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Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

The Bait is that here is an old man who should be raging against the dying of the light. The Switch is that I am going to talk about Bait and Switch again. The term describes a two-part manoeuvre overfamiliar the instant it is recognized in a novel. The first part is the Bait (usually short, maybe only a single chapter) which introduces us to an adult protagonist in the media res turmoil of a complex life, whose unpacking may be of real interest to a reader who may be the same age; but who suddenly remembers her childhood or adolesence. The second part of the Sting (cf intertitles for that movie) is the Switch (a flashback, never short), which may occupy the remainder of the book, which may have been purchased by an adult reader, giving her the opportunity to absorb down to the last detail the backstory of the original protagonist, usually focusing on his adolescence. Given the adhesive attractiveness to the author of this descent backwards into Young Adult territory, we may never in fact return to the events begun in the Bait, or only so rushedly that the final chapter will almost drop us off the page into a slingshot ending (sequel to be announced). As the aesthetic (which is to say mannerly) reasons for reverting to the Young-Adult-Bildungsroman immersiveness typical of Switch may be hard to argue on their merits, one suspects that at least some Bait and Switch novels may function primarily as vehicles for repurposing otherwise unpublishable manuscripts from the bottom drawer, tales maybe originally written when the author and the protagonist were the same age. This may all sound intemperate—Mike Levy once took me mildly to task for a review I did a while back of Greg Frost's Shadowbridge, implying I might have been a tad over-exasperated (in hindsight a good call)—but there is an underlying point here, over and above that basic suspicion that one has been flim-flammed.

In his recent The Mystery of Being Human: God, Freedom and the NHS (2016), the philosopher/physician Raymond Tallis takes the concept of "tensed time"—a term he extracts from a "philosophical-presentism" argument that the present-tense edge of human consciousness can only thrive within a cradle of perspectives that host past and future in a prehensile marriage of the tenses of perception (almost totally my wording)—in order to argue that "lived time" is multiply experienced. This rendering of the "everywhere-dense continuum of events" (I quote C. H. Waddington's Behind Appearances from 1969) may seem to make such elementary sense it hardly needs iterating: but models of the homo economicus which have done so much harm over the centuries work on an assumption that the flow of consciousness is a fungible of rational calculation, not a flow of marriages; it may be a similar utilitarianism applies to the underlying economic calculus that seems to govern the choice of a Bait and Switch structure: an implicit argument that the fleuve of experienced life can be translated, without loss, into exempla of the life to come.

So Bait and Switch may be a device more than simply annoying to those who have encountered it too often (more than twice). The operating if tacit assumption that something like "tensed time" can be rendered through the dramatic-irony exemplum-fixes of flashback seems to violate a deep writerly and readerly instinct that no story governed by its future is likely to create a living body English of the human sensorium at work: that no story pre-understood in terms of what it predicts can be told in tensed time: that Switch is the slave of Bait.

The full implications of this modest tirade should not, perhaps, be thought entirely to characterize Ellen Klages's deft emotion-driven Passing Strange, a Bait and Switch tale which introduces us in the Bait to Helen Young, the near-centenarian we wrongly assume will be the protagonist. She is preparing to die, but must accomplish a long-promised task before taking her pills and drinking the liquor and perishing gently in her apartment overlooking her beloved San Francisco. She goes to a derelict building she owns; retrieves from a locked basement alcove the exceedingly fragile final work, executed in pastel chalks and sealed in an airless glass case, of a famous 1930s weird-fiction illustrator named Haskel, whose work closely resembles that of the real-life Margaret Brundage (1900—1976); Haskel had worked in obscurity, the world at large not suspecting she was female. Helen now sells this final work to Martin Blake, an unpleasant dealer in collectibles with (spoiler alert!) "thinning hair" and something like a comb-over, who also cheats customers, for $200,000. She returns to her apartment and, mission accomplished, for "she had kept her oath," she allows herself to fall asleep for good. And that is the end of Bait.

