Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
January 2019

Title: Collision
Author: J. S. Breukelaar
Publisher: Meerkat Press

Throughout the twelve tales of her debut collection, J. S. Breukelaar amply delivers on the implied promise of the book's title: each of these stories stylishly investigates an encounter between characters and forces of otherworldly, or in some cases off-world, hues. But Breukelaar accomplishes much more than that. She delves into how such contacts--which range from the merely glancing to the traumatically concussive--lead to altered perspectives and transformations of the mind, a literary feat of the first order.

"Union Falls," the collection opener, is the first of my seven favorite stories. A girl without arms--no joke this--auditions for a piano-playing gig at a bar run by a woman named Deel. Despite the odds, physical and attitudinal, she's not only hired, but manages to put on a performance which by dint of its very imperfection reconnects everyone in the audience with something once lost; apparent woundedness, if you will, as a gateway to humaneness, with a glimmer of the unearthly along the way. Despite unmistakable strangeness (the place, for instance, in which Deel helps Ame settle boasts "walls slick with fungus, a strange sandy debris across the linoleum") this powerful narrative is a moving study in the warmth of communing with others, even those who come in unexpected shapes and sizes and whose presence is short-lived.

In "Raining Street," another beautiful portrait of longing and the difficulty of adapting to an environment misaligned with one's inner self, the protagonist and her former partner Jules, now deceased, once owned a restaurant and moved into a neighborhood that never felt like home. The narrator's witchy neighbors Marie and her husband Donald offer no real sense of connection ("It's so hard, being alone"), but they are the closest thing to family. Needing a change, and hoping for some bargain prices that will help provide for the children, our narrator journeys away from well-known suburbia into the heart of a city whose Raining Street seems to go on forever. During this odyssey we're treated to moments both touching and snarky: "From a discount store that smells of residual monomers and incense, I buy the children magic markers and a Fairy Tale coloring book--I think of how Jules would love the way Little Red Riding Hood looks like a Kardashian and Prince Charming more like a Korean alcoholic." I'm grateful that what ends up happening on Raining Street doesn't, thanks to Breukelaar, stay on Raining Street.

"The Box" contains one of many great openings: "Getting her in the box was one thing. Keeping her there was another." Adam and Lucy were in a car accident, and now Adam writes the code that creates a virtual environment in which they can, after a fashion, continue to co-exist. Adam's profoundly destabilizing loss is wonderfully rendered through details like the following: "In the beginning it was easy to tell whether it was Bacardi time or coffee time. But somewhere along the line he got the cans mixed up and started drinking rum in the day and coffee at night. It didn't matter. The canned coffee tasted like Cuba libre now and vice versa. The mind was a strange thing." Is the cost of being unable to let go perhaps greater than the difficulty of holding on? How much more lonely, and agonizing, and ultimately futile, is it to live inside an emulation of the past than to seek true acceptance of one's bleakest present? "The Box" culminates in a splendidly devastating, yet liberating, final line.

The eponymous "Ava Rune" is a strange and confirmedly unpopular girl, a loner who lives with her even weirder and more antisocial step-uncle Willard. Ava passes the time by writing stories: "It was Ava's mother who taught her about the lying dragon trapped gnawing at the roots of the world-tree that bleeds for it." One day Ava is invited to a pool party by a boy she doesn't know very well. In a scene conversant with Stephen King's Carrie, Ava's promised rendezvous goes awry, and the ensuing shame and cruelty trigger insights about her dead mom and the still very-much-alive Willard.

In "Fairy Tale," which reads like vintage Bradbury (Breukelaar acknowledges the story inspiration in her Afterword) by way of John Cheever, Dan is planting a cherry tree in his garden when this happens: "I set the shovel down, wheeled around and there she was, the same girl who put a bullet in my spine in Kabul." The disabled vet narrator, Dan, invites the girl, Aisha, into his life and eventually forms a bond with her. When examining the possibility that he may be hallucinating her, he observes: "If I was lonely […] I could think of better company to crave than my own worst enemy." Should the reader take this assertion at face value? The parallel story of the growth of Dan's cherry tree with Aisha's development is a stirring meditation on the weight of the past and the struggle to assess "what's worth fighting for."

