David Marusek's first collection of short stories (Subterranean Press, 2007) includes not only fiction but also his commentary on his fiction, a main theme of which is his remarkably dilatory writing praxis. He claims to envy authors who are able "to dash off first-rate stories in their spare time whilst still putting out a new novel each year," and adds, "Not I. I obsess endlessly over my stories. I boil them down to their gooey essence and then boil them again for good measure." This is quoted as part of Getting to Know You's back-cover blurb.
Opening the book to read the bi-boiled pieces, we encounter more of the same. The author's note before "The Wedding Album" tells us, "I once totted up the months I spent working on this story and was surprised to learn that it took me over a year to complete . . . [and] four years of revision." "Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz," though shorter, took considerably longer: "After twelve years of . . . slow cooking I finally felt I knew how to finish it." In the overall Introduction to the volume, Marusek says, "If reading short fiction is hard, writing it is many times more so. There is no end to the decisions, constraints and sheer perniciousness of the short form." Speaking as somebody who has, on occasion, written short stories, I must say I don't agree.
Certainly excessive slowness in composition is not in itself a virtue, and the three best stories in this collection—"The Wedding Album," "We Were Out of Our Minds with Joy," and "Getting to Know You"—nonetheless show signs of being overboiled. Specifically, they are all too long, written with the slight structural slackness suggestive of a writer who has read his own material too many times to be able to sense where the sag needs to be tautened or how the beat and pulse of a story will strike the first-time reader. This isn't to say they are bad stories, and indeed they are all very good, but they could be better. They could have more spring to them, a fresher, more organic feel for the architectonics of storytelling. There's something counterintuitive in this, in that the metaphor of overboiling implies a reduction of bulk, but that's not how it works in writing. Overboiling here means writerly overfamiliarity. And a writer being too close to their material is not, generally speaking, good for fiction.
That said, these three longer stories are the best things in the collection; the other tales, though shorter, don't work as well. "The Earth Is on the Mend" is a five-finger exercise in postapocalyptic wilderness storytelling, in which a loner has to decide whether to try to make friends with or kill a family; "Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz" is a pleasant shaggy-dog story, written in the form of a letter to Gardner Dozois, in which a science fiction writer reports on being asked to compose the epitaph to the titularly thrice-cited Mr Rutz. It is, formally speaking, a joke, in that when readers understand why the title contains Rutz's name three times, they will have, with a drumroll and an "I-thang-yew," exhausted the whole. I have nothing against jokes, and some very fine stories are effectively constructed around punch lines (Roald Dahl's adult "twist in the tail" short stories are all examples of these), but it's certainly a form that benefits from concision and timing. The twelve years Marusek took to compose it had, perhaps, deadened his feel for this.
"A Boy in Cathyland," despite its nice trick of framing a soldier's Russian-language interrogation of the American heroine in such a way that his meaning is clear without translations, doesn't go very far. The world in which it is set is undergoing what Marusek, honestly conceding his influences, calls "his Butlerian jihad," and high-tech computing "paste" has been made illegal; this is what the soldier is looking for. "VTV" is a rather leaden satire on the crueller manifestations of reality TV, and it isn't as shocking or icky as it thinks it is, or needs to be for its satire to work. "Cabbages and Kale: or How We Downsized North America" has a weirdly twisted Mr. Smith Goes to Washington vibe: a high-ranking politician makes virtual proxies of himself to attend votes, answer journalists' questions, make appearances, and so on, spreading himself much more widely than a single individual ever could. A procreation ban is being debated in the Senate as a reaction to longevity treatments, and something goes wrong with the proxies, who start spouting a variety of bigoted and extremist statements far removed from the politician's actual, middle-of-the-road politics. But the story doesn’t pick up narrative momentum. It wants, perhaps, to suggest that in a world of instant virtual proxy replication of consciousness, individuality starts to corrode; but the story lacks the intensity, and the symbolic punch, to give its Dickian premise force. Then there is "My Morning Glory," a bullish dystopian squib (800 words) that aims for irony and instead hits sarcasm.
