We grow tired. The world and its doings now excite not engagement, not rage, not even despair, but rather a weary resignation. Even the pulse of creativity seems to have slowed. Or such is what we take from the latest iteration of Polyphony. Even the best of the stories here—"Theleeharveyoswaldband" by Ben Peek, "The Crawlspace of the World" by Tim Pratt, "Soon We Shall All Be Saunders" by Ken Scholes—seem to be suffused more with the fog of ennui than the blaze of fervor.
In a sense, Scholes's "Soon We Shall All Be Saunders" speaks for the whole collection. Deftly, with a shiver that never quite becomes horror, never quite humour, it tells of a world in which, one by one, everybody is being transformed into the super-salesman, all round nice guy, and appallingly ordinary Saunders. It is a neat story, economically and effectively told, but it makes its point about the blight of the everyday with little more than a shrug of acceptance. Much the same sense, much the same affect, is to be found in Tim Pratt's "The Crawlspace of the World." Here the central character (a slacker; so many of the characters in these stories are members of the slacker generation, jetsam cast upon the unregarded shore of the consumer society) and a former girlfriend explore a landscape of thrown-away goods. Visually it is spectacular, but at the end we come to the realisation that the very best thing we can look forward to in this world is loss of love.
These are stories of disillusion. There are no positive stories here, there aren't even stories of battling to a glorious defeat. We are defeated before we begin. These are stories of people who have looked at the world and found it wanting, and now just want to surrender to the sadness. Ben Peek's "Theleeharveyoswaldband" is the single best story here, a barely science-fictional account of a musician's celebrity as a result of being lauded in blogs. But at the heart of the story is his despair at a literal emptiness inside him. Music seems to provide a ready metaphor for such emptiness. It is there again in "The Last Drinkin' Man's Blues" by Mikal Trimm, a too-neat and in the end too-sentimental ghost story about a man haunted by the song he wrote. Like many of the stories here, it reaches back to the American Depression, as if that is now the defining moment for the contemporary American soul. That is particularly true of "Chasing America" by Josh Rountree, in which Woody Guthrie makes a notable guest appearance. "Chasing America" is an episodic tale that, like rather too many of the stories here, strives for a greater significance than it can quite achieve. A giant Paul Bunyan arrives in the wilds of America in the early 19th century, and over the next few centuries grows smaller as his arch enemies the Jacks (Jack the Giant Killer, Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack Kerouac, Jack Ruby) make America grow secular and industrial with no place for giants and for myths. The whole thing is a lament for the passing of what Rountree calls "the Spirit of the West," and there are times when this entire collection reads like such a threnody for what has gone from America, for the depression that is America now.
The word "depression" seems only too apt. Anything that touches on America seems downbeat. It is surely no coincidence that the only exuberant story here, the only story told with any élan, is "Winter in Aso" by Paul M. Berger, set in contemporary Japan and giving a modern twist to Japanese folk traditions of women able to transform themselves into animals. It is probably also significant that there are only two stories set overtly in the future. In "Willa" by Robert Reed an adolescent Willa Cather is brought forward in time to discover her own celebrity. But it is a future devoid of soul, a future chilly in its hunger for the past. There is nothing here to look forward to. "God Juice" by M.K. Hobson is a rather old-fashioned and not totally successful planetary romance involving gambling, betrayal, and trickery on the trail of an alien artefact that may give god-like powers. It is presented as a search for a lover; it is really a quest for the certainty of God the father.
Throughout the collection there is also an inescapable feeling of desertion, of betrayal by those from whom we should expect support and certainty. There are few characters here who have not been divorced, left by a loved one, or, perhaps most significantly, have not lost a father. Story after story after story is about the death of a father. "The Drowned Father" by Pamela Sargent is nothing more than a rant by a woman betrayed, deserted, by her dead author father. "And I Ask Myself The Same Question" by Haddayr Copley-Woods is little more than an anecdote about the death of her father. "The Heresy Box" by Darin C. Bradley, written as a series of brief episodes that progress backwards in time rather like the film Memento, is the story of a man seeking the reason for his father's disappearance but finding only amnesia. "The Syncopation Streak" by Anna Tambour, yet another story set largely during the American Depression, is the story of a loner who had been abandoned by his parents. The best of the stories exploring this persistent yet disturbing theme is "Orange Groves Out To The Horizon" by Richard Wadholm. This is primarily a meditation on the future we lost, the promise that was implicit throughout the Sixties but which somehow never came true. But what gives it focus is the suicide of the narrator's father, as if here in this personal loss is represented all the ways that we have been betrayed by history.
I have concentrated so far on the stories that seem to explore in some way the same narrow range of themes, a sense of disillusion and distrust related to contemporary America. It would not be entirely true to say that this is the whole picture presented by the anthology. There are stories that don't really touch on that sense. Robert Freeman Wexler offers "The Adventures of Philip Schuyler and the Dapper Marionette in the City of the Limbless Octopi," a Lovecraftian tale that never really generates the right degree of unease before disintegrating into incoherence towards the end. Steven Utley and Howard Waldrop have unearthed a previously unpublished vignette from the early 1970s, "Crab"; like the Copley-Woods, and too many of the pieces here, it is short and insubstantial, and strikes me as an idea that hadn't really been fully developed into a story. Though that particular failing seems all too common in this collection. "Wanderers" by Nina Kiriki Hoffman is a bare two pages about a skeleton leaving the body while it slept, going out on the town and returning to the body as it wakes. Somehow this never really takes on either narrative or point, as if it is jottings from a notebook for a story Hoffman was intending to write but hadn't actually got around to. Though this is nowhere near as bad as "Faulkner's Seesaw" by Barry N. Malzberg and Jack Dann, who seem to believe that as long as they say their happily brief story is about chaos they can get away without a coherent narrative or anything that might conceivably pass for an ending. So again and again we come back to the dispirited stories as being the meat of this collection.
It is only right at the end, with the final story, Esther Friesner's delicate "An Autumn Butterfly," that hope enters the picture. An office worker caught in the drabness of life finds and cares for a butterfly long after it should have disappeared, and the butterfly proves to be a harbinger of a longed-for redemption. It is good to close the collection feeling like there is a point to carrying on.
Paul Kincaid is the coeditor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology. His book What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction is forthcoming.
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