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Thursday 22 August 2002

Songs of the Shambles: Reader-Activated Chapbooks

Reviewed by Nick Gevers

The Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror genres are not anywhere near terminal dotage (we fondly hope); but whenever a subculture becomes deluged with collectables and curiosities, many in expensive limited editions, a stage of moderately advanced maturity has been attained. The buying public is old enough to reminisce and want durable tokens of, and for, reminiscence; it is discriminating enough to care about fine bindings and statements of limitation; and it is affluent enough to afford the artefacts of such preoccupation. Thus the specialized genre small press book or chapbook (the latter usually defined as a publication under one hundred pages in length), emanating from independent publishers with flamboyantly peculiar or esoteric names: Broken Mirrors Press. Rotten Apple Press. Necronomicon Press. Small Beer Press. Charnel House. Ministry of Whimsy. Manic D Press. Etcetera. Eccentric outfits, these, with possibly quite eccentric proprietors and editors (who are usually the same people, operating out of their own homes or PO Boxes); and their products are well tailored to the eccentric tastes of the more dedicated readers of (eccentric) genre fiction…

This can result in weird excesses of eccentricity: signed five-page pamphlets with hand-embossed illustrations, costing a hundred dollars. Sumptuous editions of pulp juvenilia. Selected correspondence, 1935 to 1937, between Hack A and Hack B. But such judgements are subjective; and many small press items are unambiguously worthwhile. The exigencies of commercial publishing being what they are, a lot of the best and most innovative work in speculative fiction, especially at shorter lengths, takes the small press route to print. This material can be amassed into full-length collections, the provision of which is probably the most valuable service performed by the independent houses; out-of-print magazine stories are optimally preserved this way, as are the continuing short fiction oeuvres of contemporary writers. But there is also the chapbook, which can accommodate a single novella, or several shorter pieces, or confections too odd to be categorized (see Wolfe & Gaiman, below.)

This essay reviews three recent or forthcoming chapbooks, a cross-section of the form...

1) Rossetti Song: Four Stories by Alex Irvine (Small Beer Press, $5)

This is a handsomely produced staple-bound affair, 71 pages long. As the first collection from a notable new fantasist (Irvine's excellent debut novel, A Scattering of Jades, was published by Tor in July to considerable acclaim), Rossetti Song is a significant collectable. It is a moody assemblage, autumnal in tone, full of notes of loss, regret, resignation, and (in some cases) an individual's emergence, purged, from these. The rich emotional coloration of Irvine's prose, coupled with his remarkable sense of place, familiar and exotic (I've been tempted in the past to compare him with Lucius Shepard), lends his stories a deeply felt vividness. And on the basis of the wide range of genre boundaries crossed in this book, his extreme creative versatility cannot be doubted.

The title story is magic realist in texture. The protagonist has always dreamed of owning a bar, but his wife died just as this vision was realized; triumph and bereavement are fatally mixed for years afterward. Slowly, this ambivalence draws him away from his idyll, and a more genuine mourner takes his place as taverner; an obscure old record, key to memory or catalyst for haunting, plays a beguiling, liberating part. From there, Irvine moves to more destructive modes of melancholy in "The Sands of Iwo Jima", original to Rossetti Song; here, a moribund war veteran, living in rather eerie counterpoint to a macho John Wayne movie, contemplates his death. Again, Irvine masterfully evokes the plaintive memoriousness of relics of pop culture; but this time, the winter of the heart has its way…

After these contemporary tales, Irvine stretches his temporal wings, and authentic strangeness sets in. "Akhenaten" is far from the first attempt fantastic literature has made to probe the enigma of that odd Egyptian Pharaoh, he of the bizarrely elongated skull and revolutionary monotheistic ideas; but it may be the most penetrating. Perhaps Akhenaten is an alien; perhaps not. Perhaps his radical reforms are an effort to kickstart history, sail with remorseless energy down the River of Time; perhaps not. Certainty is not the issue; Irvine's ambiguity is more forceful than any categorical hypothesis, a deft summary of a very real perplexity. And in "The Sea Wind Offers Little Relief", he analyzes, with a tantalizing indirectness, just why the fabric of history is so inscrutable: a scholar of the far future contemplates the plight of a distant predecessor imprisoned by a philistinic gestalt dystopia for the crime of literacy; in painstakingly reconstructing that remarkable tale, the scholar discovers a good deal about memory, narrative, and self. The artfulness of "Sea Wind" is complex and possibly off-putting, critical analysis elevated to rather a high power; but it richly rewards patient multiple readings.

