that we never anticipated - even though, looking back, we can see that Ms. Madden left us clues.
I won't spoil the suspense by telling you how the story ends. I'll just say that when I finished reading this tale the first time, I had tears in my eyes. I had to go back and reread it, to see how cleverly Ms. Madden had manipulated my expectations and then delivered a conclusion that took my breath away.
Helen Madden is mistress of the original and the unexpected. Nearly every story in this collection surprises, and many delight.