The three best stories in the collection, though, are much better. "The Wedding Album" uses the same imagined future and the same device of proxies as "Cabbages and Kale" to explore a personal rather than a political future. The first half of this story, more or less, is very powerfully done: a marriage seen from the point of view of the static proxies taken as memorials of a wedding day, like photographs gifted sentience and self-consciousness. As the real couple live through the vicissitudes of time, the decay of the marriage, and the descent of the wife into mental illness, the proxies are trapped, like the figures on the side of Keats's Grecian urn, in a kind of pleasurable agony of existential fixity, all anticipation and innocence, blocked and frustrated. I'd say Marusek rolls the story out longer than its main theme can bear—sixty-four pages is novelette length—and this dilutes the force of its representation as a perspective on our own lives. But nevertheless it is a powerful, vivid story that lives in the mind after the reader has finished it.
"We Were Out of Our Minds with Joy" is also long (sixty-nine pages), but here, for once, the length serves some purpose. Set again in Marusek's future United States, it's a story of two parts; the first tells the story of the romance between two rather unlikeably smug, superwealthy individuals: Eleanor Starke, an überbusinesswoman, and Sam Harger, an artist. Longevity treatments mean that the birthrate is strictly controlled, and Sam and Eleanor are lucky enough to get a permit to have a child. But the main purpose of the first thirty-five pages of this tale is to detail in deliberately slightly nauseating length the luxurious existence they enjoy. The point of this becomes apparent about halfway through. For obscure and probably, in the end, arbitrary reasons, Sam is wrongly targeted by an automated drone as a "known terrorist" and "seared," a nasty protocol by which his DNA is booby-trapped to make it incapable of benefiting from the rejuvenation treatments or cell-level technological advantages of his era. His life collapses; from being an inconceivably pampered and privileged person, he becomes a kind of outcast. The sheer, stark contrast between the first and second sections of this story and its bravura slabs of narrative "before" and "after" make for a memorable reading experience. "Getting to Know You" also balances a well-handled representation of privileged future living against the lives of have-nots, or at least have-lesses, to dramatically effective ends.
There is a great deal to enjoy in these three stories, and the pleasure they generate has a very golden age feel about it, a solidly 1950s feel, despite various noughties props (nanotechnology, gene splicing, and the like). Most of the collection is set in the same imagined future world, a place of white, American, hat-wearing, robot-owning men and women enjoying a future existence determined mostly by gadgets (in the manner of so many golden age authors) and discovering that the path of true love doesn't run smooth (although there are also no gay characters in Marusek's short-story universe). People live in domed cities and honeymoon on the moon. There are clones and robots. Things are run by "the Tri-D Council," which is as liable to post its employees to Saturn as to Indiana. Most of Marusek's details serve the purposes of worldbuilding rather than storytelling. That may not put you off, since many SF fans like worldbuilding. Still, given the slightly secondhand feel of the world being built and the effect of slight prolixity all this lends to the narratives, I might have wished it otherwise.
The collection's pleasures certainly outweigh its occasional drags. The buzz is that Marusek is an author to watch, and given SF's propensity for troping the past as the future, it may well be that the solidly Campbellian mode of his storytelling will come into its own in the years to come.
One thing made me wince a little, as a moderately buttoned-down Englishman, and that was Marusek's uninhibition in matters of self-assertion. He describes himself as a "born novelist" whose turn to the short form was nevertheless "a good move," since he considers himself to "have a knack for the little buggers." He opines that reading good shorts (such as his) provides "emotional intimacy, suspense and release, a new insight" and occasionally even "an epiphany that may change the way we experience the world." He thinks "The Wedding Album" will "outlive him." Of "We Were Out of Our Minds with Joy," he rather vaingloriously informs us that "since my name was unknown to SF," readers assumed it "had been written by a 'big name' writer working under a pseudonym." Of "Getting to Know You," he concedes that his original intentions (to explore a particular piece of imagined future technology) were modest, but adds "looking back, I think I uncovered so much more, perhaps even the true purpose of high-tech itself." This may be nothing more than a transatlantic differend; what seems boastful and (given the mix of the successful and the less so in Marusek's work) unwise to an Englishman might strike an American as nothing more than healthy self-esteem. Rap stars talk in this manner all the time. Of course, the stories, not their author's assessment of them, are what will carry—or otherwise—the day, and these are if not great then certainly good examples of short-form SF. Check them out—ahem—homies.