Two new collections, both by women who have been producing noteworthy novels and short fiction for many decades, show just how much can be achieved by a strong imagination that refuses to recognize the artificial boundaries of subject, tone, or genre. Kit Reed’s The Story Until Now, aptly subtitled ‘‘A Great Big Book of Stories’’, takes its 35 works from a long career that shows no sign of stopping – and goes all the way back to 1958, for the superb debut that ends this nonchronological gathering. Tanith Lee may have been in grade school back then, but the 14 selections in her own Space Is Just a Starry Night move between decades with equal impunity: eighties, aughts, nineties, one piece from 1979, and a couple of originals.
Though neither author adds specific comments, my fellow Locus reviewer Gary Wolfe provides an excellent introduction to Reed, placing her self-proclaimed ‘‘transgenred’’ fiction outside the usual distinctions between literary, mainstream, and SF/F/H, and pointing to a remarkable ‘‘eclecticism… of themes and preoccupations,’’ along with character types and viewpoints, which nonetheless seems rooted in the primal relationships of family life (or their gaping absence, and the search for substitutes and surrogates in many forms).
The book is roughly organized by life stages, starting with a medley of youth and early childhood at odds with agonized/clueless parents. These medleys are more loose groupings than clear sequences, though some elements could link one work to the next in a compare-and-contrast fashion. You can see this in the first seven stories (whose dates of origin I’ll give here just to indicate the diversity). After the drastic failures of teen, father, and mother to communicate or comprehend from their separate viewpoints in the moving, if essentially mainstream, opener ‘‘Denny’’ (2008), comes the outrageous SFnal monster in ‘‘Attack of the Giant Baby’’ (1976), where a lab scientist dad inadvertently sets the eponymous mutant horror rampaging through NYC, while its ghastly growth spurts continue. Harried parents may regard both forms of offspring as equally monstrous. The boy raised in the wild in ‘‘What Wolves Know’’ (2007) has a very different sense of the animal from the kid who draws strength and daring from a robotic beast in ‘‘Automatic Tiger’’ (the latter, from 1964, perfectly suited to the split creature on the book’s cover, right down to its intimations of doom), yet both protagonists reach a stage beyond childhood where they look past the human while they try to find themselves. An excess of self-confidence affects the smug young visitors to a new institution in ‘‘Wherein We Enter the Museum’’ (2011) and most of the urban teens in the strangely porous penal colony of ‘‘High Rise High’’ (2005) – places that both seem primed to explode, in one way or another. Back in the realm of solitary youth, ‘‘Piggy’’ (1962) moves from a brief classical allusion – think Pegasus, as stud – to a bizarre, pinkish modern hybrid that evolves from boyhood pet to something like a ghostwriter/muse. Though things can’t end well, for a time the rider manages to soar on a combination of delusion and inspiration, recycling the words and notions of our long literary past.
The ultimate in individual disasters takes an irreverent turnaround in ‘‘Sisohpromatem’’ (check out the title backwards). But groups fare no better. When people try to cope with disease, unrest, and other potential preludes to apocalypse – or turn them to their own advantage – their households, small communities, and encampments can’t stand the test of time, or hold up under too much scrutiny. Fanatical hypochondria goes beyond joke to nightmare in ‘‘Precautions’’, while a more bizarre mania underlies the perpetual quest for an image of perfect harmony in ‘‘Family Bed’’. An attempted revolution of 20th-century women in ‘‘Songs of War’’ goes down in a turbulent sea of clashing egos and contrasting needs. You’ll laugh and cry, and wince at every razor-sharp insight.
Further along, Reed casts such a clear eye on the depredations of old age that it would be downright unkind to end here, where even wry smiles can be hard to come by. But two more groupings, something like a postscript, provide conclusive evidence of Reed’s extraordinary range.
An offbeat take on the future dominates the SF in several stories, and the humor works just as well as it moves back into something more like myth, darkening and growing sharper in the multiple viewpoints of this year’s ‘‘The Legend of Troop 13’’, a brilliant satire on the aging male’s lurid – entirely wrong – ideas about sexually primed Lost Girls. Not every nubile female can have it her own way. Though the prose is just as powerful in Reed’s first published story ‘‘The Wait’’ (the last one here), this tale of a girl, her oblivious mother, and a small town’s unnerving customs won’t let you close the book and blithely go on about your business; long after you’ve finished, it lingers. Some writers take half a lifetime to learn what Kit Reed seems to have grasped right from the start.