Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Terror: A Novel, Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons in one of my favorite authors of science fiction, and if this book happens to be historical fiction mixed with fantasy, that doesn’t lessen my admiration of his work one bit. I’ve always enjoyed his pure story telling, realistic and empathetic characters, and the deep store of erudition that informs his work. Upon finishing his books I am filled with appreciation and admiration of the story just finished. However, when I look back to analyze the story, I find myself surprised by the questions never answered and the plot points that don’t make sense. These things have never detracted from my enjoyment of a Simmons’ novel while I’m reading it, but they’ve never failed to puzzle me when I’m done with one. Simmons’ latest novel, The Terror, fits this pattern.

For most of its length, The Terror is a historical novel or perhaps a secret history. In 1845 Sir John Franklin sailed with two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, to try to find the Northwest Passage. They left two notes on King Williams Island, one in 1847 and one in 1848, but were otherwise never heard from again. There has been much speculation about their fate: they stated that they had to abandon the ships in 1848 when theoretically they should have been provisioned for a longer stay, if needed. There weren’t many artifacts from the mission found, but they’ve all been carefully analyzed. Simmons’ includes the results of all of this research in the story: Franklin’s incompetence, the probability that the low-cost bidder provisioning company provided sub-standard rations in cans poorly soldered with lead that came into contact with the food, the fact that the years 1846-1848 were unusually cold ones, etc. However, he adds to all this a gigantic supernatural polar bear-ish monster preying on the crew as they are stuck in the ice during the long, dark winters. Given that the expedition had so many other well-documented problems, this sometimes seems like unnecessary torture of the crew.

There is one other crucial, fictionally added, figure in the book: Silence. Discovered when an over-land party accidentally shot her male companion (father? Shaman? Brother?), Silence is an Esquimaux woman whose tongue appears to have been bitten out of her mouth. While she is obviously perfectly capable of looking after herself in the Artic wilderness, she stays with the crew for long periods of time, moving around enigmatically, and possibly having some connection with the monster.

As in movies about the Titanic, we know how this ends. Everyone dies, or at least they are never heard from again by white people. So when you’re reading about these characters, and watching some of them experience real growth, there is always the shadow of death and futility hanging over the narrative. Likewise, when characters manage by pluck and luck to escape death for a time, we know that death will win in the end. Even without the monster, there are monsters within the crew, people undermining the leaders’ authority, trying to subvert and grab power. This was a little disturbing to me: these were real people. Every character in the book is one of the crewmen who were registered as sailing with the ships when they left England. Who is to say how they handled their impending doom? Why choose this man to be a bad person who shirked his duty and to claim that this man was a man who did his best and rose to the occasion? It seemed arbitrary and possibly insulting to the men portrayed as shirkers or mutineers, and I wonder if Simmons was in touch with any of the families while he was writing. Perhaps after 150 years it doesn’t matter, but knowing enough people who know exactly which family members of theirs served in what units of the Civil War, and all the individual stories of heroism or cowardice handed down through family lore for generations, I wouldn’t count on time fading interest.

This book serves as a catalog of ways to die and ways to meet death. Men are eaten, beheaded, chopped in half, poisoned, shot, starved, amputated, and stricken by scurvy. Frankly some of the most horrific passages of the book are in no way supernatural, but simply uncensored accounts of exactly what happens when someone dies of scurvy. Men face their deaths heroically, cravenly, calmly, panicking, insane, confused, and phlegmatic. It is an impressive piece of writing simply for the vast range of human experience encountered and documented in one particular historical episode. All of the writing is intense, often beautiful, never neglecting the human and the humorous amongst all the horror and despair. Simmons is one of the most amazing chroniclers of the human soul in scenarios outside of normal human experience in the field of fantastic fiction.

