With its kaleidoscopic variety of settings and prose styles, this short story collection by Kelly Eskridge is comprised of many spaces rather than just one. At the same time, there are common elements in the seven very different stories; Eskridge even deliberately reuses the same character names in some of them. The image that comes to mind is that of a hallway with many doors, the rooms at once divided and connected by the walls between. Each story throws the reader unceremoniously and without explanation into a different world, each with its own rules and even its own language, but somehow related to its neighbours. The styles of writing vary depending upon whether the setting is an alternate version of our own world, a medieval fantasy world, or an unidentifiable place that is defined purely by the laws of its fascist regime, where people are their titles and nothing innovative is permitted.
Dangerous Space comes with an introduction by award-winning author Geoff Ryman and follows on the heels of Eskridge's critically acclaimed debut novel Solitaire, a New York Times Notable Book. The stories in the book are, according to Eskridge, the work of nearly twenty years. Yet in spite of the years that separate some of the stories, there is a strong sense that they are all in some way connected.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Dangerous Space is that its focus on politically controversial themes—specifically gender and homosexuality—is executed in a mostly apolitical manner. The gender of the character of Mars, who is the central character in three of the stories, is never revealed; Mars is sexually attracted both to men and women and is never described in full physical detail. This subversion of gender roles is handled with such subtlety that it's easily overlooked—I assumed, for reasons I can't explain, that Mars was a man, perhaps because Mars the god of war is male. It was only after the second or third Mars story that I began to realize that the gender of Mars had never been specified. As Mars him/herself says at one point, "Gender's not important."
This blasé treatment of gender is carried over into sexual relationships, with gay relationships being accepted wordlessly as an integral part of the landscape. In "Eye of the Storm," a medieval fantasy tale with a decidedly postmodern feel, a group of men and women share one another's beds as a matter of course, and no one remarks upon it. Instead, in that story, themes of sexual identity are explored through Mars's inability to experience erotic pleasure through any means other than violence, a twist reminiscent of Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Dart. Mars has joined a band of mercenaries who are journeying to the whimsically named Lemon City to compete for the position of guards to the prince.
Significantly, Mars experiences the same feelings of alienation and self-loathing that a gay person would experience in an intolerant society; there is an acute sense of loneliness as a result of possessing such a different set of needs from most people. It's possible that by taking the focus away from the highly politicized topic of homosexuality and into less media-trodden territory, Eskridge might be attempting to explore the experience of being gay without exciting the reader's political prejudices (either for or against). Attacking the subject indirectly, without preconceptions, both makes for a more honest analysis and also improves the chances of the reader empathizing with the character on a purely emotional level.
Gender as a theme is thrust to the forefront in "And Salome Danced," in which a beautiful actor can transform from male to female and back again at will, and as a female sets out to seduce her play's director. The actor, known in female form as Jo, claims to be able to become the precise embodiment of whatever the director desires, whether it's a beautiful woman or even the destructive and powerful character of Salome that she plays. The story is an odd blend of gender-bending and an exploration of the perils of striving for perfection in art. In some ways it is like a twenty-first-century version of the myth of Pygmalion mixed with Frankenstein, wherein the artist creates his ideal vision, and becomes powerless against it.
"Somewhere Down the Diamondback Road" feels like a prose experiment, with a rhythmic lilt even to its title. The story begins: "And oh the feel of the road through the wheels and the carapace and the burnished bones of the machine that grit-slung us down the black-top. The road was a king snake with a long white back-stripe, and it whipped underneath us as we grab grab grabbed for the head ..." (p. 132). What begins as a seeming paean to freedom becomes a nightmare of government-controlled murder. No specific details are given as to why the main character, Carol Ann, is the government's chosen instrument of violent death; nor is the motive behind the murders ever explained. We see only the desire for freedom being crushed beneath the weight of overpowering authority—or in this case, a government that is simply referred to as "the Authority"—which claims to compensate its citizens for their obedience by keeping them safe. But if the freewheeling writing style of the story is any indication, safety is the last thing that Carol Ann truly wants or needs.
And then there is "Dangerous Space," the only novella in the collection. The story is electric with intensity: sexual intensity, emotional intensity, artistic intensity. The main character—Mars again—is obsessed with music; this obsession is soon merged with an equally powerful obsession for Duncan Black, the lead singer of a rock band that Mars admires. "Dangerous Space" charts the meteoric rise of the band to fame as well as the deteriorating effect that fame has on Duncan, leading him to shut himself away from real emotion and use his music as a protective shield. It is a love story that is resolved easily, perhaps too easily, and the revelation that precedes this resolution is perhaps too predictable. Blithely happy endings have fallen out of vogue for a reason—they can rarely do justice to complexities, and Eskridge introduced a number of complexities into this story that fall away at the end, unaddressed.
The last story is "Alien Jane," which has been described by more than one reviewer as a feminist story. But while there are feminist elements—the main character Rita was essentially institutionalized for being a tomboy—there are other angles, as well. Rita and Jane are together in an asylum. Jane is unable to feel physical pain, and has therefore mutilated herself in an attempt to feel pain; in Jane's mind, feeling pain equates to the most essential human experience, and being alienated from that means that she is cut off from that experience. Meanwhile, Rita has been staying in the asylum as a way of hiding from life—hiding from the very same pain that Jane is craving.
Dangerous Space is a complex collection with strong concepts and prose. It is not a work to read for character, as the characters seem more like symbols than real people. But there is only so much development that is possible in a short story, so maybe this aspect of the anthology is an inevitability rather than a true failing. Eskridge is skilled at creating atmosphere and physical detail, and uses her skill to present thought-provoking stories, ideas that linger in the mind's eye.
Ilana Teitelbaum is a freelance writer living in Jerusalem.
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