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I don't know if this is a peculiarity of genre fiction as such, or a by-product of science fiction's history in the pulp magazines, but there are certain SF authors whose roots are firmly in the pulp tradition and who, without ever quite leaving that tradition behind, somehow transcend it and produce work of genuine originality and style. Neal Barrett Jr. certainly belongs to this group. It is clear in his novels, where simple and highly colored tales such as Kelwin (1970) or Aldair in Albion (1976) give little notice of the much more complex and rewarding work to be found, for example, in The Hereafter Gang (1991). It is even more obvious in the stories collected here.

Arranged in roughly chronological order, the twenty-eight stories provide a survey of Barrett's career to date, but it does mean that the weaker stories are at the start. Here we find pieces we recognize, not necessarily because we have read them before, but because we have read their like. This is what science fiction did; we are in the comforting heartland of the genre, and all these stories do is meet our expectations. So, in "A Walk on Toy," there's the naïve new arrival at a rough, tough outworld post who cannot understand why she isn't immediately accepted by the hardened veterans she encounters. In "To Plant a Seed" the human observer of an alien race comes close to destroying that race through his own ignorance of their society. "In the Shadow of the Worm" tells of a visitor to the very edge of the galaxy who looks across the vast intergalactic space and has to confront a mystery and a threat from many years before. "Survival Course" is the hackneyed tale of the sole survivor from a spaceship catastrophe who has to outwit a computer whose simple but remorseless logic might otherwise kill him. And, of course, there is the inevitable forced comedy of "The Stentorii Luggage," in which a naïve youth lets a host of dangerous creatures loose in the halls of a posh multi-species hotel, but manages to save the day at the last minute. These aren't necessarily bad stories (except, perhaps, for "The Stentorii Luggage"), but nor are they particularly good. They are exactly the sort of stories that would bulk out an unadventurous magazine, without lingering long in the memory after being read.

There are signs even among these early stories, however, that Barrett was trying to do something other than these very standard pieces. In "Hero," a soldier who has been irreparably altered by his contact with the alien enemy picks up a girl only for the fact of his alteration to hang over any chance of a relationship. There are a lot of familiar pulp elements in the story: the main characters are straight out of central casting, what we learn of the war against the aliens is routine SF by numbers, and yet the way Barrett leaves so much unsaid, the way the resolution of the story lies in the hesitations and ellipses, makes it more interesting than it has any right to be. On the other hand there are signs of a writer experimenting with the use of language in "Nightbeat," even if the language is a sort of trippy, pseudo-hippyish synaesthesia: "It was half-past blue, and a lemon moon spilled color into the room" (p. 157). The language doesn't really work, and the story buried underneath the over-ripe prose is uninteresting, but the very fact that he is pushing at what words can do is worth noting. Barrett will return to something similar, with rather more success, in "Stairs," but it will be much later in his career that his willingness to take chances with the language really comes into its own.

Nevertheless, despite this hesitant early promise, we are two hundred pages into the collection before we come to the first story that really pays dividends. This is "Diner," and it is immediately obvious that here is where Barrett found his subject and his voice. The voice is colloquial, infused with a hint of America's rural south that would become progressively more pronounced as his career went on. The subject is the nature of America's dustbowl states, primarily Texas and Oklahoma, after the collapse. The nature of the collapse is rarely specified, it might be economic, environmental, the bomb being dropped, or simply things falling apart; but the cause doesn't really matter, it's about characters who have gone as far as they can and are somehow making do in trying circumstances. In "Diner" a small fishing community tries to hang on to its social cohesion in the face of scarcity and the increasing demands of their Chinese overlords. In "Ginny Sweethips' Flying Circus" a bunch of oddballs tour curious and isolated desert communities offering sex and tacos. In "Under Old New York," the poor and desperate queue on a bridge into New York City in the hope that here they might find food and a job. There's another queue in "Slidin'," the deformed survivors of a nuclear war waiting to view the remains of what once was Dallas.

Deformed and broken bodies crop up regularly in these stories; the hanged men in "Radio Station St. Jack," the curious villagers visited in "Tourists." They are visual representations of the horrors that have been endured, of course; Barrett's stories are always set a long time after whatever brought about the collapse, but the unnaturally contorted bodies are a ready reminder that something terrible occurred. But I think they are meant as more than that. They are redemptive, Christ-like, signalling how, through acceptance of their woes, these characters can survive and even flourish. This is made explicit in one of the two or three best stories in this collection, "Cush." The eponymous child is born with a host of disorders and deformities, an "ugly little kicking screaming pinto-colored child with its possum arms and legs and its baked potato head" (p. 398), yet as he grows, Cush readily takes on other pains and injuries, and as he does so those around him experience happiness and good fortune: a run-down farm becomes prosperous, a man is brought back to life, the family comes into money. Cush seems, voluntarily, to take on the role of the child at the heart of Ursula Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"; through his sacrifice there is redemption for all.