Switch begins. We make our visitors-from-Mars landing in the San Francisco of 1940, a Weimarish city embrocated in a fuzzy-set filemot glow that invokes the Last Days before World War Two, exuding the odours and dreamwork of an eternal summer that must soon evaporate, like a pastel chalk painting on friable paper. The focus of the tale shifts from 25-year-old Helen to Haskel, who like all the principals of the tale is gay, and Haskel's new lover Emily. The only men in the tale—with the partial exception of a walk-on Diego Rivera (1886—1957), who was in San Francisco then, just about to remarry Frida Kahlo (1907—1954)—are creeps, at least one of them violent. But in the molten circumambience of urban life just where the Pacific stops foaming, with Treasure Island (home of the Golden Gate International Exposition) floating like a dozen Balis in the Bay, this hardly matters: the plot thickens, as some obscene laws governing sexual behaviour begin to bite, and a moderately melodramatic set of complications looks to separate Haskell and Emily for ever.

But one of their friends has gained a magic/extrasensory ability to construct origami-like portal-like topologies, wormhole maps capable of transporting humans through space, and possibly fixing them into other dimensions where the universe does not work as it does here, though what actually might occur inside one of these polders we do not know: nor do I think we are much meant to care. At the last moment, Haskel and Emily escape from darkening San Francisco through a complex enactment of this power/these powers, "traveling" "literally" into Haskell's last painting, which in fact is a portrait of the two of them dancing into eternity (the Tor cover by Gregory Manchess tries valiantly to capture this essentially uncapturable moment). Once through the portal of this final work, they will enter some kind of possible time or stasis, Treasure Island or Byzantium, maybe even experiencing in their transfixion a mutual orgasm for something like forever, as do the two gods who make love at the end of Thorne Smith's Night Life of the Gods (1931). This will last, if one may speak of last where there is no time, until the physical painting is destroyed. It is of course this painting, after 75 years, that the bent dealer with thinning hair purchases, and unseals it in the tale's short epilogue. It explodes in his face. The lovers are dislimned. The long liebestod climaxes its last.

Though the Bait and Switch flow of the tale inevitably asks that Switch be the handmaiden of Bait, there is an air of looseness to Passing Strange—clearly in part through switching protagonists, and partly because there is only one teenager involved—that allows one mostly to forget that the events of 1940 are pre-owned. Klages's urgent favoritism for her moderately large cast does make at times for a slightly stagey clambake wholesomeness, with various characters interpellating each other's vaudevilles with love sententiae until one wishes Dorothy Parker were reviewing the book; but the love does transparently exist; and the San Francisco Klages strokes with her painterly brush into something close to life does transparently hold on to one, as though the past were real, we wish. Passing Strange needs to be wrestled with a bit, but the window opens.


Cover of The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley

There is no window to to look through and see The Stars Are Legion from afar, which is very clearly Kameron Hurley's plan of action for what seems at the moment to be a standalone novel that you do not so much read as climb out of at the end. Only pretty late in its considerable length, when the pummelling passages through the windowless dark begin to connect, can we see within this immurement something storyable extruding itself out of what seems to be muck but in fact, as we learn, is something deeper than that. Bait and Switch might have told us a lot (almost certainly too much) about what is about to happen, but as it is the main protagonist of The Stars Are Legion, the amnesiacal Zan—who tells most of the tale in a perspectiveless first-person narrative present—does in the end begin to unravel herself from cycles of memory-blocked eternal return, from backstories where she seems to have behaved very badly, from chthonic echolalias of murder and maiming. For a while, so featureless is the backdrop, we do seem trapped in a kind of gameboard, and the indecipherable Zan seems as blank as snow. But it all changes.