In the end though, there are the unanswered questions (again, never detracting from enjoyment of the book while the book is being read). Why does Silence hang around with the crew at all? An explanation is implied, but it is unsatisfying. Given that she hangs around with the crew, why does she make no effort to share her survival skills with them? Once the total surviving membership is down to one worthy individual, she takes him in and essentially makes him an Esquimaux. Why wait until the other 140+ men are dead? The monster itself is given an impressively mythic background that makes its role and its symbolism quite clear, but Silence remains a disturbing enigma. It seems that her actions are meant to emphasize the overall theme of the book: the British, or more generally the white man, were such colonial idiots that they raped the landscape and killed themselves with their own superior refusal to learn from the natives. The implication is that we are no better today, continuing to rape the environment and refusing to learn ways to live harmoniously with the Earth, unleashing monsters upon the land in the form of accelerating climate change. This is a moral that is very hard to dispute in this day and age, but it seems oddly banal from a book with so much emotional depth. Perhaps I simply feel like the choir being preached to: I’m basically already an environmentalist and politically correct anti-colonialist, so I felt that I didn’t learn anything new from this message. Perhaps if I were not already convinced of the rightness of Simmons’ theme I would feel differently. However, none of this detracts from the amazing story that Simmons has written. Take away logical analysis of themes and morals, focus solely on the characters and the Story, and be amazed at his ability to weave a tale that will enthrall you.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain, Minister Faust

This review was originally published in Strange Horizons

In the terms we use to talk about the fantastic, comic books, especially superhero comics, have long been a genre unto themselves. They combine elements of fantasy (magical and mythic powers) and science fiction (mutants and alien invasions) with archetypal characters and violent conflict. While comic books and graphic novels in general have expanded far beyond these genre boundaries (see "Sandman," "Maus," et al) recently this sort of story has been moving into the world of the conventional novel. Minister Faust subtly used some of these conventions in his amazing debut, Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad, and now approaches the heroic comic book genre head-on in the hilarious and pointed From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain.

Dr. Brain takes as its conceit that it is a self-help psychoanalysis book for superheroes titled UnMasked!: When Being a Superhero Can't Save You From Yourself. The "author" is Dr. Eva Brain-Silverman, and her other publications include Side-Kicked! When the Alpha-Hero Treats You Like Omega and Sacred Identity: Reclaiming the Demi-God in You. In the wake of the "Götterdämmerung," which saw the defeat of most of the world's supervillains, superheroes—the individuals, and the organisations they belong to—have been forced to redefine their place in the world. Indeed, the six biggest stars of the Fantastic Order of Justice (F*O*O*J) are so dysfunctional that they have been ordered to Dr. Brain's office for group therapy. Take all the soap operatics that you could imagine with dysfunctional superheroes, and that's our starting point. Every comics fan should read this book. Even those with only the most rudimentary knowledge of the field will enjoy a huge host of in-jokes. A cast of characters will give you a feel for the tone of the book:

Omnipotent Man (basically, Superman) is from planet Argon. Argonium is his one weakness, but that's because it's made into a drug that he's addicted to.

The Flying Squirrel (Batman, also Iron Man) is an arch-conservative industrialist whose megacompany Piltdown International gets massive defense contracts through the F*O*O*J. He's angling for the presidency of F*O*O*J to set the agenda for the post-Götterdämmerung world, and to secure his company's contracts well into the future.

Iron Lass (Wonder Woman, also Storm is a Norse/Germanic demi-goddess. She was the tactical genius behind the Götterdämmerung, and has a spectacularly dysfunctional family past.

X-Man (no immediate analog—which is part of the point) is a hero who came up through a Black Panther-type organization, the League of Angry Blackmen (L*A*B) before joining F*O*O*J. Like The Flying Squirrel, he seeks to become president of F*O*O*J, but he wants to shift its mission towards social justice issues. His power involves words and shadows (which is also part of the point).

Power Grrrl (think Paris Hilton with superpowers). Crime fighting is secondary to her world-wide self-branding efforts. Deeply narcissistic, she has staked out her turf as a lesbian power hero.

And last but not least is Superfly (Spider-man), a young black playa version of Peter Parker who tends to buzz around the margins of the group, and who is also a shout-out to blaxploitation films.

