Letter From The Editor - Issue 55 - February 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
January 2017

Title: Last Year
Author: Robert Charles Wilson
Publisher: Tor Books

Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1973) postulated a future in which a vast amusement park populated by sophisticated androids recreated various historical periods, most notably the American Old West, and promised tourists an amazingly life-like experience. In a way, the premise of Robert Charles Wilson’s latest novel, Last Year, does Crichton one better: Instead of pretending to bring the past to life, why not build a gateway into the actual past?

Welcome to the City of Futurity, on the plains of Illinois, 1876. Afraid that tripping into the recent past will scramble the timeline with which you’re familiar? Don’t worry; passage through the Mirror—as Wilson terms “the boundary between present and future,” located deep underground, halfway between the City of Futurity’s two central Towers—doesn’t lead to your past, but to one safely separated from your reality in “ontological Hilbert space.” Concerned that frequent incursions into this parallel 1876 will contaminate it and thereby dilute the very thrills you’re seeking? Fear not, for mingling with the natives is a restricted activity, and the Mirror will only remain open for one year to prevent further contamination.

Wilson uses this setup to elegantly investigate the weight of the past on the present, both at the social and personal levels. Jesse Collum, the novel’s protagonist, is initially difficult to read. He keeps his head down, performs his security duties diligently, and speaks in short sentences, sometimes single words. He leads a solitary existence. But all that changes when he prevents an attempt on President Grant’s life, an act that gets him noticed by one August Kemp, “the twenty-first-century financier who controlled the company that had built the City of Futurity.” Soon Kemp assigns Jesse to work with Elizabeth DePaul, who is also in Kemp’s employ: Together they are to find out how Grant’s would-be assassin obtained a gun from Kemp’s time.

Jesse and Elizabeth’s search uncovers deeper mysteries, while simultaneously filling in their backstories and motivations. Eventually these will branch off in different directions, but ultimately they do rejoin. There are plenty of lovely set-pieces along the way, with Wilson adeptly wielding the “fish-out-of-temporal-water” trope both ways (Jesse and the future; Elizabeth and the past), particularly in the novel’s first section. Temporal dislocations also provide fertile ground for canny observations about human behavior and the ironies of historical “progress,” mostly with a light touch. Wilson, a consummate craftsman, has clearly done a lot of research, but I’m happy to say that he never bogs the story down with unnecessary detail. His descriptions are consistently concise and the pacing is strong throughout. His characters, if initially enigmatic, are also fully realized. Jesse and Elizabeth play wonderfully off of each another, and in fact I wish they weren’t separated for a central stretch of the novel.

Ethical dilemmas drive much of the novel’s plot. As one character says, “We think Kemp is doing something immoral by turning this version of 1877 into a tourist attraction, as if it were some colonial backwater where you can lie in the sun and drink mai tais while the natives die of cholera. Some of us refuse to look the other way while Kemp monetizes an entire fucking universe.” The opposing viewpoint is also presented, and many other fascinating questions are raised. Knowing that there’s an infinity of “yous,” are extreme actions in one of these arbitrary realities more ethically permissible than if only a single reality existed? How far can moral relativism stretch across parallel histories before it snaps? What does means-vs.-ends look like, when the ends are in temporal flux? How does one honor the past while simultaneously seeking freedom in the future?

Wilson has explored a lot of different sensibilities and approaches to science fiction in his previous novels, and this is no exception. Last Year throws a variety of ingredients on the time-travel skillet: alternate history, conspiracy thriller, noir mystery, revenge-and-Union-Pacific Western, novel of social conscience. Not every element of Wilson’s unique recipe will be cooked to every reader’s satisfaction, and some may find his underlying cast iron old-fashioned, if durable. A third-act development failed to rivet me, and contemporary-isms (Netflix, iPhones and iPods, Starbucks, etc.) may occasionally over-anchor the novel in our here-and-now. But even at its most prosaic Last Year is thoughtful and well-written, revealing Wilson’s wealth of experience in fashioning compelling, provocative yarns.

Title: Iraq + 100: Stories from Another Iraq
Editor: Hassan Blasim
Publisher: Carcanet Press Ltd.