The universe of this post-baroque space opera is never exactly explained, though it does seem to take place across an interacting melange (or "Legion") of world-ships, which the cast (having forgotten they have engines) sometimes confuses with planets; these world-ship/planets more or less orbit a sort of sun, which gives some light but is normally obscured by what may be interstellar fog. The entire population of the ships is female, a circumstance completely without contrastive significance within the terms of the story, and never mentioned: but in fact there is an unwritten significance here. Nobody aboard, or within, or native to any of the vast quasi-organic world-ships interjaculating in the fog has the faintest clue (nor does Hurley tell us in as many words) that in some sense they are either a niche species (as in most space operas) evolved in this instance to occupy the womb-like ships they feed and which feeds them, or they have been assigned there, perhaps aeons ago. However the tale is read, the cast are meant to be there. Murkily, fecundly, moistly, foggily, passionately, these peoples (except sexually, the inhabitants of the Legion vary very widely indeed) are constantly engaged in giving birth to the entire world here deployed: for they give birth, through what seem to be easily detachable and tradable wombs, not only to human infants, and mutants who are usually destroyed, but also to engine parts that keep the worlds turning, and also, climactically, to the worlds themselves. This all seems not only accepted but inherently right, not in the slightest a problematic that chivvies the flow of the book, though there is this: the interwoven intimacies that bind cast and ships together, the harsh hard knowing psychic toughness of Hurley's protagonists (and of those they kill), the omnipresent bodily fluids from which a stereotypical male eye would be averted: all this adds up to a world too harsh for men. But this is unspoken within the book. There is nothing missing here. "We're all the same thing" [Zan muses]. "We're all shit. We're all flesh. We're all sentient." Penises would not, in any case, be wanted on voyage, as it seems (no explanation is in fact given) that the inhabitants of the world-ships are parthenogenetic (though, weirdly, Zan seems afflicted by incest taboo). And what is not necessary has never been.

Though portals and passages are exceedingly easy to confuse/conflate with orifices, the story told here is not in fact actually dominated by birthing and deathing, much of which goes on omnipresently but sub voce in the back passages of the tale. The reveal that the ships are organic takes its time coming, though it would be an inattentive reader who failed to note the intimacy of the interactions between dwellers and dwellings. Our initial focus is on the cartoonish warlike behaviour of two civilizations or tribes who occupy the outer levels of two of the ships, and who engage in an interminable "bickering" (Hurley's term) over lebensraum, and over the increasingly visible dying of the orificial ships (the entropic decay that pervades the universe of The Stars Are Legion reminded me of space operas by authors like William Barton, Barrington J. Bayley, Mark S. Geston, or John C. Wright before he turned upside-down in his tub and began to spill; C. L. Moore's darker work also hints at similar iron fixities of loss: but the 1940s SF megatext did not favour iterations of this sort, and she slid away). But these first chapters of the book are sadly choked with these characters, who know nothing or have forgotten everything or who are disposed to tell us nought, and it is all something of a challenge to get started. Hurley's visual sense is as well affectually monochrome, and even the occasional sexual encounter gives off a marmoreal cosplay glitter, like twentieth century Vatican art. It all takes too long to fire.

But Zan works hard to begin to regain her memory, and begins to act as though she might in fact eventually rise sufficiently into her full self to take up once again the burden of being Lord Mokshi, ruler of a potentially fecundatable world whose sayings adorn the incipit of each chapter; and we begin to perk up. (We are surely meant to assume from very near the beginning of the tale that Mokshi is in fact Zan, who takes more than 300 pages to realize who she is, but we sure didn't: perhaps because we knew Lord Mokshi had too much moxie to remain a cipher.) And once Zan really gets her head inside the world-ship she thinks of as home, and discovers that it is little-big, and moist, and dark, and womb-like and archipelagan, and open to the splendours and miseries of aspirational passage through its cruces, the tale begins to move and bite. There are even a few jokes.

The ending is all muck and brass. Because of the relentless carnage up to now, there is a lot of work to be done, sweeping the coulisses of the interior free of corpses and stuff, and more importantly womb-work as well, bairns and gearings and world-germs to be given birth to, so that the the vacancies that have poculated the great wombs can be refilled and refecundated. Lord Mokshi and her beloved partner (I've not mentioned her) have worlds to shape, in a sense far more intimately convincing than I can easily remember encountering in an adventure (though not unexpected). We close on world-ships as they begin to moult like snakes in spring, shaking themselves into new life: not Bait but Outcome. It is a tribute to the brazen incremental drive of The Stars Are Legion that at this point one does not want it to stop. But it does. It has become genuinely possible at this point to hope for a second volume that will explain the title of the first.



 John Clute (jclute@gmail.com) has been writing SF and fantasy criticism since the 1960s, and has been involved in writing encyclopedias since the 1970s. His novel Appleseed (2001) was a New York Times Notable Book in 2002. His most recent book is a new collection, Stay, which includes both criticism and short fiction. He is currently working on the third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
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