It is clear from this set-up that there is no end to the number of subjects that Faust can address, and he takes full advantage of his target-rich environment: capitalism, race relations, generational differences, politics, celebrity culture, psychology, post Cold War America, and the War on Terrorism, among others. To hit so many serious topics in a book that is frankly hilarious to read is a testament to Faust's incredible talent as a satirist. A lot of them are issues that pop up in fan discussions about comic books, but are rarely addressed directly in the comic books themselves, especially issues of race and class. That's not to say that comics are always shallow, but they often treat these issues tangentially; for instance in the X-Men movies a clear equivalence is drawn between the alienation experienced by those who are mutants, and those who are homosexual. Faust takes this huge package of concerns and makes the comic book connection explicit. Other books have appeared in the past few years that have used comic book devices to illuminate social issues, from the Pulitzer-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2001) by Michael Chabon (which explored the Jewish-American experience around WWII) to a recent small press release, Supervillainz (2007) by Alicia E. Goranson (which focuses on the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered experience). Jonathan Lethem has written a short essay titled "Top Five Depressed Superheroes" (more limited than Faust's set-up, obviously) and of course the novel The Fortress of Solitude (2003) (which, foreshadowing Faust, examines race relations through two young comics fans gifted with superpowers). Truly, superheroism seems to be in the air, and a particularly ripe target.

Like all the best satirists (Swift comes to mind), Faust is true to the literal reality of his scenario. This is especially important because it means that you don't have to agree with all his politics in order to enjoy the story. The superheroes perform true to their character types and archetypes, and there is a real plot with a real threat to F*O*O*J. The F*O*O*J was formed by an Egyptian deity known here as the Hawk King. After the Götterdämmerung, he had basically retired, but near the beginning of the book he is found dead. Was it natural causes? Assassination? How can a god die? As the characters try to investigate the death of their personal hero and role-model, and face off against each other, Dr. Brain (the sole first-person viewpoint and narrator) runs around trying to get all the superheroes to continue therapy and deal with their feelings, lending a surreal air to the entire narrative. She has a habit of using a metaphor or simile and taking it way over the top: "Directed to me by the winding country lanes of their own confusion, my patients arrived at my Hyper-Potentiality Clinic yoked to wagonloads of psychemotionally dysfunctional produce." This sort of running joke could easily become distracting, but Faust never lets it get out of hand.

One of the subtlest elements of the book is how the biases of Dr. Brain herself infect the text at an almost subconscious level. More than once the characters accuse her of being an unreliable narrator, so you can't say Faust is trying to sneak something by the reader. The way Brain marginalizes and pathologizes the concerns of X-Man are an indictment of the way psychology can privilege the standards of WASP society above those of other cultures. X-Man is justifiably concerned about the poor and black community he grew up in, and he's especially afraid that if the (barely closeted) racist The Flying Squirrel takes control of F*O*O*J the consequences will be dire. However, Dr. Brain repeatedly dismisses his rants and concerns as "Racialized Narcissistic Projection Neurosis." He claims that Hawk King's alter ego was a black professor named Dr. Jacob Rogers, but she never credits this claim in any way, always attributing it to his race politics.

"Whereas racial discrimination was once a daily fact of American life for many, legislation and social progress have ensured that what was only a dream on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial a few decades ago has become reality for all.
"Yet for many heroes of color, the collective memory of that discrimination—and the habits secreted into our culture around commemorating it—have produced a rabid, slavering Cerberus whose heads are Self-Defeat, Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, and Pervasive Expectation of Exclusion." (p. 149)

It's easy to be lulled by such reasoning, and one hears analogous comments all the time, usually made by various pundits. However, I think it's fair to say that Dr. King's dream has not been totally fulfilled, a point that Faust has X-Man make, and Dr. Brain disregard, many times. She constantly, if subtly, privileges the viewpoint of The Flying Squirrel, who spends more time campaigning (and caring for the ailing Iron Lass) than searching for answers. Not that X-Man is some sort of figure of purity and martyrdom. Superfly especially takes some glee in hoisting X-Man on his own petard, showing how he's violated his own standards of moral and racial purity.

