Gary K. Wolfe Reviews Alias Space and Other Stories by Kelly Robson

Alias Space and Other Stories, Kelly Robson (Subterranean 978-1645240259, $40.00, 420pp, hc) April 2021.

I’ve sometimes been skeptical of authors who as­semble a story collection almost as soon as they’ve totted up enough publications to make a book – after all, is almost everything you’ve published that worthy of preservation? – and I’ve sometimes been wrong about it, as with writers like Ted Chi­ang or Eileen Gunn. The latest example is Kelly Robson, who only began publishing a half dozen years ago – she calls herself a late bloomer – and whose Alias Space and Other Stories collects nearly all of her short fiction to date. Whether it’s due to launching a career in her forties, working with good editors, or simply being an author who polishes and twiddles until she gets things right, just about all the stories are easily worth collecting. Of course, the main factor may simply be quirki­ness of imagination: it’s hard to think of another writer who’d begin a career with a sex comedy about magical plumbing in Louis XV’s Versailles, follow up with a tale of a dragon-slaying school bus driver, or write a touching series of genera­tional tales about Toronto’s queer street-burlesque community (not what comes to mind when I think of Toronto tourism, but I looked it up, and it is sort of a thing). In other words, each of Robson’s tales are hand-carved from different materials, and while we can see links and themes emerging, none of the stories are easy appendages to other stories, or to a would-be franchise.

The two best-known stories here are “The Water of Versailles” and “A Human Stain”. The former, Robson’s multiple award-nominated tale of an aspiring courtier who, with mixed results, introduces indoor plumbing and toilets (inevitably called thrones) to the legendary palace, but whose secret is a water-nixie who (a little creepily) calls him Papa. It’s as bright, inventive, and shrewdly satirical as I’d remembered. Though completely unconnected in terms of mood and plot, the Nebula-winning “A Human Stain” (which has nothing to do with Philip Roth, by the way) is al­most the dark mirror image of the Versailles story: again we have an historical setting, almost entirely inside a labyrinthine structure, but in place of the crowded, lively Versailles we find ourselves in a remote windswept schloss with only a couple of uncommunicative servants, a strange nursemaid, and an even stranger boy to greet the protagonist Helen, who is fleeing her debts back in Paris by taking on a tutorial job she’s not really qualified for. The fantastical element here is pure Gothic horror rather than pixie-lore, but again Robson works out the details with an almost SFnal preci­sion: we can pretty much piece together the biol­ogy and life-cycle of the weird creatures Helen finds herself confronting, and the details assemble themselves with masterful pacing.

Several of her SF stories share certain elements with each other, and perhaps also with Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach. After Earth has been devastated, an “outplanet diaspora” has led to an exodus to the Moon, planets, and other space habitats, the most bizarre (and far-future) of which are the giant floating organisms called “space whales” in “We Who Live in the Heart”, a tale whose familiar theme of responsibility and redemption is strengthened not only by its setting but by its cynical and crusty neurosurgeon narrator. Another hardnosed narrator (Robson rarely uses first-person) is among the strongest features of “Intervention”, in which the protagonist decides upon a late-life career as a creche manager, raising groups of children in a post-family solar system but resolutely refusing to work on the Moon, for both personal and political reasons. The Moon also turns out to be pretty unwelcoming to the protagonist of “A Study in Oils”, a hockey player who, having killed a man there, flees to a remote valley in China, where an older, more sustainable way of life suggests yet another alternative to a grim future.

