Review: Four Reviews by Sean Melican

Review: Four Reviews by Sean Melican

The Summer Isles, Ian R. MacLeod, ISBN 9780575097568, Aio Publishing.
Mothers and Other Monsters, Maureen F. McHugh, Small Beer Press.
Magic For Beginners Kelly Link, Jelly Ink.
Telling Tales, Nadine Gordimer, ed, ISBN 0-312-42404-3.

Reviewed by Sean Melican.

It’s a shame these three books couldn’t find a large publishing house to give them the visibility they deserve. I don’t have an intimate knowledge of the decision-making process, but it seems that there is something of a flattening in the field as well as outside it, in that marketing seems to be the dominant consideration. If it can’t be easily fitted with a label referencing a bestseller–“The next Harry Potter!”–it’s a tough sell. Collections are always a difficult fit, but it’s a shame that Kelly Link, who has a story in Best American Short Stories this year, won’t be on the same shelves as some of the other writers who’ll appear in the same pages. And a shame that Maureen McHugh, who is simply brilliant, won’t be next to the latest fat fantasy trilogy or military science fiction novel. What I’m saying is this: go buy these books, give them as gifts and have your friends buy them. They deserve a big audience.

Ian R. MacLeod’s The Summer Isles starts with a simple alternate history scenario: what if the Allies lost the first World War? His answer is that Britain will suffer the same conditions as 1920s and ’30s Germany, and turn into a more or less fascist state, including concentration camps for undesirables–Jews and homosexuals and others– with the euphemistic name the Summer Isles. (The Isle of Man, the Highlands, and other places.) The advertisements read like vacation brochures, Eden-like locales where you can start afresh. (In his introduction, Mr. MacLeod specifically urges the reader not to simply consider fascism, but all forms of “social madness.”) It’s important to remember that long before the late arrivals, the Americans, showed up to combat Nazi Germany, the British, French, Soviets and other Allies had long been fighting a brutal war. For Mr. MacLeod to suggest what happened to Germany could happen to Britain must be, to the British, utterly appalling. But what makes this an important book, as well as one difficult to get published, is that yes, what happened there can happen in Britain or even here and it’s so damn easy. I still shiver to remember the scene when the cattle trains rumble by in the dead of night, bright eyes peering behind through the slats.

Then there’s Mr. MacLeod’s hero. Geoffrey Brooke is anything but, really. He’s a coward and a fraud. He’s changed his name. (Much of the novel is about changing identities.) He teaches at Oxford but he’s not a professor–he doesn’t have the credentials; instead, he got the post, because he’d written regular newspaper column on historical figures for several years, and that he’d gotten because he supposedly taught John Arthur, the hero and despot of this new Britain. The last name is deliberate, a foreshadowing by invocation of that other Arthur.

Oh, and he’s queer. Other than one magical summer of love with a much younger man, Francis Eveleigh, his sex life is one of men’s toilet stalls, darkened storage sheds, bathhouses, and docks. His cowardice is clear when he thinks he should be standing on a tabletop shouting and taking a stand, but instead slinks to a darkened corner. How many men can be heroes? How many will be? It’s easy to fight in a war and maybe even die, but to stand against a tide of condemnation and hatred, that takes courage well beyond what most men are capable of.

Now he’s dying of inoperable lung cancer. His latest lover, a man with a family, disappears overnight. Afraid that he’s been found out, he makes discreet inquiries and discovers that his lover’s homosexuality is not what got him sent to the Summer Isles. He pursues this thread, but not very far, and recalls Francis and the first time he saw John Arthur. He is invited to John Arthur’s fiftieth birthday party, which coincides with (but is not coincidental) with) Trafalgar Day. He is suddenly friends with his boss, Cumbernald, and visits with them at their vacation house. Everyone wants a connection to John Arthur. In perhaps the most surreal juxtaposition, behind the house the trains, with their presumably human cargo, rumble by, while just down the road is the Cumbernald’s nudist colony. In terms of traditional plot, there’s precious little. Brooke merely flows from one incident to the next, past and present commingling, but that’s much of what the novel is about: how little our lives are truly ours, how much of our lives involve simply treading water. How easy it is to fall into one form or another of social madness, and how difficult it is to do what is right.