"'All you self-righteous, sanctimonious negroes,' sing-songed Andre, 'accusing anybody you don' like, beatin em down, drawin up enemies lists almost longer than my dick—y'all buncha perfectest, holy rollin, no smoking, limp-dickin Thirty-Six-Chamber-havin, monkey-ass—'
'This ain'no kot-tam Wu Tang album,' snapped Ahmed." (p. 147)

This also points up generational conflicts: X-Man, a fighter from the civil rights era, has barely any common ground with Superfly, a hero from the post-civil rights hip-hop generation. Likewise Omnipotent Man, Iron Lass, and The Flying Squirrel (basically the "Greatest Generation") often find themselves in opposition to the younger X-Man, Superfly, Power Grrrl (the "Gen X" and "Gen Y") axis.

Another fascinating point (among many) is the contrast between Iron Lass and Power Grrrl. They illustrate the generational differences between the cold, ruthless women who had to play by men's rules to break through the glass ceiling, and the post-sexual revolution girls who can flaunt their way to the top, blatantly using their sexuality to sell themselves. As the current debate about feminism often shows, the older women who fought for feminism are often dismayed by the younger generation, while the younger folks take the basics for granted and wonder what the old-school feminists have to offer now. The critical analysis buried in the dynamics and interactions between these two characters, all the while remaining plausible (within the genre rules) and funny, again illustrates Faust's talent for this type of cutting commentary.

Faust isn't actually raising any issues here that haven't at some point in the past cropped up in the pages of the comic books, at least marginally. What he is doing is bringing them out into the open and exhaustively interrogating them. He can do this because he takes superhero stories seriously, even as he's laughing at them. There is nothing to stop a reader from approaching From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain as simply an action-adventure parody but, like comic books (and the fan discussions of them), there's a lot more to find if you read between the panels. In a way, Faust is asking all of us why we haven't been seeing these things in our comic stories all along, since they've always been there. And when we're done laughing and enjoying ourselves, his book might help us read comic books in a different way, from a new perspective. No matter how broad or pointed the humour, or how cheesy the cover, that is true art.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Blindsight, Peter Watts

It seems cliché to talk about science fiction stories that examine “what it means to be human.” While Peter Watts’ stories do just that, they do it from a unique perspective. He uses the huge variety of mental illnesses to examine just how different humans can be from one another before they become alien. He has previously examined this territory in his Rifters series, consisting of Starfish (1999), Maelstrom (2001) and Behemoth (published in two parts in 2004 and 2005). In that trilogy he started with his characters deep underwater, specifically chosen for their tasks because their mental illnesses were perfectly suited to their alien environment. In Blindsight the set up is similar, with radically flawed protagonists finding themselves in space chasing after an alien spaceship that may or may not be a threat to Earth.

To give you a sense of how alien the cast is, consider Siri Keeton, our first-person narrator. When he was a young child half his brain was removed in a drastic surgery to cure severe epilepsy. No longer even close to a normal human, and lacking any natural sense of empathy, he had to reconstruct his internal model of what “human” meant through sheer brute force reasoning and memory. The fact that he was more or less able to do so and function in society is a testament to his brilliance and makes him a perfect all-subject systems analyst, or “synthesist.” Hence he is chosen to accompany this trip to the outer reaches of the solar system, chasing down a gigantic alien enigma. The rest of the crew consists of a linguist deliberately given multiple personalities to maximize the potential of her brain, a doctor so interfaced with machinery that while his surgical precision is unparalleled he can barely hold a cup of coffee, a soldier with a traumatic past, and a genetically reconstructed vampire. By the time they start to penetrate alien territory, one wonders if our definition of humanity can stretch so far as to encompass these beings. If not, where is the line drawn? With a person who doesn’t know what it feels like to be human but has to think it instead? With a cyborg? With a genetically engineered subspecies that regards us as prey?