Hassan Blasim’s editorial call in Iraq + 100, originally suggested to him by his publisher, is a fascinating one—“imagine Iraq a hundred years after the US occupation, through short fiction”—and it has engendered a must-read anthology. In his Foreword, Blasim makes a number of interesting observations as he relates the challenge of getting stories for this project. “Perhaps unsurprisingly,” he says, “it was difficult to persuade many Iraqi writers to write stories set in the future when they were already so busy writing about the cruelty, horror and shock of the present, or trying to delve into the past to reread Iraq’s former nightmares and glories.” The significance of the achievement on hand becomes clear a few paragraphs later: “Iraqi literature suffers from a dire shortage of science fiction writing and I am close to certain that this book of short stories is the first of its kind, in theme and in form, in the corpus of modern Iraqi literature.” It’s certainly my first experience with contemporary Arabic science fiction and fantasy, and I’m grateful it exists. Kudos also to the translators of specific stories.

Blasim provides two possible reasons for the dearth of Arabic science fiction: “inflexible religious discourse” and “pride in the Arab poetic tradition.” It makes perfect sense, then, that the ten writers featured herein, including Blasim himself, would revolt against religious oppression and the tyranny of the past, and revolt they do, with vigor. These ten stories demonstrate a range of styles and themes, and several—like Mortada Gzar’s short but densely surreal “The Day By Day Mosque,” which kicks off with a description of a 99-year-old vinegar produced by “the National Snot Bank”—are completely sui generis. Yet there is a common thread of transgression and an explicit confrontation of Iraq’s violent past. Questions of identity, actual truth vs. political spin, the continuity of history, the ravages of disease and extreme poverty, are consistently illuminated through graphic horrors, acerbic parables, or combinations thereof. If this stuff doesn’t make you uncomfortable, you’re probably not reading it right.

Hassan Abdulrazzak’s “Kuszib” unquestionably hit me the hardest. It’s the most obviously science-fictional, in that it features an alien invasion, but its tone is notably measured. The story kicks off with a low clerk’s excitement at the prospect of taking his wife Ona to the elite, invitation-only “Feast,” which offers “a chance to sample the Sector’s finest gastronomical delights; the opportunity to mix with the cream of society; and introductions to the kind of people you’d never normally encounter as a mere sorting clerk.” The story brilliantly reframes the grotesque as the commonplace, testing our limits at the normalization of genocide, and culminates in an utterly devastating final line. “Kuszib,” one of the most extreme stories I’ve read in years, is not for the faint of heart. I’m just glad I don’t eat meat.

In Zhraa Alhaboby’s “Baghdad Syndrome,” another standout, a sick architect planning a special project for a public square of historical significance becomes haunted by strange dreams that lead him to Scheherazade. Hassan Blasim’s lushly inventive “The Gardens of Babylon,” also one of my favorites, chronicles the struggles and strange experiences of a “story designer” working on his latest “smart game,” and features such memorable oddities as “psychedelic insects” attached directly to the skull, and the difficulties of external point-of-view narration in stories featuring suicide. It’s a psychological tour-de-force, in direct conversation with literary classics, and its world is richly textured. The opening story, Anoud’s “Kahramana,” chronicles, in a sort of faux journalism, the story of a woman who escapes marriage to a ruthless dictator; though first celebrated for her act of bravery and defiance, she soon learns that the tides of political favor push both ways.

Diaa Jubaili’s “The Worker,” in which a Governor’s rhetoric adroitly manipulates the people, unflinchingly examines the horrific day-to-day tasks necessary during a time of destitution and disease, but crams too many historical references into its closing section to maintain its focus. Ali Bader’s “The Corporal,” a transliteration of the story of the People of the Cave, overtly referenced, presents a man displaced through time. Despite the irony of a future America becoming an extremist state overrun by religious intolerance, and the sting of its closing line, I found it too didactic to fully satisfy.

The three remaining stories all contain memorable images. In Khalid Kaki’s “Operation Daniel,” political dissidents of a Chinese leader who has taken over Kirkuk are “archived”: that is to say, incinerated and compressed into diamonds that will adorn the leader’s clothing. In Jalal Hassan’s “The Here and Now Prison,” Samir and his girlfriend Hala sneak into the Old City, at whose center lie mysteriously “massive columns of an enduring building, holding up a huge gold-colored dome,” and ensuing lessons in history. Ibrahim al-Marashi’s pilgrimage story, “Najufa,” features many wonders, including finger-embedded passports and droids who have earned the right to be called by their official job titles through an AI revolution, but geo-political extrapolations and insights into complex family dynamics lie at its core.

If you appreciate the discovery of new voices and new perspectives—one of the things that drew me to science fiction in the first place—you won’t want to miss this anthology, though it may repeatedly put you off while you’re reading it. It’s a one-of-a-kind excursion into histories, geographies and cultural values little known to Western readers. Many of the stories are brutal and bleak, but reading them is a mind-stretching experience, and it’s hard to ask more from fiction than trying to reshape the very way in which we view reality.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro


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