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This is the introduction to "Home by the Sea," by Pat Cadigan

I remember the 1990s as a world-is-running-down kind of decade; America, at any rate, felt to my 20-something self like a dentist's waiting room as the millennium drilled its way closer to us bored, jittery victims patients. Reading "Home by the Sea" (first published in 1991) recalled me instantly to a jaded '90s futility, a can't-shock-me atmosphere that spawned bands like Nine Inch Nails.

But with a Cadigan story, atmosphere is the least of it. No, there's always a philosophical kink. Cadigan is a master of simulacra-with-hairline-cracks: worlds that seem OK at first, but ain't. The darkness that crawls out of the crack in this story's particular simulacrum is concerned with contrasts—or rather, their lack. Everything here is in suspension, noncommittal. From its not-quite-single-yet-not-really-married-either protagonist to the almost-dead universe, nothing in this story can make up its mind what it really is.

It makes me queasy. Sea/sky, life/death, loss/gain—pick your dichotomy; pretty much all of them are blurred. The Dutch town where the story is set isn't even supposed to be there, just as the people in it aren't supposed to be alive. The land has been lifted up out of the sea and held there under pretence of civilization, and its inhabitants are similarly trapped between states. Waiting to die.

I like best stories that make me chase my tail, and this one has me galloping in delirious nihilistic circles. I happened to read my first Ballard in the mid-1990s and it's tempting to describe "Home by the Sea" as Ballardian, but I don't think that would quite grab what I'm after. Cadigan's work spikes the envelope of Ballard's alienation and penetrates, bloodied, into that sense of bewilderment and near-panic that underlies nightmare. And like a nightmare, this story can be read as a warning.

So what's the specific caution in the cautionary tale? Is it that a life where there is no possibility of death holds no meaning? Is it "don't look a gift horse in the fangs"?

Well, thankfully Cadigan is too good to hand out morals like fortune cookies. The meanings of her works are always a little druglike and sneaky. But if this story says one thing to me personally it's this: Pay attention. This is your life. Don't let it slip away, and whatever you do, don't let it be stolen. Pay. Attention.

Read "Home by the Sea," by Pat Cadigan

Tricia Sullivan is the author of seven science fiction novels, including 1999 Arthur C. Clarke Award winner Dreaming in Smoke, Maul, and Lightborn. For more about her and her work, see her website or follow her on Twitter.
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