The twelve stories collected in Redeployment use the structure and devices and tropes of contemporary literary short fiction to add a different kind oThe twelve stories collected in Redeployment use the structure and devices and tropes of contemporary literary short fiction to add a different kind of depth and perspective to the way soldiers’ experience of war in the 21st century are understood. More than The Hurt Locker or Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, Redeployment uses the strictures of a mature art form to communicate certain things that are not necessarily possible in other forms.
Putting it like that might make it sound like Klay’s stories are didactic editorials—and, indeed, some of them do come off that way (more on this in a moment)—but these are all first and foremost very engaging, often captivating stories. Klay has a talent for catchy, fast-paced openings that, at their best, got me invested in the story almost immediately. Here, for instance, is the first paragraph of the title story, Redeployment:
We shot dogs. Not by accident. We did it on purpose, and we called it Operation Scooby. I’m a dog person, so I thought about that a lot.
But the grim glibness of this opening does not foreclose the possibility of emotional depth. Later in this story, when the narrator returns home from his tour of duty to find that his own dog is terminally ill and must be put down, he does the deed himself, and Klay makes the reader feel the full weight of the act.
Which is not to say that glib machismo doesn’t have its uses. In Frago, after as a squad is on the way to the hospital to visit one of theirs who was wounded during a violent mission earlier that day, we see this humor being put to theraputic use:
We’re quiet as we get close, and then McKeown says, Sergeant, that was really fucked up.
But now’s not the time to have that conversation, so I say, Yeah, that’s the most blood I’ve seen since I fucked your mom on her period. And then the guys laugh and bullshit a bit, and it breaks the mood that was settling.
But Klay also shows us the shortcomings of such humor. In After Action Report, a character, in the midst of a dark, confusing attack, shoots a young boy who was brandishing an AK47. Afterwards, back at the base, the narrator shows the limitations of levity and the thin line separating dark humor from the deeply serious:
When we finished the convoy, Timhead helped me out of the gunner’s suit. As we peeled it off my body, the smell of the seat trapped underneath hit us, thick and sour. Normally, he’d make jokes or complain about that, but I guess he wasn’t in the mood. He hardly said anything until we got it off, and then he said, “I shot that kid.”
Klay deploys a similar level of emotional nuance and subtle intelligence in dealing with other aspects of the experience of returning soldiers. Living with PTSD, self-medicating with alcohol, and coping with disfigurement, the suicides of friends, sexual repression, and the trauma of taking human lives, even enemy lives, are omnipresent themes in these stories. When not foregrounded, they are often artfully and discretely lurking in the background.
Not all of them, however. Some of the stories in Redeployment come across as editorials, or even outright polemics, costumed in the fashion of technically competent literary fiction.
In Bodies, the narrator is a marine returning from Iraq where he was on Mortuary Affairs duty. His job was to pick up and dispose of the corpses, some of which are severely disfigured. While the morbid nature of his experience, and the fish-out-of-water scenario of his return home was enough to keep me turning pages, the thrust of the story felt more like a sermon. After an unsatisfying reunion with the narrator’s ex-girlfriend, he goes to a bar and rattles off some gruesome war stories to a civilian man. When the man tells him that he respect’s what the narrator has been through, he responds:
"I don’t want you to respect what I’ve been through," I said.
That confused him. ‘What do you want?” he said.
I didn’t know. We sat and drank beer for a bit.
"I want you to be disgusted," I said.
Preachier still is Psychological Operations. The narrator is a Marine who had a pretty easy tour of duty doing PsyOps in Iraq. He returns home and goes to college on the GI Bill, where he meets Zara Davies, an idealistic fellow student whose sincerity and liberalism is the oppposite of the narrator’s practiced military cynicism.
While at first they clash, to interesting effect, the story quickly turns into a monologue, with Zara listening to the narrator tell her about his life and experience in Iraq. The monologue has flow, and it culminates in an interesting little tale about taking out an Iraqi warlord, but Zara the semi-mute interlocutor is a waste of a good character. Zara is colorfully drawn and, for my money, more interesting than the narrator, and could have been more fully realized if she were more than just the narrator’s sounding board
This story is one of two where the narrator is in college, and it brought to mind an interesting parallel with literary fiction’s current zeitgeist, the campus novel. There are some interesting parallels between the literary campus novel and literary war fiction as Klay writes it.
The arc of Franzenite fiction goes from leaving the bosom of an institution to finding a place in the world of markets and neighbors. This journey is often shared by the members of a clique, a group somewhere in between friends and an economic tribe.
Franzenite novels are not afraid of becoming institutional profiles. Camps and universities are natural subjects for the bourgeois novel of the moment because they have become expensive ways of replicating privilege, of falling in with the right sort of people, of learning the prerequisite social codes.
