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Pictures From an Expedition cover

It isn't until the 169th page of Alexander Irvine's second collection of short fiction that he comes out and says it. Preceding this moment have been tales of varying setting and success but uniform purpose. However far each story has deviated from another in terms of plot or conceit, ultimately an overarching preoccupation has emerged. And part way through "Volunteers" (2004), Irvine's story of space colonisation and mass delusion, the narrator expresses it for us: "I know you know most of this already. All I have to offer that's new is me. My feelings, my perspectives." It may as well be Irvine talking.

A little earlier in the year, Theodora Goss spent the first story in her collection, In The Forest of Forgetting, reintroducing us to the story of Sleeping Beauty. But that was simply a postmodern retelling of the tale—a bit of psychology, a bit of narrative playfulness, some jarring modernisms. In Pictures From An Expedition, Irvine is doing something a little more involved. "Peter Skilling" (2004), for instance, sees the narrator awake in a strange future, revived after decades spent frozen in ice. Unlike Philip Francis Nowlan's Buck Rogers, however, Skilling doesn't immediately bound to the rescue of a screaming damsel. He becomes confused, angry, and frightened. In short, the fantastic—the improbable, the amazing—has an effect upon him. There are few old SF canards Irvine won't mine—golems, sleeper ships, missions to Mars—and he adds little to the tropes themselves. Except for his characters, who, unlike us, struggle with their new familiarity with these homeliest of SF ideas.

In "Green River Chantey" (2000), for instance, a rural deputy in 1929 Kentucky becomes involved in a ghost story stranger than his preconceptions allow for—at first convinced that a robbery has been committed for material gain, he comes to understand that there is after all more in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy (which would be a gratuitous allusion, were it not for the fact that—unsurprisingly—a character in Irvine's World Fantasy Award-nominated story "Gus Dreams of Biting the Mailman" [2003] makes it, too). "Green River Chantey" also allows Irvine to play one of his strongest cards—he is extremely good at mood and place, and he conjures the sleepy, muggy inter-war world of Edmonson County with deftness and economy. His characters inhabit it—they have pasts and what amount to fairly complicated relationships within the confines of a thirteen-page story—and his readers begin to feel it. Irvine has an ability to make his sets breathe.

This is fortunate, because it must also be said that the action which takes place in front of these breathing sets is sometimes fairly slow. This is not so much a complaint about a lack of plot—sometimes stories with the kind of focus Irvine's have don't need strong, simple narratives—but rather a concern over a lack of movement. "The Fall At Shanghai" (2003), for instance, takes as its starting point the enjoyable notion that the Cain who murdered Abel still walks the earth, condemned to witness the fall of every great city as punishment for bringing into the world the greed and will to power that cause war. But this neat idea is also the story's end point, and this leaves the reader with a rather static artefact. In a sense, this must be deliberate—Cain has seen countless cities fall, and each falls in the same way, so for him the world is indeed no different at the story's end than it was at its beginning—but it does not make for any more satisfying a read. "There is no law and no judge," Cain says towards the end of "The Fall At Shanghai" (p. 44), but this is an overly simplistic message which is given little room to develop by the story itself.

Similarly, in "The Golems of Detroit" (2005), set in the 1940s (Irvine has an apparent fondness for the early twentieth century), we are introduced to a wonderfully warped golem factory, producing lines of automatons for the American war effort. But little actually happens against this fecund backdrop, with even character development kept to its most basic level. The tale's protagonist, Jared Cleaves, opens the story anxious over his wife's pregnancy, and ends the story a bit less anxious over his wife's pregnancy. There is something in there too about the golem maker, Moises, and his own paternal relationship to the golems he sends to war, but it adds little depth to the story or its characters. If, in a very Irvineistic touch, the fantastic in "The Golems of Detroit" enables Cleaves to imagine a little better what fatherhood may be like, it hasn't really made for a compelling story.

This pattern is repeated in "Clownfish"—the collection's only previously unprinted piece—in which Irvine fails to master the first-person internal monologue in a dynamic enough fashion, and in "Reformation" (2003), where a high concept worthy of Ted Chiang fails to produce a similarly exciting narrative. This is a pity, because as with the golem tale, both stories have attractive enough conceits. In "Clownfish" a very comfortable businessman nevertheless feels unsatisfied with his lot, and his office fish keep telling him so; in "Reformation" an alternative history of the Internet is posited, albeit an unlikely one, in which the world's great faiths cracked down on computer usage much as they cracked down on literacy in the Middle Ages. The stories and characters that proceed from these places, however, fail to engage the reader much further, remaining a little muddy and slightly pedestrian. Irvine's expression fails to match his invention.

Irvine makes up for his slips, however. "The Lorelei" (2005) is a finely written tale about two New York painters at the turn of the century, one the master and one the student, and the way in which the student slowly takes ownership of the mystical muse which has made his tutor famous and tortured in equal measure. Like many of Irvine's other stories, it doesn't have a plot in the classical sense, but the way in which it weaves towards its final revelation keeps the reader interested and—more importantly—involved. The first-person narrative of Charles Pelletier, "The Lorelei" Is the story of how, as a young artist, he met the famous New York painter Albert Pinkham Ryder. This turn-of-the-century tale slips through their relationship, examining the connection between a master and his disciple, but also the ways in which all artists interpret their surroundings and inspirations. Ultimately, Pelletier discovers and steals the mysterious source of Ryder's finest work. Vivid, pregnant, and lucid, it is a study of how art may represent the unrepresentable—how the fantastic of the everyday may be expressed by the flawed characters who experience it.