This is, in the final analysis, a dangerous novel. The same week I read it there was an article in the July 2005 LOCUS about Jeremy Lassen, publisher of Night Shade Book, being visited by two Secret Service agents regarding a photo collage entitled “Guns and Bush,” which was in protest to a Secret Service investigation of a Chicago art exhibit with similar images. Here is part of the story:

The agents interviewed Lassen about the photos, asked him to sign a release form so they could verify statements regarding his mental health history (That’s the scariest thing I’ve read in a long time.), separately interviewed his wife, and indicated they would be interviewing other members of his family. Lassen cooperated fully, and when the agents suggested that his case (What case? What crime?) would look better if he ‘retracted’ the photo-collage series, Lassen complied by taking them offline.

The Secret Service is considering filing criminal charges.

Go ahead. Tell me it can’t happen here. When your mental health is questioned and criminal charges are being considered because you protest the president and his administration’s efforts to stifle the First Amendment, what does that say about where our nation is headed?

I urge you to read The Summer Isles. I’ve long held the opinion that Animal Farm is an awful book because it’s merely a hundred and some-odd page analogy. Replace the animal names with infamous Soviets, and it’s a history book. Mr. MacLeod’s novel is a much better example of anti-totalitarian literature, a sometimes subtle and always brutal examination of the nature of human complicity. It’s an excellent book, and it’ll scare the hell out of you.

———•———

The first Maureen McHugh story I read was “Presence” in 2002. I decided I wasn’t impressed. The reason? She writes speculative fiction for grownups. My marriage was still in the honeymoon stage, more or less, and I only had one child who was less than a year old. (Babies are exhausting, but not difficult. They have only simple needs.) My grandmother hadn’t yet been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I wasn’t ready for her type of fiction.

A few years ago, I didn’t have an answer when I was asked why I thought Ms. McHugh’s stories hadn’t been collected. (Small Beer Press now has, thank goodness.) Now, I’d say it’s precisely because she writes for grownups. Her fiction has more in common with The New Yorker than Asimov’s or F&SF.

Many of her stories would be just as comfortable in mainstream magazines, perhaps more so than genre outlets.

“Presence” is the story of Mila, a woman in her fifties, whose husband, at the ripe young age of fifty-seven, has advanced Alzheimer’s. She seeks a treatment for him that will clean the plaque and rebuild neurons, but what was lost–memories of their marriage, their son, their love–are irrevocably lost. And it may be all for nothing if the disease strikes again.

Mila is a typical protagonist for Ms. McHugh, but notably not for genre. She’s a woman. She’s older and married. Name as many other SF writers as you can who regularly write about older or married people. Or marriages that are anything but domestic bliss.

And what an unsexy topic! Alzheimer’s. There are no aliens, posthumans, spaceships. No dragons, elves, witches. The science is almost peripheral, just a few descriptions of various injections. Certainly no long infodumps so we can see just how smart she is, how thoroughly Ms. McHugh does her research. Some domestic fights–how dull–but no great battles, escapes, or rescues.

But I don’t want to suggest that “Presence” is a dull story. Quite the opposite, in fact. Rather, the critical issue is that its power doesn’t come from the speculative element, the goshwow element that supposedly defines our genre, but from the realistic interactions of two rather unremarkable people thrust into a remarkable situation. Curiously, it’s not even written the way one might suspect, the kind where the ending is Mila’s moral conundrum: Give him the treatment and risk losing my husband, or live with him as he is, knowing that he’s forgotten almost everything. Including Mila and their son, Dan. Instead, almost from the outset, Mila decides to have him “cured”, without really considering the moral costs. Is she destroying her husband? Does she have that right? Is it moral? Mila doesn’t care. A lesser writer would have chosen the other ending, leaving it up to the readers to debate, but not confronting the daily challenge. Ms. McHugh chooses the harder story, the one in which the narrative of the story is nothing more and nothing less, than the exhausting and frightening process of watching Mila’s husband change. Typical of Ms. McHugh, there’s no pat ending, no equivalent of an Aesop’s moral, no relief for the reader: well, it’ll be all right in the end, and at least it couldn’t happen to me.

No, it won’t. And yes, it can. And if you are a grownup, fifty-seven ain’t that far away.

Read it because it hurts. Because it’s frightening. Because it’s important.

“Laika Comes Back Safe” is a curious story because it is an excellent example of the ambiguity of genre that is inherent in many of Ms. McHugh’s stories. (For a better discussion of this phenomenon, read Samuel Delaney’s interview in Across the Wounded Galaxies, or his collection Silent Interviews.) What if your best friend told you he had an inherited disease, one that makes him crazy every so often? What if he told you he was a werewolf? In the context of a genre outlet–Polyphony in this instance– it’s reasonable. But if it were mainstream? Then we’d have to assume that the boy was truly crazy. Ambiguity is one of Ms. McHugh’s many strengths, and we never really know. The story, like “Presence,” isn’t about the speculative element at all, but the pain of adolescence. The title, by the way, is beautifully, bitterly ironic.

