Reading Alexander Zelenyj's voluminous new short story collection, Experiments at 3 Billion AM, feels a bit like exploring a small-town used bookshop—the kind where the hunched old shopkeeper might snooze over a colonial atlas while piles of pulp SF, horror, and fantasy novels reach for the ceiling of the back room just waiting for someone weird, lonely, or curious enough to pick them up.
The forty stories collected here constantly dip fingers into the old-fashioned imagery of various pulp traditions, while never actually diving into the river. Menacing aliens invade the earth or kidnap young lovers in story after story, and characters ride in rocket ships, drool over women from the moon or from the Andromeda galaxy while mad scientists concoct unspeakable wonders in their laboratories. Horror tropes abound as well: several sadistic murderers and rapists appear in these pages, as well as lots of skinned animals lying in the snow, murdered lovers, and so on.
Yet aliens and spaceships alone do not make science fiction, and Zelenyj never quite writes an SF, horror or fantasy story—at least not in the sense usually accepted by modern readers. The genres are diverse, of course, and contain multitudes. Still, genre magazines like ChiZine, Asimov's, and F&SF usually print concisely written works that explore the technological, murderous, or magical elements at the center of the story, so that the reader knows more about them at the end than at the beginning—even if lots of inscrutable questions are stirred up at the same time. The reader learns the rules of the story's world in the process of reading.
These stories do something quite different. The fantastical elements in this book are there mainly to express of the "strangeness" of Zelenyj's characters, their emotions, and the world they inhabit. They appear and disappear, leaving the characters dazed, often frightened, and sometimes awed by the beauty and horror of the universe.
"Let the Firefly Men Remind You," for instance, one of the original stories in the collection, takes the reader into a carefree but haunted Canadian summer depicted through pointillist bits of detail. Zelenyj shows us bonfires that "spit wheeling sparks like fireflies," a lover's beard "all twisted and pubic-looking," and a favorite sow whose swollen belly nearly scrapes "the straw-littered floor of the barn" (pp. 126-129).
The two young women in the story enjoy the company of their men, but share a deeper bond with each other. They while the summer away, dropping acid, wandering off into the woods to make out with the boys, and generally drifting around, until all of a sudden glowing green people drop out of space to kidnap a couple and take them off to who knows where.
The remaining teenagers wait, terrified, for several pages, until the morning, when there is still no sign of the missing friends. They make no attempt to figure out who the aliens were, why they came, or where their friends are. You get the feeling that, in Zelenyj's universe, such attempts would be inherently pointless. Instead, the aliens inspire the narrator to announce that, "Nothing lasts. Endless summers fade away, too, with all their strange and wonderful ingredients" (p. 125).
So Zelenyj floats islands of strangeness in his stories as a way of getting his characters to strongly experience the emotions that interest him, and these are almost always sorrow, guilt, sexual shame, grief, or some combination of the above. In "The Stealing Sky" (2006), a young husband leaves his beloved wife to live with the wolves in the far north of Canada, where mysterious entities supply him with food and relics of his own past. Again, there's no attempt to unravel the identity of the mysterious benefactor, and while the protagonist's act of abandonment leaves him riddled with guilt, he still feels he's done the right thing. "I blow kisses and I think of you, Maria," he thinks, "yet I must confess—my kisses are for the stars winking through the clouds" (p. 92).
Although themes of abandonment and personal inferiority dominate, Zelenyj also shows some range. "The Empty Hands of Alvin Calvin Rourke" (new here) is funny—its narrator learns that he can speak with cockroaches once he gets them drunk and then repeatedly turns to them for advice. "Blue Love Maria" (2004) delivers an urban legend, told in the style of a campfire tale, about a young girl who murders her boyfriend. Zelenyj's description of his remains stands out as one of the book's visual high points: "Blue spray paint, thickly layered over his remains, hardened and congealed like a second layer of sad skin" (p. 49). Other stories touch on historical territory: colonial Burma in "Where the War Bird Leads" (new here), and prison ships on the Thames during the War of Independence in "The Prison Hulk" (2006).
Zelenyj comes across as a promising and ambidextrous writer willing to take risks most modern writers would not. A bit of an outsider artist, he writes with a pinch of that fanatical prolificacy and relentless adherence to obsession associated with hermetic artists such as Adolf Wolfli and Henry Darger. And, like many outsider artists, there's also something conservative about Zelenyj: he seems to insist on absorbing influence not from the stars of contemporary writing but strictly from the greats of earlier eras: Bradbury, Lovecraft, Poe.
Unfortunately, Zelenyj also comes off in these pages as callow and sloppy. Many sentences cry out for an adjective policeman a la Gordon Lish: "Logic would dictate looking skywards to be a futile gesture under such unpropitious conditions" (p. 92). Others are passive, illogical, or just plain awkward: "A wonderful swirl of dots that were stars were the object of the friends' scrutiny" (p. 657).
These infelicities of craft become more obnoxious as they accumulate and eventually leave the reader wondering, even demanding, to know what the editor intended in issuing these stories in such a massive tome, especially when they appear to have been written over just a few years and therefore cannot aim to show the development of the author's craft over a long period of work. The author, and the general reading community as well, would have been far better served by a slender collection featuring a smaller number of Zelenyj's best stories.
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