Review: Four reviews by Sean Melican

Review: Four reviews by Sean Melican

Adams, John Joseph, editor. Wastelands. Night Shade Books: 2008. ISBN: 978-1-59780-105-8

Živkovic, Zoran. Alice Copple-Tošic, translator. Steps Through the Mist. Aio Publishing Company LLC: 2007 ISBN: 978-1-933083-10-0

Singh, Vandana. Of Love and Other Monsters. Aqueduct Press: 2007 ISBN: 978-1-933500-16-4

Mallet, Nathalie. The Princes of the Golden Cage. Night Shade Books:2007. ISBN: 978-1-59780-090-7

First, several caveats:

It is always good to have collections of short stories. They are an endangered species and like all endangered species, the more space available for them and the more of them, the better.

John Joseph Adams deserves a great deal of credit for the extensivity and reach of his research (see my notes on research below), and for picking recent post-apocalyptic stories that have not been heavily anthologized.

But most of these stories have been reviewed elsewhere, including Locus, Tangent, and elsewhere. Therefore, rather than reinforce or refute reviews of these stories on an individual basis, I’ve chosen to discuss the value of, and some of the trends within, the sub-genre.

Having said that, none of the stories in Wastelands is a weak story. Some are better than others, but that is always the case with any collection. It is worth buying.

Why collect post-apocalyptic stories as opposed to, say, favorite stories (these are the best-of-the-year collections) or, well, anything else? Because, ostensibly, post-apocalyptic stories are allowed, even encouraged, to break the rules. Stories in the (real or mythological) past must adhere to economic, physical, geographical, historical, social, or cultural rules. Stories in the future must make an attempt, feeble or otherwise, to connect the imagined future to the past: they can break certain rules—most scientific laws, as it is known as science fiction—but they must maintain continuity with the historical past. With post-apocalyptic stories, however, anything goes. To borrow Larry Niven’s phrase, it is a playground for the mind. It is the opportunity to do thought experiments. Of course this leads to a great amount of apparent but not real (see below) authorial laziness: research is hard. Done well, though, post-apocalyptic stories break the rules (they fracture the speculative fiction mirror, as it were) to reflect upon, well, ourselves. Therefore, I propose renaming the genre after-the-break stories, at least for purposes of this review.

There is an insidious largely unexamined assumption regarding the above-mentioned authorial laziness: many stories reinforce certain implicit lessons, particularly that of the lone hero (abducted from the Western genre) who can, through sheer goodness (and maybe a touch of madness) conquer the overwhelming forces of chaos or evil. Road Warrior, The Postman, and I Am Legend are typical of the cinematic versions. Worse, however, is the reinforcement that democratic republicanism and capitalism are good things, both the apex of modern government, and the glue which maintains order and decency. In the Western canon, there almost certainly has never been an after-the-break story emphasizing, say, the strength of Muslim or African religious, social, governmental and economic structures. This is rather myopic considering that communities (however they are defined) in after-the-break stories are almost certainly closer to the size and structure of a small, tightly knit, highly interdependent tribe or communal group (the !Kung and Bedouins come to mind) than that of a distant, anonymous, capitalistic society. In fact, “The Last of the O-Forms, “Artie’s Angels,” “And the Deep Blue Sea,” “Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus,” and “A Song Before Sunset” require capitalism to remain the dominant economic model (sans a fiat money system). Despite all this elbow room for thought experimentation, despite the opportunity to break the dominant paradigms (these are after-the-break stories), the same themes echo in the narrow box of Western ideology.

This is NOT to argue that these stories are BAD stories, but to outline the point that for all the malleability available in after-the-break stories, most maintain a very narrow, very Western view of human societies.

Now, in Dale Bailey’s “The End of the World as We Know It,” Mr. Bailey juxtaposes historic end-of-the-known-world scenarios, such as that of the black plague (which must certainly have seemed like the end of the world) with the anti-hero’s rather blasé actions or lack thereof (what the hell else is he to do?) while the story itself is self-aware, acknowledging well-known tropes. For example:

In the second variety, irresponsible human beings bring it on themselves. Mad scientists and corrupt bureaucrats, usually.