Once they get to the alien ship, a planet-shaped mystery, things get even more complicated. Subjected to the intense electro-magnetic fields inside the ship, weird things happen to their brains. Thought, after all, consists of electro-magnetic and chemical messages, and when they are interrupted or changed very odd things happen. All of the effects Watts inflicts on his crew are based in current medical literature, but having them presented this way is chilling. Consider a claustrophobic and alien space where one constantly sees things moving from the corner of one’s eyes, and where one can easily come to believe that one’s own body parts are foreign, as if your own leg had become an alien thing:

“Get it off me!” Harsh voice, raw and scared and scary, as male as female could sound. Cruncher in control. “Get it off!”
I looked back. Susan James’ body tumbled slowly in the tunnel, grasping its right leg with both hands.
“James!” Bates sailed over to the other woman. “Keeton! Help out!” She took the Gang by the arm. “Cruncher? What’s the problem?”
“That! You blind?” He wasn’t just grasping at the limb, I realized as I joined them. He was tugging at it. He was trying to pull it off…
“Get it off me!” “It’s your leg, Cruncher.” We wrestled our way toward the diving bell.
not my leg! Just look at it, how could it – it’s dead. It’s stuck to me…”

Likewise, blindsight, from which the book takes its name, involves the curious, and curiously creepy, phenomenon when a person thinks they are blind, but can still catch things thrown at them by reflex. The optical signals are still being captured, but aren’t being recognized by the brain.

In the midst of all this chaos, the actual aliens, when we meet them, seem anti-climactic.

The characters in the story are not particularly likeable, although they are perhaps more understandable than the characters in the Rifters trilogy. In the midst of the narrative we get flashbacks to Siri’s family situation and also his one doomed attempt at a “normal” relationship. People generally don’t want to be involved with someone who is modeling what a person in love is like, as opposed to genuinely being in love.

There are many ways of being alien in this book: mental illness or surgery, temporary brain signal interruption, machine-hybrids, genetic engineering, or even uploading the consciousness into a computer to lock one’s self away from the world forever into irrelevance. To the extent that we can look at people in any of these conditions and still label them “human” makes it harder to apply the “alien” label to the aliens when they are finally met. Watts is pushing the boundaries of human experience, and it is not comfortable reading. As seen above, going this far out on a limb can easily lead into horror, and people who have become something Other than human are hard to empathize with or like, and that makes for hard reading. Luckily, I found something to relate to in Siri, a person who has to consciously check himself to make sure that he is acting within norms and sometimes fails. That made the story easier to dive into for me, since when I didn’t find any similar point of congruence amongst the characters of Starfish and Maelstrom I didn’t enjoy those books half as much as this one. Blindsight, however, struck me as one of the stronger books I’ve read this year, and I’m rooting for it to win the Hugo award. It’s available for free online, so make sure to check it out. While it’s not for the faint of heart, for the fan of hard sf (inclusive of physics, neurology and psychology), this should not be missed.

Monday, July 9, 2007

SFWA European Hall of Fame, James & Kathryn Morrow, ed.

This review originally appeared at

James and Kathryn Morrow have presented us with a labor of love in the SFWA European Hall of Fame, and it is a remarkable achievement. It contains sixteen stories from thirteen countries, each a memorable piece, each beautifully translated. There is no question that English-speaking SF/F fans would be interested in European (and Chinese and Indian, etc.) fiction if only there were more and better translations available. As some of us may remember, having perhaps read less-than-perfectly translated Jules Verne, translation is an art, not a science. By combining efforts and communication between the translators, writers and editors, and making use of the enabling medium of email, this collection provides us with the amazing styles and atmospherics of the story tellers, not just their raw content.

Not that their content is in any way uninteresting. In this volume we see a high density of political concerns from several angles, especially dystopian ones. We also see that fantasy motifs are crossing over into European science fiction as much as they are in English SF, with beautiful and fun results. There is obviously no "European" style here, as each author is uniquely their own. However, one can make some broad generalizations based on these stories, such as Northern European stories seeming darker than Southern ones, and stories from ex-communist countries being more overtly political than their American allied counterparts.