Similarly, "Pictures From An Expedition" (2003) is not just a neat updating of that old SF chestnut, the mission to Mars (complete with Brunner-like interjections from Internet commentators and media talking heads), but also a story about how that mission would affect not just those on it but the people back home. "It was a joke, you know, the whole thing," someone says in apology to one of the returned astronauts for betting they would die whilst on Mars. "None of you were real."

"That's right," the astronaut replies. "None of us were." (p. 128)

It is here, at the point of clash between the real and the unreal, the quotidian and the spectacular, that Irvine is most successful. If he is sometimes let down by unconvincing or overly broad writing ("The Uterus Garden" (2003), for example, seems a thin depiction of reproduction in an infertile world when compared with David Marusek's novella, "We Were Out Of Our Minds With Joy" (1995), whilst the satire of "Peter Skilling" skewers only the most strawy of War on Terror men), in those stories where Irvine marries a focus on characters with a strong concept finely drawn, he gives us something that feels fresh and well worth reading.

"For Now It's Eight O'Clock" (2004), for example, takes the figure of Wee Willie Winkie and places him within an indeterminately "modern" context. In its exuberant grotesquery, it might remind us a little of Jeff VanderMeer, but in its depiction of ordinary suburban men trying to cope in extraordinary circumstances, it has echoes of Richard Yates. The story in "For Now It's Eight O'Clock" isn't really that of Wee Willie Winkie, or even his kidnapping of children, but rather of the impact the fantastic can have on people. It's also a gas. "My neighbour Jeff had shot Wee Willie Winkie and we were running him to ground" is a line in which an awful lot is happening, most of which is fun.

How do we assimilate the extraordinary into the everyday? In "For Now It's Eight O'Clock," the community simply doesn't talk about it; in "Pictures From An Expedition," society trivialises and prettifies it; in "The Lorelei" and "Green River Chantey," characters keep it at the edge of their vision and consciousness, close enough to admit it's there but far enough away not to admit its implications. Sometimes Irvine fails to convince—his tackling of gender in "Pictures From An Expedition" and "The Uterus Garden" in particular feel perfunctory and confused, the latter in much the same way that Ronald D. Moore's Battlestar Galactica lost its way when it too introduced the concept of baby farming—which is problematic for a writer who relies so heavily for his effect on our believing in his fantastical conceits.

If his goal is to humanise the reaction to the fantastic, Irvine can achieve it only through winning empathy from his reader towards his characters, and when his worlds are thin he loses this ability. Thus, the dense science of the Neptune mining story "Shepherded By Galatea" (2003) enables us to settle into his characters, whilst the foundations of "The Uterus Garden" never feel quite secure, and Irvine loses us. How does one of his characters in that latter story simply escape a super-secret institution spoken of in hushed tones of revert rumour? What is the effect on society of 73% of women and 60% of men being infertile? In such a society, is adoption paperwork so light and bug-ridden that swapping a boy for a girl would really be as easy as it is depicted in the story? It's difficult to engage with a story which hasn't asked itself—and then answered—questions so apparently fundamental to its premise.

So Irvine lets the wires show a few too many times. But he is at least never less than a pleasing writer, and the best written of these stories, "The Lorelei," is also one of the most recent, boding well for the future. If Irvine's style isn't all fireworks and poetry, it is something better suited to his content—sometimes laconic, often gently wry, always easy and smooth without being simplistic. Where he brings the fantastic and the logical into a sort of uncomfortable courtship, he does so to great effect. If some of his stories fail on one or another level, Irvine's best stories are satisfying reads which stay with the reader beyond the last page.

Theodore Sturgeon suggested that a good science fiction story required human beings, a human problem, and a human solution. Spanning both SF and fantasy, Irvine at his best provides exactly this alchemy, remaining focused not on the gee-whiz of the thing itself, but on how his characters cope with its effects—on them, on the world, on what they think they know. Irvine's fantastic enables us to imagine—to feel—the real world better. Mitch Packard, at the close of "Gus Dreams Of Biting The Mailman," posits that, "I'm as real as whoever's writing me. Real as whoever's reading." If Irvine doesn't always convince us of that, in Pictures From An Expedition he does his best to show the real to be in truth hyperreal. And when he does manage to take us with him, we come away a little more comfortable in a multifarious world.

Dan Hartland is a freelance creative thinker figuring out what to think. A writer and musician of the inverted commas variety, he splits his time equally between these two things and procrastination. He comes to science fiction from outside the genre, and is a little too happy to remain a gadfly.

Dan Hartland’s reviews have appeared for some years at Strange Horizons, as well as in publications such as Vector, Foundation, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He blogs intermittently at
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