Stephen King’s “The End of the Whole Mess” is a paint-by-the-numbers of this type capped by a ludicrous, painful ending—clearly a riff on the popular ‘it’s in the water’ notion. Sadly, the story never rises above cliché, with cardboard characters (brilliant, mad scientist intent on saving the world and his skeptical but admiring brother) and an ending that is telegraphed from the title—one would expect a surprising twist at the end to undercut, comment on, or offer an ironic interpretation, but the story is exactly what the reader expects. If I have one critique of Mr. Adams, it’s that he chose this story as an example of its type rather than the vastly superior “The World, as We Know’t” from Howard Waldrop. What makes it superior? It takes a single, disproven theory—the ether—assumes that it’s true and extrapolates. And, oh yeah, it’s well-written. Whereas Mr. King has to invent not one but two ludicrous, laughably implausible scientific discoveries. If Occam’s razor holds true, which story is better?

With this one exception, the other selections are excellent examples illustrating a wide range (other than the narrow Western viewpoint) of after-the-break stories.

“Salvage” and “Judgment Passed” (the only original story) are an interesting pair, contrasting the value, durability, and necessity of religious faith in the former with a healthy does of skepticism in the latter. Another common idea (so common, several writer’s guidelines advise readers to avoid it) is that of a man and woman repopulating the world—never mind that it’s genetically impossible. Gene Wolfe’s “Mute” turns the story on its head, so that rather than finding a story of hope, it’s horrific. Mr. Bailey’s story loads the idea with the possibility that if two are left, what if one doesn’t care?

Blame, of course, plays a large part. Stephen King lays the whole damn mess on one man’s shoulders while Richard Kadrey writes:

I wish there had been a war, a plague or some new, grand Chernobyl. Something we could point to and say, ‘That’s it. That’s what killed the world.’ But it wasn’t like that.

while Nancy Kress, in a refreshing counter-extrapolation writes:

And the sociologists came in droves, minicams in hand, ready to record the collapse of the ill-organized and ill colonies into street-gang, dog-eat-dog anarchy.

Later, when this did not happen, different sociologists came in later-model sani-suits to record the reasons why the colonies were not collapsing on schedule. All these groups went away dissatisfied. There was no cure, no cause, no story, no collapse, no reasons.

There is, of course, a reason. But in a reversal of the usual, Ms. Kress creates a working society of outcasts (colonies of victims of a strange disease) isolated from the supposed ‘normal’ world, which is falling apart:

 

… he talks about the latest version of martial law, about the failure of the National Guard to control protestors against the South American war until they actually reached the edge of the White House electro-wired zone; about the growing power of the Fundamentalist underground that the other undergrounds-he uses the plural-called “the God gang.” He tells us about the industries losing out steadily to Korean and Chinese competitors, the leaping unemployment rate, the ethnic backlash, the cities in flames. Miami. New York. Los Angeles-these had been rioting for years. Now it’s Portland.

(I have to avoid the trap of saying something like, ‘Sound familiar?’ with the intention of drawing attention to the commonalities between the story and today’s news stories—but Ms. Kress is not, as far as I know, a seer. If it’s familiar, it’s because history is strewn with the wreckage of failed societies, cultures, governments—and the causes of failure are very few and quite common.)

Many after-the-break stories assume civilization falls apart when external forces collapses: governmental, legal, religious, etc., systems. Implicitly and collectively, these stories construct the argument that we need either strong agreed-upon structures, such as courts and legislatures, or a single, strong-willed individual to keep us from our ‘natural’ violent, brutal behaviors. To say it differently: savage (I don’t want to say animal, as many animals construct non-violent collectives benefiting the more than just the individual) behavior is our primary mode of behavior; civilized behavior is a very distant second. But Nancy Kress’ story, “Inertia,” argues that while we are savages primarily, civilization alone cannot keep savage behavior at bay. Somewhere, in Umberto Eco’s ‘black box’ of individual thought, behavior is strongly and primarily driven by biochemistry. It can be fixed, but not by laws or Codes (“Artie’s Angels”).