The politically-leaning stories range from the quietly elegant to the abundantly absurd. "A Birch Tree, A White Fox," from Russian author Elena Arsenieva, deals with the power of enforced silence on an alien planet, a piece of poetry. "Sepultura," from Italian author Valerio Evangelisti deals with the plight of political prisoners in a near-future Brazil, with echoes of both Dante and the native religions. "Baby Doll" from Finland's Johanna Sinisalo disturbingly deals with the sexualization of youth, forcing teen angst and behavior on children of seven or eight. From Poland we have "Yoo Retoont, Sneogg. Ay Noo." by Marek S. Huberath, a story of monsters and mutants in a post-apocalyptic dystopia, which does a remarkable job of humanizing its characters while never shying away from their deformations. "The Day We Went Through the Transition" by Ricard de la Casa and Pedro Jorge Romero is a straight-forward time travel story dealing with the importance of the post-Franco Spanish transition to democracy between 1975 and 1981. "Some Earthlings' Adventures on Outrerria" must be the oddest story in the collection, from Romanian Lucian Merisca. It is both a Lewis Carroll-esque surreal dance of alien courtly etiquette, and a post-colonial commentary on Earthly politics. Runner-up for weirdness and whimsy must be "A Night on the Edge of the Empire" by Portuguese author Joao Barreiros, an "Innocents Abroad" take on an alien ambassador traveling incognito on Earth, with pointed commentary about political activism and tolerance for the Other. Finally W.J. Maryson, a Dutch author, brings us a dystopia of perfection in "Verstummte Musik," a story of political escape full of the tension between beauty and death.

Of the more stylistically oriented pieces we have the two French entries, "Separations" by Jean-Claude Dunyach, dealing with ennui, romance and maturity by traveling through a worm hole with quantum repercussions, and "Transfusion" by Joelle Wintrebert describing with a woman assuming power over herself and her demons in a physical, sensual and spiritual way. Both of these tales are very dark in their tone. The Czech entry "The Fourth Day to Eternity" deals with time loops of the main character's own making, and the battle he must repeatedly fight. "Athos Emfovos in the Temple of Sound" is a mythic anti-war story, the sort of thing that could only be written by a Grecian author, in this case Panagiotis Koustas. The famous Russian author Sergei Lukyanenko contributes a piece reminiscent of early Heinlein, "Destiny, Inc.," in which a company presents itself as able to swap people's destinies around, free of charge. TANSTAAFL. Andreas Eschbach contributes a piece that goes straight for the extreme sense-of-wonder SF sentimentality with "Wonders of the Universe," a story of a dying astronaut on Europa. It's not subtle, but it's a good candidate to bring a tear to your eye. Spanish author Jose Antonio Cotrina brings us "Between the Lines," a fun fantastic story of a young man who learns to literally read new things between the lines of books. Finally pseudonymous Danish author Bernhard Ribbeck writes "A Blue and Cloudless Sky," a story about time travel, space travel and religion.

With any collection of this sort, one can argue about the editorial choices. For one, given the inclusion of such becoming-famous-in-English authors as Johanna Sinisalo (Troll – A Love Story), Sergei Lukyanenko (The Night Watch series) and Andreas Eschbach (The Carpet Makers), why not include something from Zoran Zivkovic, for instance? Or perhaps the better known authors should have been excluded in favor of newer authors needing more exposure? I'm sure these were painful decisions that the editors had to make, being faced with trying to represent all of European science fiction with only sixteen stories. A more significant quibble of mine would be that from this collection one would think that European SF was almost, but not quite, unrelentingly dark, with only "Transition," "Outrerria," "Edge of the Empire" and "Between the Lines" containing much in the way of humor, and even then only "Transition" and "Between the Lines" having anything resembling happy endings. It's impossible to know if that is a coincidence, a reflection of the editors' preferences, or the real state of European fiction.

Trifling issues aside, the editors are to be thanked for putting together such a beautiful collection of works that we might never have read otherwise. Science fiction is the literature of ideas, and the more geographically diverse the authors, the more broad the spectrum of ideas we will be exposed to. The fact that the editors were able to do so while still conveying the beautiful styles and poetry of the authors involved is icing on this already substantial cake.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Hart & Boot & Other Stories, Tim Pratt

This review originally appeared in Strange Horizons

Tim Pratt's new collection will be a revelation to those who are only familiar with him from his first novel The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl (2005). Indeed, the cover of Hart & Boot & Other Stories promises more of the same Western-flavored contemporary fantasy, but this is something of a bait-and-switch. The title story shows similar influences to Rangergirl, but all the other stories draw from different styles and mythologies: Greek, Southern, and Irish among others, showing off the breadth of Pratt's knowledge and craft. When you consider the consistently high quality of the collection, and the fact that these thirteen stories represent the creative output of only four years (the stories were published from 2003 to 2007, with two being original to this collection), there can be no doubting Pratt's talent for the fantastic.