When Cassi, a physics teacher at the same high school attended by her brother, becomes aware of an imminent apocalypse, she can't imagine that the "Collision" in question will involve both alternative timelines and a fight for one's most cherished values. Breukelaar here deftly interweaves a backstory of abuse with high physics and an impassioned depiction of ideological entrenchment. Another C-named protagonist, Celia, must wrestle with personal woes writ large in the mesmerizing novella, "Like Ripples on a Blank Shore." Celia's relentless desire to understand how the horrid interruption of her marriage ceremony years back relates, or doesn't, to the behavior of so-called alien Hosts, leads to a series of disquieting realizations about herself and those who have played important roles in her past. The novella, built around an intriguingly zigzagging narrative structure, is peppered with compelling characterization, such as these bits of description about Celia's ex: "The less he was, the more he appeared to be, and that authority over himself spilled out into the world and filled her with wonder;" and:

He knew nothing. He was no one. His hair was white like the Host sitting across the office from her, and he drove a white BMW and wore a clean new white T-shirt every day. His genius was in making his no one into a someone.

Other stories, such as "Fixed" ("Gloria was part wolf, part something else"), the blood-spattered "Lion Man," which features a dog named Clint Eastwood that talks to his human companion Turner, "Rogues Bay 3013," in which the Aristotle Project has introduced "artificials" into the armed forces, "War Wounds," about the creation of a monster, and "Glow," which involves aliens and detention centers, all feature fractured relationships and questions of loyalty and atonement for past grievances. Some of these pieces clearly stem from Breukelaar's political experiences, and may appeal less to readers, but it's always the psyche, rather than a particular ideology, that is creatively foregrounded. With these narratives, besides crafting individually compelling stories about themes like companionship and combat, Breukelaar elegantly storifies the spokes of a wheel whose central hub is existential commitment: how much are we willing to be, or not to be?

Breukelaar's voice and prose cadences are simultaneously sophisticated, with hints of the postmodern, and congenially rustic, offering instinctual, homespun wisdom. Her work could be placed in the twin loci of weird fiction and loner, outback sf--but its richness can only be apprehended through its reading and re-reading. Though she wasn't born in the South, her stories evoke for me the same drawling sense of pocket-universe skewedness as Howard Waldrop's best, perhaps filtered through a more contemporary sensibility; a time-lapsed version of Stephen Graham Jones's back-country, tooth-bearing fictions, with disquieting details lovingly blown up and lingered on; and all of this enlivened by injections of surrealism a la Leonora Carrington, with touches of William Gibson-esque techno-estrangement. It's a mind-expanding brew. In her Introduction, Angela Slatter, who locates Breukelaar in a wonderful lineage of writers of the supernatural, notes the following: "What I would say all these stories have in common, no matter their outcome, is hope." That particular light shone less brightly for me while reading Collision than I suspect it did for Slatter. Instead, I made my way, tentatively at first, through a penumbra that only diffusely suggested a distant beacon, realizing as I inched on--like many of Breukelaar's characters--that finding the source, or even believing in its existence, was less important than simply moving forward.

Title: Rewrite
Author: Gregory Benford
Publisher: Saga

Infinity may manifest in manifold guises, one of them being "the sheer dizzying whirl of the timescape" explored by Gregory Benford in his latest novel, Rewrite, a thematic rather than a direct sequel to his titular award-winning book from 1980. In the year 2000, an unhappily middle-aged Charlie Moment--the irony of whose name immediately declares this book's playfulness and metanarrative friskiness--dies in a car accident, only to wake up back in 1968, inside his own sixteen-year-old body. Possessing the knowledge of his "past" three decades, Charlie now has the chance to recompose his autobiography. Will his actions prove Oscar Wilde's famous dictum that "youth is wasted on the young," or will Charlie (who sardonically riffs on Wilde, musing, "Maybe education is wasted on the young") instead commit a new series of follies that will leave him stranded in a parallel future no better than that from whence he arose? Six of one tachyon, and half a dozen of the other, as it turns out--at least on Charlie's first, that is to say, second, go-around.

Given the literally transcendent nature of his experience, one would be sympathetic if Charlie, following in the temporal footsteps of John Donne's line "we say there shall be a sudden death, and a sudden resurrection; in raptu, in transitu, in ictu oculi," were tempted towards the theological. But Charlie's religious inclinations are nil, and though he dabbles in metaphysics, mostly Hindu doctrines of reincarnation, he remains unconvinced. During a trip through LAX, Charlie encounters "a band of saffron-robed, shaved-head types with their 'Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare' on the sidewalk coming out of baggage claim." His reaction? "Charlie smiles; he knows more about reincarnation than they ever will." Indeed, other characters in the novel display a similar lack of interest in the mystical. Much later on, in fact, Einstein himself says, "I have problems with this word, 'transcendence'--it lies only a few doors down the street from 'incoherence,' and it's easy to get the wrong address." Very well, then. Another possibility would be for Charlie to launch upon a scientific investigation of his bizarre circumstances. This he sort of does, going to the library and reading up on Hugh Everett's many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. But then Charlie stalls on this project, and follows a different, more immediately satisfying trajectory--one involving a lot of sex and a burgeoning role as a Hollywood screenwriter and producer who is able to cannily craft "hits" using his prior timeline's filmic knowledge. An expensive lifestyle, the consumption of insalubrious substances, and a general sense of despairing ennui follow.