2) A Walking Tour of the Shambles, Gene Wolfe & Neil Gaiman (American Fantasy, $15)

From Alex Irvine's recomplicated anxieties to this attractively illustrated 57-page romp is quite a jump, but the small press thrives on variety. Subtitled "Little Walks for Sightseers #16", A Walking Tour is a spoof traveler's guide to a small, preternaturally nasty, and quite nonexistent area of Chicago. When Gene Wolfe finally got around to this sort of concrete writing, so at odds with his customary Nabokovian numinousness, one could have hoped for a step-by-step tour of the Matachin Tower (including detailed technical disquisitions on Master Gurloes's torture apparatus), or of Tzadkiel's starship, or conceivably of the Grand Manteion in Viron; but whimsy does as whimsy dictates (or as Neil Gaiman commands), and the Shambles will do very well in a pinch. It has wonders of its own, like Molly Graw's grisly restaurant, and carnivorous ambulatory clocks, and a church whose parishioners are apparently baptized by means of drowning…

Gahan Wilson's cover cartoon ably summarizes the spirit of the enterprise. Wolfe (jowls and whiskers) and Gaiman (long nose, full head of hair) consider their guide books with a sort of studied unease, against a background of tottering Gothic buildings, windings of gangrenous mist, and threatening entities of unnatural aspect. Their companions, Alice and her watch-consulting White Rabbit, look puzzled in a harrowed fashion, and with good reason. Brilliantly, sinisterly, banteringly, the authors of A Walking Tour mingle light jest with gallows humor in their descriptions of haunted structures taller than the Sears Tower, hostelries for immigrants from Ultima Thule, immortal lake-pent gondoliers, and a petting zoo from hell. The style is impeccable modern Baedekerese, with unsettling winks and sidewise talon-crammed grins; the interior art by Randy Broecker and Earl Geier gives the game away a bit with its literalism, but it's easy to forgive such amiable, even ingenuous, ghoulishness. A Walking Tour may lack literary seriousness, but it is a worthy and agreeable minor work, and quite possibly that Grail of cultural psychoanalysts, a snapshot glimpse of two of speculative fiction's more mysterious or guarded psyches.

3) V.A.O., Geoff Ryman (PS Publishing, £25/$40 [hardcover], £8/$14 [trade paperback])

PS Publishing has for several years been issuing excellent novella chapbooks, chiefly by British writers. V.A.O. is the Canadian-born Geoff Ryman's contribution, shorter than most (really a novelette), but trenchant and precise, exhibiting again the author's noted skill at intermediate lengths. The narrator, Brewster, is a hacker grown old but not necessarily feeble, living in a retirement home in a near future of the cruelly capitalist kind. In Ryman's scenario, only money protects the elderly from abandonment and neglect, and even if they can afford proper care, they are at constant risk of maltreatment and petty thievery by the doctors and staff in whose charge they nominally find themselves. Little has changed, in other words; but alarming new technologies are in operation, including anti-intruder booby-trapping (Victim Activated Ordnance, which can kill those trying innocently to leave, say, a retirement center, as readily as criminals breaking in), and something a good deal more peculiar, which is turning geriatrics into gangs of gun-toting Very Ancient Offenders. Caught in the middle, Brewster must employ his hacking skills and native wits with ingenuity, and his tale is a powerful and affecting one.

Ryman delivers a good deal of biting commentary in V.A.O., on menacing social and demographic trends, on the evil uses to which the helpless can easily be put, and, most significant in genre terms, on the future shock inevitable when Eighties cyberpunk insouciance collides with the grim realities of the 2020s and beyond. That at least some Gibsonian survival skills may still be of application then is encouraging; that they will have to be employed as Ryman implies is sobering. This mingling of hope and alarm is a cautionary balance characteristic of the finest science fiction, and V.A.O. joins the list of the best SF stories of 2002.

Nick Gevers, an editor at Cosmos Books, writes extensively on SF for a wide variety of publications. He produces two monthly columns for Locus, and his reviews and interviews have also recently appeared in The Washington Post Book World, Interzone (the March 2002 issue, of which he co-edited), Foundation, SF Site, and Infinity Plus. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

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