If the ur-story of the campus novel is the journey from the bosom of cozy university life to the harsh realities of mating and career-dom, the ur-story of literary war fiction seems like the campus novel in reverse: a return from chaos and murder to a place of relative order and peace. The social codes acquired during war are at best irrelevant back home, and any privilege and power soldiers in war zones posses vanish.
Even the people—the close friendships forged during war time—can only help so much. Klay captures this, too. The chaplain who is the narrator of Prayer in the Furnace has the following interaction with a soldier who has lost friends to suicide:
I fingered the small cross. “In this world, He only promises we don’t suffer alone.”
Rodriguez turned and spat into the grass. “Great,” he said.
I hope for more such stories from returning soldiers in the future, both to give a broader perspective on this unfortunately massive and timely realm of human experience, and as a kind of corrective to the genre of literary fiction, which sorely needs to temper its fascination with stories of burgeoning bourgeois privilege. ...more
These are some very elegant, philosophically charged science fiction/alt history love stories. My favorites: "The Gift," about an off-world tour guideThese are some very elegant, philosophically charged science fiction/alt history love stories. My favorites: "The Gift," about an off-world tour guide writer's tragically misconstrued love affair, and "The Héloïse Archive," a wonderful novella consisting of a series of newly-discovered letters from Héloïse d’Argenteuil to Peter Abelard that, along with showing Abelard's darker side, chronicles a miracle at the Paraclete Oratory that changed the direction of history....more
I think it’s something of a cliché to say that science fiction is about the here and now. Reading Iain M. Banks or Vernor Vinge, who write (awesome) aI think it’s something of a cliché to say that science fiction is about the here and now. Reading Iain M. Banks or Vernor Vinge, who write (awesome) adventure novels about post humans and super-intelligent computers set in space in the far future, it’s easy to forget just how much light SF can shed on the condition of us earth-bound, unenhanced humans of the early 21st century. And then you read Ursula Le Guin and remember.
For that reason alone, The Birthday of the World is a spectacular book: each of these stories is set in a society where an alien biology or social/cultural stricture dramatizes some pretty fundamental aspects of the human condition, mainly gender roles, relationships, sex, and sexuality (because what’s more fundamental, really?).
“Coming of Age in Karhide,” which is set in the same world as Left Hand of Darkness, is the first person reminiscence of a Gethenian’s first time in kemmer. But where Left Hand of Darkness was pretty chaste, describing the process by which the androgynous Gethenians temporarily develop sexual organs during kemmer, “Coming of Age in Karhide” takes us inside the Kemmer house and does not shrink from graphic descriptions of what goes on there.
I remember a short while after finishing Left Hand of Darkness the first time I started looking at people differently, trying to force myself to see men or women just as people in a temporarily sexual state who will shortly return to androgyny. It was a pretty revelatory thought experiment: seeing gender as something you move into or out of like that can really make plain all the many hidden ways looking at someone as a man or woman shapes your perception and colors your judgment of them. Kemmer has to be one of the best thought experiments to come from science fiction.
In kemmer, both sexes can be found in the same person. In a few of these stories, though, the sexes are about as far apart as is possible. “The Matter of Seggri” is set on a world where men and women live wholly separate lives, women in small medieval-style villages, men in castles, where they spend their lives competing in sports games for social status. The men sell themselves to the women for sex, and apart from those brief commercial encounters, and from the public games where the woman watch the men compete, men and women lead wholly separate lives. At first it seems like women are marginalized on this world, but it soon becomes clear that they are the real participants in society. This is an extreme dramatization of the way woman in societies on our world have often been pushed to the margins of society where their only role is procreation and competing with one another for status (i.e. Mad Men).
“Solitude” is another, very different, story where the sexes lead wholly separate lives. In a primitive, post-collapse society, women live together in “auntrings” where everyone keeps very much to themselves. The men live semi-solitary lives in the forests at the periphery of auntrings, and their courtship involves the women leaving the auntring and hunting for men for brief encounters. Nothing in this society precludes semi-monogamous relationships, but people are just happier on their own. A small part of me wants to live there right now.
This is just the setting, of course—Le Guin is too good a writer to give us just the trimmings of the world without a story, and her stories are not just ciphers for her intricate and strange societies. In “Solitude,” for instance, we get the story of a mother who takes her young children to an “auntring,” since no one in the auntring really talks to anyone but children, this is her only chance to learn about this society. The effects on the children, the youngest in particular, are predictable.
