Letter From The Editor - Issue 55 - February 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
June 2016

Title: Central Station
Author: Lavie Tidhar
Publisher: Tachyon

Spiders may be the key.

The title of Lavie Tidhar’s breathtakingly heady mosaic novel refers to a spaceport rising high above the neighboring cityscapes of Jewish Tel Aviv and Arab Jaffa. This place is perhaps the novel’s grandest and richest character; it acts as both a magnet for diverse characters whose paths intersect with Central Station and as a sort of echo chamber in which reverberate endless possibilities of physical and virtual existence. If the title wasn’t enough of a hint regarding the centrality of location and ambiance, upon first opening the book we are treated to a map situating Central Station and its various sectors—like Robotnik camp and the St. Cohen Shrine—in its local environs, which include the Solar Harvest fields, a Transcendence Zone, and the Palace of Discarded Things (operated by its Lord, the somewhat mysterious but lovable alte-zachen man Ibrahim).

The time is the not-so-distant future—or perhaps more accurately, a future. As one of the characters points out about a quarter of the way in, “The present fragments. . . . Futures branch out like the growths from a tree.” That’s what the book does, too. After a brief prologue we are introduced to the artificially birthed boy Kranki, his adoptive mother Miriam Jones, and her recently returned lover Boris Chong; then we move on to Isobel and Motl the Robotnik in the next chapter, Ibrahim in chapter four, Carmel in chapter five, and a dozen others after that. (There’s a helpful “Cast of Characters” at the end.) Exuberantly creative locales and ideas organically build on those that came before, making Central Station all-encompassing but highly specific.

A small sampling of the many wonders you’ll encounter in these pages: alien symbionts reverse-engineered from ancient microscopic Martian life, religion as addiction and addiction as religion in the form of Crucifixation, the endless chattering Conversation of virtual voices from those who have become digital and those who have transcended even such a state, data vampirism in the form of stringoi, robotic war veterans who have become priests, an entire gamesworld—singularity-mines included—called the Guilds of Ashkelon, the Urbonas Ride, high-density data encoded in the smoke particles of ubiq cigarettes, adaptoplant neighborhoods in which houses sprout like trees, and a collector of ancient pulp magazines, memories of orange groves, paprika, turmeric and sumac, potted mint plants, and one suspended raindrop.

If you’re looking for a strong plot anchored by one or two point-of-view characters, this tapestry novel, threaded together from mostly previously-published short stories, isn’t for you. But if you’re open to a wonderfully inventive set of interconnected tales, brimming with sensory detail and paying tribute to a plethora of science-fiction tropes, there are few works to rival Central Station. In one of the many glowing recommendations in the front pages, Maxim Jakubowski cites the works of Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, C. L. Moore, China Miéville and Larry Niven in connection to this book. Add to the list George Alec Effinger, C. J. Cherryh, Frank Herbert, Ian McDonald, Harry Harrison and even Ray Bradbury, as well as pop culture shows like Babylon 5.

Central Station is both a “liminal place” and a hub from which radiate the novel’s thirteen narrative spokes. And while there is a bracketing story of keeping vigil and facing death, it is really the novel’s themes—like bridging the real with the unreal, the past with the future—that provide cohesion.

Oh, and those spiders.

I count references to spiders in at least nine of the thirteen chapters. Exoskeleton crews climb the spaceport walls like metallic spiders; suborbital craft glide down to the station’s roof like parachuting spiders; shadows of moving spiders flicker on the surface of the moon, and so on. Of course, it’s Lavie Tidhar himself who spins the ultimate storytelling silk.

Spiderpunk anyone?

Title: The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Publisher: The Mysterious Press

The latest collection from the prolific Joyce Carol Oates collects six stories of novelette or novella length: three of these pieces originally appeared in Ellery Queen, one in Idaho Review, and the title piece was first published in the anthology The Doll Collection, edited by Ellen Datlow. I mention these venues because, with the exception of the Datlow anthology, they’re probably not places where one might expect to find tales of terror, at least not in the sense of horror or weird fiction.

Calling these stories “terror” is a fair assessment, although the terror in these stories stems from people behaving badly, and the stories bear a closer aesthetic kinship to suspense, thriller and crime than to overt horror. Don’t let that stop you. Oates is a master at crafting fascinating, seemingly endless psychological interiorities, and while her recent stories pivot almost entirely on character and incident rather than plot or action, they offer many a dark delight.

“The Doll-Master” is my favorite of the six. Its unadorned first-person narration by Robbie describes an escalating series of events involving disappearing girls and found dolls. In lesser hands the plot could have veered into titillating serial-killer territory, but the coming-of-age structure moors it in a sense of irrevocable loss and unfulfilled longing. “All your life, you yearn to return to what has been,” Robbie tells us. “You yearn to return to those you have lost. You will do terrible things to return, which no one else can understand.”

Another standout is “Mystery, Inc.,” in which a bookseller schemes to take out a renowned rival. The bibliophilic descriptions and deliberate pacing are fantastic, as is the Russian-doll finale. I would also highly recommend “Big Momma,” in which young Violet, increasingly neglected by her mother after relocating to a new school and apartment complex, finds solace and friendship in Mr. Clovis, his daughter Rita Mae, and their extended clan. The story’s discomfiting backdrop is one of abductions, and while the climax is not difficult to foresee, the dread build-up is exquisite and heartbreaking. A thoroughly engrossing riff on the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Less effective for me were “Soldier,” the first-person chronicle of repentant (or is he?) Brendon Schrank, who alleges self-defense in the killing of a young black man, and “Gun Accident: An Investigation,” a spiraling story of housesitting gone horribly wrong told through extended flashbacks.

Finally, the centerpiece “Equatorial” tells of Audrey Wheedling’s mounting suspicions in a trip through Ecuador and the Galapagos that her husband Henry is planning to kill her. Oates excels at the painstaking depiction of a wife terrifyingly estranged from her husband, as she did in the novella “Evil Eye,” the lead of another recent collection from the same publisher; the tortuous alienation and the insecurity that result from accumulated misunderstandings and willful deceptions. This story includes a superb sequence, both comical and chilling, that looks like a home invasion but isn’t; Audrey’s plummeting vacillations are finely wrought; and the thematic amplifications via Darwin’s theory of natural selection are smoothly rendered. But I thought there was too much local detail about tortoises and such, and the ending, while nicely understated, was unsurprising.

I wonder if, in a sense, the compelling readability of Oates’s prose is a mixed blessing. I have never been able to stop reading anything I’ve started by her—even in the rare instances when I didn’t particularly want to continue. Rather than inviting the reader to turn the page, her expertly cadenced writing breathlessly prods and thrusts the reader on. Her work is never less than gripping. In “The Doll-Master” Robbie reflects that “where the dull-essential nature of our lives is eliminated, such as age, identity, education, employment, place of residence, family ties, daily routine, etc., the thrilling-essential is revealed.” He’s wrong, of course. As Oates shows time and again, it is precisely through the elaboration of such details that the thrilling-essential is revealed.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro


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