A pretty bleak future is also the setting of “Two-Year Man”, in which a rigid caste system is enforced based on the number of years of veteran service in “the colonies”, though the protagonist Mikkel knows that, even with more than two years of service, he has little chance of advancing be­cause he’s Jewish. A laboratory janitor in the habit of sneaking food and other goods home to his wife, Mikkel rescues a live baby – albeit a mutant with a beak – only to find his wife outraged at the idea. The story may not link to Robson’s other futures, but two aspects reflect a recurring dichotomy in her fiction. On the one hand, she recognizes the societal importance of caregivers – the creche manager in “Intervention”, the governess/tutor in “A Human Stain”, a nursing home director in “The Desperate Flesh”, Mikkel’s desire for fatherhood – while on the other she recognizes the darker impulses of society to treat some of its members, usually women, as disposable. Mikkel’s baby is the most literal example, but a debate about the ease of sacrificing others is featured in “We Who Live in the Heart”, and the idea is central to the two most brutal and uncompromis­ing stories in the collection. The protagonist of “What Gentle Women Dare” is a prostitute in 18th-century Liverpool – which, we are reminded, was central to the British slave trade – who decides to steal a smock from a corpse in the river, only to discover it belongs to an ethereal figure who sug­gests there may be a way to address the habitual violence against women in her world. (She sees the figure as the devil, but we know better.) “The Three Resurrections of Jessica Churchill” opens with a particularly brutal rape and murder, though again some sort of alien consciousness enters the victim’s body to repair the physical damage, even as it can’t give her a will to survive. I’m not sure that the alien interlopers in either story are quite convincing, given the meticulous naturalism of the settings, but they probably save the tales from becoming unbearably bleak.

There is also an aspect of Robson’s fiction that unashamedly celebrates the ways people find to survive, and it’s most evident in the trio she calls her Toronto burlesque stories. The first of these, “The Desperate Flesh”, a title that might have been borrowed from one of the ancient lesbian paperbacks with which one character decorates her scrubs, concerns efforts to save a geriatric home for lesbians, which the city would like to turn into a museum. The effort is complicated by a former burlesque dancer with a tendency to strip down in public places, which may turn out to be a more effective political statement than it at first seems. It’s not SF at all, but by the time of “Alias Space”, we’re in a post-COVID future in which people are just beginning to venture out again for street festivals, only the manager of one such festival balks when he learns that the dance troupe filling several slots is actually a burlesque group. Agnes, their leader, works a day job at a high-tech upscale parking structure. When a new industrial robot meant for the garage is sent to her burlesque dance studio instead, the confusion tilts the story toward screwball comedy. “Skin City” is set further in the future, the title a pun on burlesque and the habit of most citizens, in a post-privacy domed Toronto, to experience their surroundings through augmented-reality “skins” that even delete people from view. The protagonist, Kass, is a burlesque performer in jail for intellectual property theft – apparently almost any allusion to cultural figures is protected – but whose only goal is to meet a mysterious woman in black with whom she has fallen in love literally at first sight. Kass’s acid-tongued centenarian cellmate Janet provides a delightfully sharp counterpoint to Kass’s romanticism.

Kass is one of several older women figures who play important roles in Robson’s fiction, remind­ing us how rare such figures are in most SF/F. Another is the crusty school bus driver in “La Vitesse”, fleeing a dragon while trying to offer her daughter a more rewarding childhood than her own, when she had to steal books from the local library. Bea is about the coolest school bus driver since Ms. Frizzle, and the story’s clearly autobio­graphical setting of 1980s Alberta is one of the most fully realized in the book. Another landscapethat takes center stage is the Athabasca River valley of “Two Watersheds”, Robson’s contribution to Ann VanderMeer’s anthology of remote presence tales, Avatars Inc; in this case a gamer-turned-ecologist finds her gaming skills helpful in operating remote bots placing flow gauges along a dying river to help with restoration efforts after a controversial vote to divert needed water to the larger population center of Edmonton. In a relatively short space, it makes clear the tradeoffs involved in any sort of ecological management. It’s perhaps the most hard-SF story here, even as it lacks the raw energy of Robson’s more baroque settings. Similarly, the James Bond parody “So You Want to be a Honeypot”, with its cast of glamorous spies, assassins, and seductresses, is mostly a hoot that asks the good question of what might happen if those Bond babes decided to proclaim their own agency. It’s light fun, and about as far away in tone as you could get from the dark horror of “A Human Stain” or the too-real violence of “The Three Resurrections of Jessica Churchill”. That impressive tonal and thematic range may be the simplest thing we can take away from this impressive first collection, except possibly for this: as eclectic as her settings and narrative modes might be, Robson consistently writes about characters who, within their limitations, simply want to do better.

Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.

This review and more like it in the April 2021 issue of Locus.

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