Of course, not all the stories here are set after the collapse, nor are they all set in the rural South, though the best ones tend to be. Two crime stories take us to contemporary settings: New York in "Tony Red Dog," which tells of a Native American member of the mafia; the suburbs in "Hit," which tells of a hitman whose latest commission goes hideously wrong. But both of these feel misplaced, unsettled, as if Barrett is going through the paces rather than extending his craft. And two of the later stories in the collection, "Heart," a tall tale in which improbabilities are piled upon improbabilities, and "Limo," a grotesque urban horror, both feel as if he is retreating to his pulp roots. Nevertheless, most of the stories in the latter two-thirds of the collection work well, some of them exceptionally well.

The experiments with language evident earlier in his career really come to the fore in the debased, post-collapse language of "Rhido Wars" ("Ever skeeto ever nat for a thousand miles aroun is crawlin in your eyes," [p. 452]), or in the exaggerated accents of "Slidin'" or "The Last Cardinal Bird in Tennessee." But the finest stories here are where Barrett concentrates more on what is being told rather than the manner of the telling. Alongside "Cush," it seems to me that the best stories are "Sallie C" and "Perpetuity Blues," neither of which is overtly post-collapse though both partake of the atmosphere that Barrett generates in the finest such stories, and both convey a sense of a Southern voice without it getting in the way of the story. "Sallie C" is one of those curious tales with nothing fantastic about it other than the fact that it brings together real characters who would never have met in real life. We are in a dusty one-horse Texan town where ex-sheriff Pat Garrett now owns a run-down hotel. Here Wilbur and Orville Wright have come so that Orville can continue tinkering with the flying machine he dreams of perfecting. Here, too, arrives Frau Rommel with her asthmatic son Erwin, for whom the desert air is supposed to be some sort of cure. Nothing much happens, certainly nothing that would entail any of the characters acting in any way inconsistently with what we know of their lives and personalities. Garrett dreams of seducing Frau Rommel, but is drunk most of the time; Orville gets his flying machine off the ground and gives Erwin a ride; and we realize that the mysterious damaged guest who watches all this from his hotel window is Billy the Kid. But it isn't plot that drives this, it is atmosphere, the feeling of the dry, dusty nowhere that Barrett evokes so well. He tried a similar trick, bringing incongruous personalities together, in "Winter on the Belle Fourche," in which a prim Emily Dickinson is trapped in a remote snowed-in cabin with the gruff Indian fighter who has rescued her, but although the idea is, if anything, more intriguing than that of "Sallie C," the story doesn't work as well.

The collapse in "Perpetuity Blues" is personal rather than general. Like Cush without the deformities, Maggie suffers a series of catastrophes: her father disappears, her mother dies, she is brought up by an aunt and uncle who spend her inheritance on themselves, and when she goes to New York to try and interest a producer in the play she has written she ends up nearly starving to death (I wonder, belatedly, if the character's name and her varied fortunes on the streets of New York are supposed to remind us of Stephen Crane's Maggie, A Girl of the Streets [1893]?). And yet, as with Cush, through misfortune comes redemption: she inspires loyalty and friendship, she finds people who are willing to look out for her, and in the end she achieves her dreams through the unexpected help of what may be a time traveler. For someone who has so clearly emerged from the pulp tradition, Barrett employs an unusually large number of female central characters; all are distinctive and engaging, but none is so vividly drawn as Maggie.

Throughout this retrospective collection, Barrett never quite gets away from the plots and devices of the pulps, but in his robust prose, his willingness to take risks in the language he employs, his vivid characterization, and an approach to storytelling that makes great use of ellipses and hesitations so that we readers do much of the work in imagining what is to come next, he soars above those origins. At his best, which can be very good indeed, Neal Barrett is one of the most distinctive writers science fiction has produced.

Paul Kincaid has received both the BSFA Non-Fiction Award and the Thomas D. Clareson Award. His latest collection of essays and reviews, Call And Response, is forthcoming from Beccon Publications.

Paul Kincaid has received the Thomas Clareson Award and has twice won the BSFA Non-Fiction Award, most recently for his book-length study, Iain M. Banks (2017). He is also the author of What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction (2008) and Call and Response (2014).
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26 Oct 2020

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