Aside from the previous, the most unusual anti-expectation story (and my favorite) is Jonathan Lethem’s “How We Got Into Town and Out Again.” Gloria and Lewis, reminiscent of Lennie and George, enter a town (again, expectations from the title, but take note, Mr. King) looking for food and shelter after some undisclosed catastrophe has disrupted civilization. Utilizing the after-the-break freedom, Mr. Lethem sets up a world where electricity and virtual reality exist, but are used for vastly different purposes than we would ever expect: to survive, Gloria and Lewis agree to a marathon VR performance, which, according to Mr. Adam’s story notes, are based on the dance crazes of the 1930s. Rather than exploring the cause of the break, or sending us on a somewhat picaresque/horrific tour of the post-apocalyptic world, Mr. Lethem uses the freedom to criticize VR technology. If he were to set it in the present, he would of course be bound by current limitations; if he set in a future contiguous with the present, he couldn’t set up the isolation and desperation of the people who perform or watch what are voyeuristic and pornographic live performances. He would have to account for exactly who these displaced people are, both the performers and voyeurs, as well as the laws or lack thereof. With the after-the-break scenario, he has the template—we already know about how hard survival is in such a world, and the types of people who inhabit it—so Mr. Lethem is free to critique something, in this case VR technology, without overburdening himself or the reader, or tying himself into knots justifying the world.

My other favorite is Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds,” which is relatively simple superficially—the story of one woman surviving with a gun and maybe a man (how hoary!)—but, like Ms. Kress, hers is a critique of the (supposed/assumed) difference between animal and human.

Finally, and most importantly, Mr. Adams demonstrates the sub-genre is not a static, but is a dynamic, continuously evolving fractured mirror, in dialogue with, and sometimes refuting, its basic assumptions, particularly Mr. Bailey’s story (an amalgam) and John Langan’s direct, brilliant response to “The End of the World as We Know It”: “Episode Seven: Last Stand Against the Pack in the Kingdom of Purple Flowers,” which takes each old trope—vicious beast, mutant flowers, the last woman and man on earth—and wonderfully inverts them: the man is a fanboy-turned-(literally)-superhero; the woman is already pregnant and not by him; no reason is ever given for the emergence of odd flora and fauna (the world is inexplicable, really, so why should its end be any different?) though the woman wants to study a flower or tooth, even while acknowledging that not only can she not add to their understanding, but that it would be fruitless to even try; and even the writing itself, which is largely a stream of consciousness using sentences fragments as chapter headings.

There are several others I haven’t touched upon, largely for reasons of the length of this review. What Mr. Adams has collected is (with the exception of Mr. King’s story) an excellent cross-section of post-apocalyptic stories well worth reading.

———•———

I find it difficult to express the reasons for my delight with Zoran Zivkovic’s writing. His ideas are very old—”Geese in the Mist” has at its core an idea I recall from the original “Twilight Zone”—and the actual sentences (at least those in translation) are fairly short, direct, and without noticeable flair: he does not seem to expect his readers to delight solely in the original fires of his imagination (which has unfortunately forgiven many wooden dialogues and cardboard characters) nor to be (cliché alert!) dazzled by his literary pyrotechnics.

Instead, the strength of his stories is the slow accretion of details, which lead to a profound, emotional, if sometimes inexplicable, conclusion. For those unfamiliar with Mr. Zivkovic, he writes what he calls ‘story suites’, which are essentially short stories linked by a common theme, the final story generally pulling together the threads of the previous stories. Sometimes, this last is inconsistent with the tone of its parts, resulting in a story that, while not exactly thudding, doesn’t quite sing either; however, in Steps through the Mist, Mr. Zivkovic has successfully integrated his components, perhaps because he has inverted the usual order: the first story sets up the following stories.

Each story by itself is a masterpiece in short fiction but the whole, ah the whole! The whole confronts, literarily, nothing less than the notions of fate and free will.

