Rising out of the political and cultural turmoil of the 2004 US Presidental elections, Jigsaw Nation is a themed anthology about secession. The basic launch point for these nineteen stories is that the country has split into Red and Blue states—the geopolitical landscape has been redrafted by way of religious and cultural differences into a patchwork of territories. The writers, for the most part, see these barriers as arbitrary, peopling both sides with sympathetic characters whose traits and actions undercut the split that has turned their neighbors into their enemies. Their view of recent political events varies, however, as some see the political dichotomy of 2004 as a shallow and ultimately facile disagreement (they look back to the issues of the Civil War for a more deeply rooted cause for separation), while others treat the 2004 election as the beginning of an Orwellian descent into martial strife and jackbooted thuggery.
Let's be honest: these are pro-Blue stories, written as morality tales, cautionary fables, and horror stories of people caught up by the Red machinery. Fifty years ago, the Red Menace would have been the Evil Soviet Empire. Plus ça change, they say. The more things change, the more they stay the same. In most cases, the protagonists, much like Joseph Campbell's Hero venturing into alien and magical lands as part of the cycle of the Epic Journey, are thrust into the strange lands of the opposition. Whether it is Rydell "Waco" Peabody, Cody Goodfellow's redneck mass murderer, who wakes in a world he doesn't understand; Amy Gertslin, Paul Di Filippo's country-music fan who flees the Blue commune of New Austin for Red Nashville where her musical idol has a museum; the black activist Clevis Blackburn of Ruth Nestvold's and Jay Lake's contribution, who returns across a hostile border to retrieve his family; or the governor's daughter in Robert Lopresti's "Down in the Corridor," who is caught with contraband coming back across the border from Mexico: the stories of Jigsaw Nation revolve around the crossing of borders.
As with any anthology, some of the stories are successful while others fall short. Goodfellow's tale of Peabody's reintegration into society is a hysterical bit of hyperbole that, given the principle that the future is always stranger than we can imagine, makes for a surreal and terrifying bit of precognition: fast food cryogenics, facial barcoding for criminals, organ bootlegging and corporate-stamped plastic replacements, paramilitary ambulance services and serial-killer theme parks. Di Filippo's road trip tale in itself isn't very novel, but his sly and subtle commentary about the little things that distinguish "Faithland" from "Agnostica" is equally precognitive. I especially loved how he reduced philosophical and cultural differences between Red and Blue states into a comparison of border security.
"On the New Austin side, the border was protected by a variety of biological barricades, many of them with Batchelder Bioengineering pedigrees: hedges of thorny plants, troops of fire ants, pods of mini-shoggoths. On the Georgetown, Faithland, side, the barriers were strictly inanimate: robot lenses and gun muzzles, monomolecular wire, gluball anti-personnel mines." (17)
Doug Lain's "The Idaho Zephyr" stands out because it never explicitly mentions the dichotomy of Red and Blue; the protagonist simply and gradually realizes the world has changed, and probably not for the better, because of the split. Michael Jasper turns a story of unrequited gay love in "This Divided Land" into a fairy tale (no pun intended) through a carefully measured Fairy Godmother narrative voice. Tara Kolden's "Mission Control" distills the political fervor down to an everyday context (and thereby highlights the underlying buffoonery of such a dichotomy) with her tale of the competitive and procedure-bound bureaucracy of a FSSRA/NASA joint space mission (even as we travel into space, middle management manages to tag along).
On the minus side, most of the remaining stories are either mundanely forgettable or executed poorly enough that the only lasting impression they leave is confusion and befuddlement. Edward J. McFadden III, who, as editor of several other anthologies (according to his bio) should certainly know better, opts to include a not so thinly veiled advertisement for his novel. He could be forgiven for including a story of his own if he sought to articulate his understanding of the thematic thrust of the anthology, but since "Abraham Lincoln for High Exulted Mystic Ruler of the Galaxy" is nothing more than talking-head backfill for a completely separate book, he needs to be reminded that this is exactly why small-press anthologies that contain self-edited stories are so widely derided as vanity press. Such narcissism, when coupled with the POD-style $29.95 price tag (for a hardback that has only 219 pages of actual content) and a number of niggling copyediting errors, makes the book difficult to recommend. A shame, really, for there are a few stories that make an honest effort to consider human frailties in a nation torn up by political and religious fanaticism.
Mark Teppo lives in the Pacific Northwest, where he works on fiction while he is commuting and when people think he's gone off to the bathroom. He also writes for Igloo, Earplug, and OPi8.com. You may find him on the web at www.markteppo.com.