When she does turn to more traditional genre stories, Ms. McHugh is adept at inverting the common tropes to forge a truly original story. If you’re at all familiar with science fiction, you’re familiar with Ursula LeGuin’s anthropological stories, and the pale imitations. If not, here’s the tried-and-true formula: An anthropologist, usually female (probably because the soft sciences are associated with women), cannot identify some cultural referent of an alien (truly alien, or just human) society which will allow the previously disconnected puzzle pieces to fall neatly into place. Usually this referent has an analogue to some problem the anthropologist is having within her own culture. Typically, everything wraps up neatly, all problems solved.

But in “The Cost to Be Wise”, the first inversion is that we see the entire story from the viewpoint of the indigenous people, the young woman Janna. We know everything she knows, but, most impressively, Ms. McHugh doesn’t resort to infodumps. Instead, what is unknown to the reader is revealed only when it strikes Janna, most notably with respect to the alien species stabros. (And no, there’s no moment when everyone realizes the stabros have human-equivalent intelligence.)

Veronique, a young, dark-skinned woman, and her ‘teacher’ arrive to visit their friends who are anthropologists–‘teachers’ is the closest translation in Janna’s language. Janna becomes the translator and guide for Veronique.

Sckarline, where Janna lives, isn’t a clan like most people live in on this world, but appears to be a collection of outcasts. They don’t approve of guns or violence, though Janna’s father sometimes hits Janna’s mother. (The matter-of-fact tone about this last is chilling.) They are subject to raids by Scathalos clan, who sometimes trade or buy Sckarline’s liquor, but often just take it by force.

In one of the most powerful scenes, Veronique is sexually assaulted by one of the Scathalos raiders. It is so powerful because it is so unrelenting.

Events spiral out of control into murderous violence. Janna and Veronique are only on the periphery, literally, a powerful literary device since the reader sees, both literally and metaphorically, only the shadows of the precipitating events, lending realism to the chaotic, fragmented scenes.

Finally, the ending is equally powerful, Ms. McHugh again not settling for an easy, satisfying finish, but a difficult, truer, and darker vision. Anthropology offers as little a solution to moral ambiguity as any other methodology for viewing the world.

The other stories are just as good; there’s not a single story that isn’t strong, and most are brilliant. I’ve picked the above stories only because they illustrate Ms. McHugh’s strengths.

For what it’s worth, “Oversite” is my favorite story in the collection because of these two sentences: “About the girl’s palm print found on the wall above his bed. I would picture her, leaning her weight for a moment to steady herself.”

———•———

Kelly Link has said that she is a science fiction and not a slipstream writer despite efforts to categorize her work. Her work is not easy to categorize, but she’s right, she’s not slipstream. Slipstream is usually a collection of impossible artifacts or peoples, or anachronistic situations, relying on a weirdness (New Weirdness?) and absurdity to often hide a rather flat and uninteresting story. A romance or a dialectic doesn’t suddenly become brilliant simply because the people are cacti or made of tin cans.

Ms. Link’s stories are hard to categorize because they take relatively ordinary situations–buying a new house, playing poker, hanging out at an underage party while the parents are away–and uses unusual narrative techniques to evoke a variety of genres, mostly horror. In fact, while she uses words associated with genre concepts, her use is anything but ordinary. In “The Hortlak,” there are zombies, but they don’t eat brains or drop rotting, putrid flesh on the ground. The word zombie merely refers to people who appear at the All-Night near the Ausible Chasm, buy stuff, and leave. Zombie might merely be a metaphor for the type of people who visit convenience stores in the middle of the night. Might not be, but there’s simply nothing in the story to suggest one reading or the other. The story, by the way, isn’t about zombies at all but a rather odd love triangle. In “Some Zombie Contingency Plans,” there’s nothing overtly genre at all, except some people discuss what elaborate plans they have should zombies occur. But, of course, zombies don’t exist, and the real question is what elaborate plans do you have for real crises?

When I read Ms. Link had a new book out called Magic for Beginners, I thought that she’d written the YA novel she occasionally mentions in various interviews. Sadly, no, we’ll have to wait. Wouldn’t that be something, though, to have a Kelly Link YA novel out the same time as Harry Potter? The mind boggles.