In “Disorder in the Head” we are introduced to Ms. Emily’s class of girls, whose assignment was to record their dreams. One student, Ms. Irena, dreams other peoples’ dreams, so she knows in advance what the other girls have written and describes them in detail. Miss Emily, believing herself to be a whole person and not merely another’s figment, is faced with a terrible choice: walk through the classroom door and discover if there is merely a hallway (therefore she’s not a figment) or discover that there’s only a mist (therefore she’s merely another’s momentary dream). As is typical with Mr. Zivkovic, we do not know what becomes of Miss Emily, whether she opens the door or not, and if she does, what she finds. In a sense, Mr. Zivkovic is creating the textual equivalent of Schrodinger’s cat. (But notice, that there are twin paradoxes: first, Miss Emily has to decide whether to open the door; and second, before the first even occurs or not, there’s a second paradox regarding what lies beyond.)

In “Hole in the Wall,” we are presented with the dream of one of Miss Emily’s students. (So is Miss Emily real, or is Miss Irena creating dreams within dreams? I believe the previous parenthetical statement answers this one.) A young girl in an asylum is convinced that she is not only able to see the future, but that she is able to choose which one of many potential futures is actualized. The proof lies in her final action, which is statistically impossible. But if she is only a figment of a figment… Perhaps, and the text does support this, the girl of “Hole in the Wall” is actually Miss Irena. The mind reels.

In “Geese in the Mist” a girl on a skiing adventure discovers that there are unseen observers (who are made visible for a moment, perhaps through dreams).

‘But what decision? You’ve still got me confused,’ [I said.]

[He said,] ‘Which run you choose to ski down the mountain.’

‘Why is that important? This run or that. They all lead down, don’t they?’

‘That’s right. But what happens afterward is not the same. Each run has its own continuation in the future. It’s the start of a chain of events and each has a very different outcome… You’ve heard the story of the butterfly harmlessly fluttering its wings and ultimately causing a hurricane on the other side of the world? Of course the butterfly is not to blame, but should one stand idly by and do nothing to lead to the chain of events that leads to misfortune?’

Not only does Mr. Zivkovic combine quantum uncertainty with the butterfly effect, but he questions the morality of action or inaction (Supposing you had knowledge outcome of an event before the even itself, what should you do? The question of this unbearable weight is answered in one of the other stories.), and infuses it with a very dark possibility: perhaps she picks the wrong run and to avert a misfortune, he must act.

In “Line on the Palm,” a young man with an abnormally short lifeline confronts a psychic, who guarantees that despite his deficiency, he will live a long life. Appearing to be a weak, unrelated story on first (and second) reading, its strength comes from the inversion of reader expectation: when the psychic is faced with the young man’s challenge to her legitimacy, she breaks down (as we expect) and admits she is a fraud. But the ending leaves us with the question of whether she is a fraud, or if she admits to fraudulent behavior for selfish reasons. Who wants blood on their hands? But the story gains strength when set beside “Hole in the Wall” and “Geese in the Mist.” In “Hole…” a young girl is incapable of bearing the weight of knowledge; however, in “Line…” a young woman bears said weight with nary a shrug of her shoulders; in “Geese…” a young woman knows that some undefined weight rests on her shoulders, but without other information, the weight remains undefined and ultimately irrelevant. If you don’t know which action will lead to which result, then what does knowing that it matters matter? Conversely, if you do, it is impossible to live with the desire to act, as each action, no matter how positive, must lead to a negative result. It is only possible to live with pre-knowledge if one abandons all efforts to decide.

In the final story, “Alarm Clock on the Night Table,” an old woman (notice the obverse to the youth in the previous stories) discovers that her alarm clock doesn’t work. She doesn’t need it to wake. She needs it to sleep. When does an old woman no longer need to sleep? When does she no longer need to wake? I don’t wish to say any more, as the pleasure from the story itself, as well as its relation to the others, comes from the gentle (almost hypnotic) revealing of the importance of the clock and her “…slim collection of love poems that had been with her as long as the clock.”

Others may have more original ideas, but no one more beautifully, lyrically, or subtly uses traditional (in less capable hands: fusty) tropes to illuminate life.

