Gary K. Wolfe Reviews These Prisoning Hills by Christopher Rowe

These Prisoning Hills, Christopher Rowe (Tor­dotcom 978-1250804488, $15.99, 144pp, tp) May 2022.

These Prisoning Hills is the latest installment in Christopher Rowe’s striking vision of a phantasma­gorical future Tennessee that we first encountered in ‘‘The Voluntary State’’ and ‘‘The Border State’’, both included in his 2017 collection Telling the Map. While much of the novella resonates with those earlier tales, familiarity with them isn’t necessary, since Rowe provides a kind of capsule history of the apocalyptic, landscape-altering war against a rogue AI (originally a governor of Tennessee) through scat­tered excerpts from ‘‘A History of the First Athena War’’, which serve to frame his central tale. This focuses on Marcia, a 61-year-old veteran of that war now working as a low-level government supervisor near a quarantined region still hazardous because of the nanotech deployed by the fearful AI, Athena Par­thenos. Her daily routine is interrupted by the arrival of a federal military contingent seeking her help in entering the area on a mysterious mission – though she quickly learns that their real assignment is to rescue a team which had disappeared weeks earlier. While working to help solve the current mystery, Marcia finds herself recalling harrowing events from decades earlier, when she served as a captain in the last days of the Athena War, nearly losing her life in her encounters with some of Athena’s more horrific inventions.

Among the most frightening such inventions were the Commodores, giant ‘‘mechano-nano-biological creatures’’ which served as war machines reminis­cent of the Jaegers of Pacific Rim or, further back, the manshonyaggers of Cordwainer Smith (whose own inventive transformations and terminology bear other resemblances to Rowe). They’re probably the closest thing to a familiar SF convention Rowe permits himself, since their harsh Dalek-like voices are RENDERED IN ALL CAPS. Only 36 Commo­dores were made, each containing a human core (not always voluntary, it turns out), and all but one were destroyed or accounted for. It doesn’t take us long to discover that searching for that lost Commodore is what links Marcia’s contemporary mission with her memories of the war. In both cases, she finds herself dealing both with fearsome enemies like ‘‘ratboys’’ and with obtuse military thinking barely able to comprehend the extent of the bizarre transformations that still haunt the forbidden zones, though she man­ages to find a few trustworthy companions as well.

As with the earlier stories, a good deal of the power of Rowe’s fiction derives less from the SF machinery, or even from the Bosch-like landscapes, than from its geographical authenticity. Parts of the Tennes­see he writes about may have been boiled down to bedrock, denuded of vegetation, and later restored during something called the Reseeding, but they still seem part of a recognizable middle-American landscape that remains rare in most SF. That sense of place, together with Rowe’s precise and clear prose and the memorable portrayal of Marcia herself, both as a young soldier and a reluctant older guide, has the odd reverse effect of familiarizing the radically estranged aspects of his story. In one sense, These Prisoning Hills is a super-postmodern version of a classic American guide-to-the-wilderness tale that dates back to Daniel Boone and James Fenimore Cooper; in another, it recalls the ‘‘forbidden zone’’ plots of much post-apocalyptic SF; in yet another, especially in the chapters with the younger Marcia, it’s a suspenseful future-war tale. For someone with so many apparent roots in traditional SF, Rowe still manages to make his Tennessee both completely new and thoroughly grounded, and not quite like any other setting in SF.

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 May 2022 issue of Locus.

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