"Hart & Boot" is the story of a woman, Pearl Hart, in the late days of the Wild West, who wants to be an outlaw. Her will and desire are so fierce that they conjure up a man to help her (being as not many folks then took a woman for a serious threat). In a nice bit of role reversal, Hart is the aggressive plotter, while John Boot is the helpmeet, the caring one. Over and over again though, when the pair encounter civilization, folks assume that Boot is the nefarious one and that he's seduced Hart to his evil ways. The feel of the Old West, at the time it was ceasing to be wild, and the over-the-top character of Pearl Hart (based on the life story of a "Pearl Hart" that was a real historical figure), draw you into the story completely, and it's easy to see why this one stood out and was chosen for a mainstream collection, the Michael Chabon-edited Best American Short Stories 2005.

The collection continues with equally strong but completely different stories. What we get next ("Life in Stone") is a pure fantasy story, although one where the plot lightly intersects the modern world. It is a beautifully written story about an assassin who has been hired by a sorcerer to end the sorcerer's life. The only problem is that said sorcerer placed his life in a stone years ago, and has now forgotten where he'd hidden it. Thus, the need for an assassin. The surface moral of the story, about the perils of eternal life, is fairly obvious, but in a thread about the sorcerer's half-aquarian daughter, Pratt touches on a deeper current of feeling and fear about aging. As in many of the stories in this collection, the narrator has a certain matter-of-fact air about the fantastic things that happen to him. There is some graphic and disturbing violence, but also a feeling that everything will turn out OK. This, I think, is the sense that leads people to compare Pratt to Neil Gaiman (for instance, in this Green Man Review). Despite the very dark tone the work of both writers can take, there is rarely an aura of actual menace; we basically trust them to work things out in a non-threatening way.

This general good nature makes stories such as "Tyrant in Love" less effective than they could be. Despite depicting an evil despot who goes in search of new methods of torture, and discovers love and grief to be some of the most painful torture of all, the lack of real potential for harm keeps this tale from being as frightening or tense as it might have been. "Bottom Feeding" is a re-telling of an Irish story about a salmon, configured for the American South with a catfish. While it should be an elegiac piece about sorrow and grief, like "Tyrant in Love" it lacks a certain something. The main character isn't terribly empathetic, and the most interesting character, his lesbian ex-girlfriend, is only barely sketched in. The Southern setting doesn't come through as strongly as the California settings, and frankly the story seems to stop much too abruptly, leaving the reader feeling a bit cheated. The placement of these two tales doesn't help the overall structure of the collection, either. I've heard it said that a short story collection or anthology should be structured like a 'W': Start and end on high notes, with a strong "tent pole" story in the middle. Hart & Boot is structured a bit more like a "U," lacking that central strong point. "Tyrant" and "Bottom Feeding" together make a bit of a lull in the middle.

However, "Cup and Table," and the collection's strong final story "Dream Engine," more than make up for it. Sometimes the highest praise one can give a short piece is that you'd like to read the novel it could be part of, and both of these tales merit that sort of speculative curiosity. "Cup and Table" is an apocalyptic story that is merely sketched in rapid-fire episodes, told by a man who is bouncing around in time. He is a member of an occult/secret society group that seeks the Grail, but over the centuries their purpose has changed: from seeking it to protect it to seeking it to use it for their own nefarious purposes. The ending is both moving and surprising, and has a lot more heft than you'd expect considering the strobe-effect buildup. "Dream Engine," on the other hand, is pure steampunk, set in a city at the hub of multiverses. As the different universes wheel around, the rulers of the city reach out and grab things and people that they need from whatever universe is in range. When the Regent starts to grab dream stuff however, things get even stranger than usual. The narrator is Wisp, a non-material entity who is a keeper of sorts for Howlaa, a shapeshifter. Together these two must resolve the threats that are facing the city. The dense chaotic urban environment, wildly diverse population, and baroque technology recall some of China Miéville's work, but once again there's an air of good intentions that means that the story lacks the dark tension that suffuses a book like Perdido Street Station. You generally feel that everything is going to work out well, especially after the evidence of the preceding twelve stories.