If that doesn't sound entirely original, it's because it ain't. Ken Grimwood's award-winning novel Replay (1986) exploited the same premise to similar debauched, and ultimately moving, effect. Ah, but Benford is a step ahead of us. Within the novel, Charlie discovers this subgenre of time-loop literature, which includes Grimwood's famous tale, along with Jack Finney's Time and Again (1970), and even, most curiously, Timescape, not by Gregory but by James Benford (in our timestream, Jim is Greg's identical twin). Following this trail, Charlie makes contact with a society of others who, like him, are "reincarnates." This cadre includes Casanova, Einstein, Robert A. Heinlein and possibly Philip K. Dick.

Charlie's journey through his second life starts with great vigor and sensitivity. In fact, early scenes in which Charlie regards his middle-aged parents, remembering their declines and deaths, are quite poignant. But things soon become desultory. Part of the problem is Charlie himself. Invariably quick-witted, and almost as often quick-quipped, nothing seems to make much of a dent on him. His relationships with women, in particular, are characterized by insidious utilitarianism and an abiding lack of self-awareness. Sure, we can understand that adolescent hormones in overdrive would lead to numerous trysts ("his body strumming with pleasure," "his body hummed with joy," etc.) but thoughts like, "He knows that women think that way," or "Why was his first life filled with controlling women?," and "knowing the vagaries of women only too well," suggest thick blinders, or worse, willful contempt. The ambiance of Hollywood sleaziness, well evoked by Benford, doesn't help matters, and there's something particularly grating about how the majority of women characters in the novel immediately want to have sex with Charlie. "Distraction beats abstraction, every time," apparently one of Charlie's guiding principles, points at the problem.

Fortunately, roughly halfway through the book events speed up as Charlie becomes embroiled in a complex and often fascinating rivalry between various reincarnate factions, who wish to mold history in accordance with their own wishes. While the ultimate villain is somewhat clichéd, Charlie's exchanges with Einstein, Heinlein and others make for diverting, philosophically droll reading. The last-act thrillerish hijinks offer pulpy fun, but I was more intrigued by the gradually unveiled physics model that might account for consciousness relooping. These ideas involve a "memory space" conservation addition to Everett's notions--one which neatly truncates Everett's "bloated ontology"--and an innovative use of q-bit entanglement. I'm less convinced by the proposed answer to the question, "What's special about minds?," but arguing against that answer itself provides a measure of fun.

Besides the aforementioned characters based on real-life people, there are also walk-on parts for the likes of Steven Spielberg, Roger Ebert and other cameos, as well as references to, for instance, "a buddy named Rotsler." The tendency to overstuff the narrative with these allusions is nicely counterbalanced by Benford's robust, occasionally trenchant, style, and his well-honed sense of pacing. A landlord's attempt to impress Charlie with a line about Raymond Chandler results in this response: "Charlie knows that Chandler was an oil executive in the 1920s who read Black Mask magazine and never lived in a dump like this." Clearly, Benford knows this too, and has internalized certain cues from the old master.

At the start of the three Time Odyssey novels written by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter, Clarke coined the term "orthoquel," a kind of perpendicular re-engagement with the ideas and themes of the original work under consideration. Following suit, we might describe Rewrite as a tangenquel (indeed, the first section is titled "Tangent to the Sequel of Life") to Timescape. To the storytelling precursors of which Rewrite is itself aware we may adjoin others, such as Philip José Farmer's Riverworld series, particularly its final entry, The Gods of Riverworld (1983), which like this novel includes reincarnating characters real and imagined in a somewhat madcap plot involving far-reaching plans, the film The Butterfly Effect (2004), and Stephen King's 11/22/63 (2011). Paul Simon's 2011 song "Rewrite," with its haunting refrain ("I said / Help me, help me / Help me, help me / Ohh / Thank you / I'd no idea / That you were there") also comes to mind. The concept of a rewrite is ultimately a hopeful proposition, and despite Rewrite's more prosaic wish-fulfillment elements, it's heartening to see Benford infuse it with such gusto. Speaking of literary precursors, we may at last have a science fiction novel equal parts grave and gravy--or perhaps in this case, grave and groovy.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

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