———•———

Ever since I read “The Wife,” I’ve been deeply in love with Vandana Singh’s stories. Admittedly, I haven’t read them all, but a collection will soon be available from Zubaan Books. Why do I love them? Partly because her writing is slow and languid, but never meandering, almost always leading to a sharp realization, and partly because even in her most mundane (which isn’t very) stories, her characters are Indian which makes them as, or more, alien than most literary supposed aliens (who tend to share a surprising number of Western cultural values). One example: in Of Love and Other Monsters, the main character’s (sort of) guardian encourages him to, “‘Learn computers and get a proper job, every idiot is doing it.'” Compare this cultural admonition to the characterization of American programmers in Cory Doctorow’s “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth” (from Wastelands):

Van was a type-two sysadmin, over six feet tall, long pony-tail, bobbing Adam’s apple. Over his toast-rack chest, his tee said CHOOSE YOUR WEAPON and featured a row of polyhedral RPG dice.

Felix was a type-one admin, with an extra seventy or eighty pounds all around the middle, and a neat but full beard that he wore over his extra chins. His tee said HELLO CTHULHU and featured a cute, mouthless, Hello-Kitty-style Cthulhu.

Tell me again why the U.S. is outsourcing skilled labor to India, among other nations?

Of Love and Other Monsters is perhaps Ms. Singh’s most ambitious story to date, incorporating aliens, a variation of panspermia, mind control, gender/sex issues, shadowy supermen, shadowy conspiracies, and of course love; a heady mix, but she never loses control of her topics, keeping them sharply focused on how they affect the main character Arun, whose name means ‘red’ but may also foreshadow Arun’s identity. (A reference, I think, to Aryan invasions.) Arun awakes in a fire, “… lying on a bed of warm ash, with sharp bits digging into my back.” He had a form of retrograde amnesia, able to remember language, for example, but not his identity. His rescuer is Janani, an Indian woman with (of course) many secrets, which are slowly uncovered through the course of the story. She essentially raises Arun, who discovers that he has the ability to create meta-minds, a weaving of individual minds. Some people are closed to him, which he calls ‘blanks,’ and some, which he labels ‘solitons’ (a rare type of wave) are able to move through a meta-mind, “Taking nothing, leaving nothing behind.” While he never uses his powers for great things, good or evil, he fears blanks and falls in love with a soliton.

In the area of gender issues, two observations arise: first, as I read through, I initially believed Arun to be female, perhaps because of the voice. (Indeed, a number of times in the preceding paragraph, I mistakenly wrote ‘her’ instead of ‘him’ before correcting myself.) Second and related to the first, because Arun is capable of creating meta-minds, his connections with people occur on an entirely mental level: he falls in love with, and has sex with, both men and women and, “But for an accident of gender and the cruelty of convention, I would have married him in a minute.” Coupled (pun intended) with the idea that humanity arose from a coupling of aliens with our progenitor species who have the ability to manipulate and connect with minds, it calls into question the notion of ‘male’ and ‘female’. If love is a meeting of minds, either literally (as in the story) or figuratively (as in presumed real life) what are we to make of the arbitrary notions of ‘male’ and ‘female,’ ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual?’ Indeed, Arun determines there are thirty-four distinct types of minds. So much, says the story, for simple dichotomy.

(A quick primer: ‘sex’ is generally reserved as a designation for the type which has either a penis or vagina; ‘gender’ connects these previous types with secondary characteristics, what we call masculine and feminine traits. For example, sex-designated boys are supposed to be tough, like sports, earn more money, not cry, and so forth while sex-designated girls are supposed to be coy, curvy, emotional, maternal, hate sports and like makeup and Barbie dolls. Total bullshit. For example, in New Guinea, young boys performed fellatio on the elder men, to absorb their masculine traits from their ejaculate. Is this homosexuality? Certain Native American tribes allowed sex-designated women to be gender-designated men, if their dreams led them to it: they wore men’s clothing and performed masculine not feminine duties, and could even marry a woman. The reverse was true, for sex-designated men could be gender-designated women. Again, is this homosexuality as we know it?)