Several of the stories are about single women making their way in the world. "Terrible Ones" is a surprisingly comic story considering the ground that it covers. Zara is an actress who used to make money doing the bondage leather dominatrix thing. Now she's about to perform as the star in a new adaptation of Medea, but is being stalked by a former john who doesn't understand about professional detachment. Other forces are stalking her as well, with a randomly appearing Greek Chorus showing up attired in pancake white make-up and togas made from bed linen. In fact, the Greek mythos isn't looking in terribly good shape as the Furies have been living in a run-down apartment and going badly senile. It's time for a shake-up in the cast of the Greek pantheon, and Zara is unwittingly at the center of it. The protagonist of "Komodo"—a female sorcerer questing for immortality, powering her magic using energy produced by having sex with men—is more in control of her destiny. Pratt twists the stereotypes nicely: while often this sort of character would be presented as some sort of vampire, this sorceress sincerely likes her lovers and does her best to help them live more fulfilling lives, whatever that may mean for them. Drawing on Asian philosophies of balance and karma, she understands that gaining immortality through evil wouldn't be worth it. However, one of her lovers turns out to be a complete jackass, the kind that women have nightmares about. Nice enough at the time, he leaves her fake phone numbers and never calls back, and worse yet leaves her with a magical disease that renders her almost powerless and dismantles her carefully wrought magical defenses. The resolution to this story is poignant, pretty, and surprising. A slighter story is "Living With the Harpy." A woman has allowed a literal harpy to take up residence in her apartment. In exchange the harpy has been slowly transforming her, making her stronger, more beautiful, and impervious to pain and damage. However, all these benefits also keep others at a distance, and when she discovers a woman that she thinks she can really love, she has to make a choice. The symbolism is very clear here, but the story is no less meaningful for that.

Two stories depart from the slipstream-type fantasy mold into the realm of science fiction. Hugo-nominated "Impossible Dreams" is a cute romantic comedy of sorts. Two universes briefly collide, and a movie buff discovers an interdimensional video store. It has the Harlan Ellison I, Robot movie, the director's cut of The Magnifiscent Ambersons by Orson Welles and The Death of Superman by Tim Burton starring Nicholas Cage. It also has a very cute interdimensional saleswoman. As their dimensions begin to separate again, our hero has to decide what to do, and while it's a predictable choice that doesn't make it any less sweet.

"Lachrymose and the Golden Egg" may be technically pure science fiction, but it uses mostly fantasy tropes. People can enter their own self-contained fantasy worlds through a biological drug, and that is a particularly attractive option to our hero. He suffers from a rare disease that makes his blood incredibly valuable for making various pharmaceuticals (and which the drug companies happily exploit), but will kill him at a relatively young age. However, he meets someone in his personal fantasy world who seems very familiar, and the Golden Egg they quest for may have very real significance. As science fiction it is a little light, but its conflation of SF and fantasy elements is well done.

With such a broad range of subject matter, it's perhaps surprising that Hart & Boot shows such clear thematic unity. All the stories in this collection make manifest the fantastic elements of real life. A woman lives with a harpy that is a symbol of the barriers she throws up between herself and those who might get close to her. A man grieving for his brother finds a catfish that will enable him to wallow in his misery. A woman jilted by a one-night stand enlists the aid of friends and past lovers to help her solve her problem. This is the stuff of wonderful modern fantasy, the sort that speaks to us specifically about the world we live in and the ways we live in it. It is the sort of fantasy that sticks with you, adding an extra dimension of poetry to the mundane world.