“Magic for Beginners” might be the opening salvo in a novel. It is, pardon the phrase, a typical Kelly Link story. Here’s the opening:

Fox is a television character, and she isn’t dead yet. But she will be, soon. She’s a character on a television show called The Library. You’ve never seen The Library on TV, but I wish you had. (Boy, do I.)

———•———

In one episode of The Library, a boy named Jeremy Mars, fifteen years old, sits on the roof of his house in Plantagenet, Vermont.

Except Jeremy Mars watches The Library. Curiously, he’s both a viewer and an active participant. But he doesn’t know it. This is typical of Ms. Link’s work, where reality and fiction, to use mundane terms that are really only approximations of the concepts, mingle. The Library that Jeremy watches with his best friends and mother, who’s a librarian, doesn’t appear on a regular schedule, and no one has come forward to announce that they are the writer, director, or stars of the show. He and his mother inherit a Vegas wedding chapel and a phone booth. His mother and father are on the outs. His friends are probably people you hung out with. Talis, for example, is as quiet as Calvin Coolidge and definitely not Goth, but has lots and lots of tee shirts. Not slipstream in the sense of absurd collections of objects–every object and type of person exists in our world–but is Jeremy a television character in a show that he watches, and can he save Fox and perhaps his parents’ marriage, while deciding which of his girl friends he would most like to kiss?

“The Faery Handbag” is the closest to pure genre Ms. Link has ever written, and the only story with an impossible object: a giant, furry handbag containing the vanished nation of Baldeziwurlekistan, (my spell check just kicked me and ran out the door) but this seems to be as much a metaphor about the importance of retaining cultural identity as it is a literal object. In this story, as in many others, the narrator speaks directly to the audience, saying, “Promise me that you won’t believe a word. That’s what Zofia (the narrator’s grandmother and owner of the faery handbag) used to say to me when she told me stories.” So, of course, we do. If we don’t believe a word, then we’re forced to accept that this is only an impossible fiction, and all emotional value is drained away. Instead, Ms. Link’s prose is such that we want to believe in this world, in this handbag, in the promise of a kinder, gentler, happier place.

“Stone Animals” is the story that will appear, or has appeared, in the Best American Short Stories collection. Here’s the opening:

Henry asked a question. He was joking.

“As a matter of fact,” the real estate agent snapped, “it is… It’s reflected in the asking price, of course.”

You’ll have to figure out the question Henry asked but when you do, the meaning of the story and the sub-genre Ms. Link is playing with (and offering an homage to) become clear. It is, until the very last sentence, ambiguous in terms of genre, and then the whole thing makes sense. Again, there’s nothing overtly fantastical, but through the magic (for beginners as well as Advanced Placement students) of her narrative, the horror grows with a malignant willfulness. Like most of her stories, it’s difficult to guess the ending but when it comes, the weight of the story settles like an ancient house: heavy and solid and forever. A married couple, Henry and Catherine, with two children, and Catherine pregnant with another, purchase a house with curious stone artifacts. Catherine becomes obsessed with painting the house, so much so that the sizes of the rooms have actually begun to shrink. Henry has to go to the city to work. He was supposed to work from home, but only he can fix things, and he can only do it at the office. There are hints that he may be having an affair with his boss, but maybe not. Objects in the house become haunted, not literally like Poltergeist et al., but in the minds (and maybe in fact) of the homeowners who cannot stand touching or owning certain items.

Ms. Link’s stories are such a pleasure to read because in a very real sense they are nothing like you’ve ever read. How odd, to use such a trite phrase to describe something that is the very opposite of trite. Trying to guess where one of her stories will go is virtually impossible. But her stories encourage you to guess, and that’s part of the fun. The only certainty is, of course, that the boy will never get the girl, the world will not be forever saved from darkness, and what you thought was real isn’t, while what you thought wasn’t, is. Got it?

Good. Now go out and get it.

———•———

While not strictly genre, Telling Tales, edited by Nadine Gordimer, is a book worth buying. It’s a collection of stories from writers around the world, chosen by themselves as representing their best work, but what’s important is that the writers and publishers have agreed not to take a single penny from the sale of the book. All monies go to the Treatment Action Campaign, a non-profit group combating HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa. When you buy this book, you donate the entire cost to a worthy cause and you get a truly excellent cross-section of international writers.



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