In the course of the rest of the story, Arun loses his soliton-lover to marriage and dissipation, discovers his identity and that of his nemesis Rahul Moghe (are they so different?) I hate to criticize Vandana Singh (her writing is so extraordinary: who am I to say anything negative?) but I wish the story had focused more on the “… dangerous place outside conventional boundaries: man/woman, mind/body,” as the copy on the back cover says, rather than on the cat-and-mouse game between Arun and Rahul Moghe. But perhaps this is not a minor failing. Perhaps it is a success. If, as Wastelands suggests, science fiction, despite its advocates insistence that it is a much less conventional genre than others, is thoroughly tied to the conventions of Western ideology, it may not be possible to discuss contrary and complex notions unless they are cocooned within an identifiable conventional narrative: the thriller, which is in a sense what “Of Love and Other Monsters” is a token of.

———•———

Following through on the previous thought, the genre shelves frankly suffer from the weight of the enormous quasi-medieval fantasies which more often than are romantically idealized and painfully naive. (Remember: research is hard.) One caveat: I have not read a great deal of said fantasies in the past decade and a half as I’d had my fill previously. Based on reviews of the more recent novels, not enough has changed. The market certainly seems to suggest that there is a demand for the product. I don’t derive much satisfaction from these books, however, for varied reasons. Put simply: I am the wrong audience.

So, when I saw the vaguely middle Eastern cover for Nathalie Mallet’s The Princes of the Golden Cage and read that there was a Sultan, I had modest hopes. Modest, as it is a first novel and very rarely are first novels brilliant. I didn’t expect Orhan Pamuk quality. I did expect something different, however, and I was disappointed.

It starts promisingly enough: Amir is one prince out of more than a hundred, all kept in a lavish palace so that they don’t tear the Sultan’s kingdom into tiny pieces like so many squabbling ducks over a piece of bread. Near the end of his life, the Sultan will name one prince as the next Sultan. The circumstances invite, of course, all sorts of schemes for fratricide. Amir isn’t the obscure scullery boy whose dirty face hides the clean jaw of the royal lineage. He isn’t interested in the Sultanate, which in this type of novel almost guarantees he will become the Sultan. He’s dedicated his life to science. Ah!

In short order, we discover that some of the brothers are being killed by what appears to be evil magical means and our hero Amir is just the sort of skeptic to defuse the tension running through the palace. Double ah! A scientist and a skeptic of magic! That’s different.

But alas, no. Presented with the evidence of evil magic which could be faked with smoke and mirrors and perhaps a bit of wax, our skeptical hero is converted to a believer in magic faster than you can say road to Damascus.

Worse, not once but four times, Amir learns key pieces of plot information by accidentally stumbling past conspirators whispering details of plans in conveniently full and sequential sentences while then muttering that perhaps it’s better not to talk of such things as the walls have ears. I wished mightily that Amir made some sort of effort to achieve something, but instead everything happens to him. Very little occurs because of his efforts to effect change—he is too much a passive figure in his own life. (That may be true for many of us, but neither are we heroes in epic stories.)

He finds a picture of a visiting princess and naturally falls head-over-heels. Which is fine, of course, teenage boys being largely enormous sacs (NOT sacks) of raging hormones, except that as soon as she and he meet, they are doe-eyed for each other. But alas, she is to marry whoever is named the next Sultan. Ah! So now Amir will throw down the gauntlet and challenge his brothers for the Sultanate!

No? Oh, he’ll mope and hope whoever is her husband is good to her. As terribly, terribly sexist as it is to compete for a woman, it is logical within a hierarchical, sexist society; but it’s impossible to cheer for a hero who gives up so easily.

There are other frustrations. The list of the order to the throne of the brothers is changed multiple times, and though Amir’s name appears, he assumes it must be his paranoid brother of the same name. Not only is he too weak to vie for the throne in the hopes of winning the hand of his love, he’s too stupid to imagine he’s a better candidate for the Sultanate than his severely agoraphobic brother.

I desperately wish I had liked this book better. Between an over-abundance, a glut, of imitation-pale trilogies and a desperate need for a wider, deeper appreciation of other peoples—U.S. Americans really, really need to overcome our irrational superiority complex—I would really like to see a fantasy novel portray a genuine hero (or dare I dream, a heroine?) in a non-Western culture.



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