The strongest (and longest) work in this collection is “Paradise Lost,” a novella about the voyage of a generation ship bound for an earth-like planet. In a ship where five generations have lived knowing nothing of life outside of it, the society on the ship evolves a spiritual system that redefines their purpose as perpetual ship life. Apart from being an illustration of how spirituality evolves in societies as something of a coping mechanism, “Paradise Lost” is also one of the more believable stories of the generation ship sub-genre. Once the ship reaches its destination it’s hard not to suppress a feeling of joy, even through the successive hardships of life on the new planet. It’s a sad and joyful story, and it has a kind of wise maturity to it that science fiction could definitely use more of....more
I feel like reading Sterling's Mechanist/Shaper stories is like passing some sort of science fiction Rubicon: once you've read them you are officiallyI feel like reading Sterling's Mechanist/Shaper stories is like passing some sort of science fiction Rubicon: once you've read them you are officially a nerd, no backsies.
Crystal Express contains, among other short stories, all of Sterling's Mechanist/Shaper stories outside of the novel Schismatrix, and while some of the non-M/S pieces didn't quite do it for me, this collection gets five stars anyway--the quality of the far future M/S world is so vivid and compelling, the alien-ness so amazingly alien (as in Swarm, where two human Shapers live inside an asteroid among large hive-mind insects), that some of the minor faults (the sometimes incoherent off-scene politics, the occasional cypher character) are easily overlooked....more
I read this for "The Rubbish Wind," "The River Potudan," and "The Return." When reading Platonov, it's hard to shake the feeling that he was someone wI read this for "The Rubbish Wind," "The River Potudan," and "The Return." When reading Platonov, it's hard to shake the feeling that he was someone who desperately longed to not exist, or to somehow un-exist. His characters, both in The Foundation Pit and here (with the exception of the protagonist of "The Return") yearn to dissolve into nothing, and their actions to that end are often disturbing. In fact, the only other book that I think disturbed me as much as The Foundation Pit in recent years was Thomas Ligotti's My Work Is Not Yet Done: Three Tales of Corporate Horror, and although they are very different books from very different times, I suspect there is some similar kernel at the heart of both writers.
In the "Rubbish Wind" the road to the main character's non-existence is shockingly gruesome, something that I imagine would make even Quentin Tarantino choke back his lunch. In "The River Potudan," the main character's non-existence is a more touching, cleansing, almost Catholic self denial that gives him the ability to understand and accept love when it's almost too late.
"The Return," however, is the reason I picked up this collection. The story of a man returned from war to find his family changed, it packs into its few pages a sad yet somehow redeeming portrayal of human weakness and acceptance. It's a story that Chekhov would have been proud to have written, and it sounds a note of hope for the human soul that is an amazing statement from the author of deeply nihilst The Foundation Pit....more
I am selectively skipping around this collection of dark short stories. So far, Old Virginia, Shiva Open Your Eyes, and Hallucinagenia are all captivaI am selectively skipping around this collection of dark short stories. So far, Old Virginia, Shiva Open Your Eyes, and Hallucinagenia are all captivating reads. Barron has a real knack for intense, engaging prose, and has the rare ability to grab my attention within the space of just a few paragraphs. There is a strong hard boiled feel to all of his characters....more
These dark, unhappy short comics tell the stories of desperate, lonely people living day to day at the mercy of obsessive fantasies, dangerous jobs anThese dark, unhappy short comics tell the stories of desperate, lonely people living day to day at the mercy of obsessive fantasies, dangerous jobs and dismal relationships. To be read one a day with your morning coffee....more
A collection of stories seemingly set in the same post-apoc world, where mold eats away at everything and all manner of grotesque things fall from theA collection of stories seemingly set in the same post-apoc world, where mold eats away at everything and all manner of grotesque things fall from the sky. A few of these stories (too few, unfortunately) have the right combination of raw language and startling imagery that give you a vivid taste of what it is like to be breath the rotten air of this strange, frightening world Butler creates. In particular, The Disappeared and Television Milk are pretty astonishing reads.
Unfortunately most of the rest really felt like they were trying way to hard at - what? Satire? Profundity? Pathos? Who knows? Butler's prose style can get one-dimensional at times (staccato bursts of simple sentences, sans articles so as to make the noun stand center stage all by its lonesome, repetitions that felt like they were excised verses from Tom Waits's song "Step Right Up"). Just didn't work for me. Still, I'll keep an eye out for anything this guy puts out in the future. It could be great. Or not....more
Buzzati reminds me of Calvino, only a little more willing to go to strange places. In these short stories (and I mean short-short stories - 23 tales pBuzzati reminds me of Calvino, only a little more willing to go to strange places. In these short stories (and I mean short-short stories - 23 tales packed into about 120 pages) a hotshot reporter acquires the ability to exist simultaneously in the present and the future with the help of an ancient grimoire, a group of engineers building the Eiffel barricade themselves at the top of the structure and try to keep building it infinitely higher, a literary genius slyly begins to write successively worse novels to appease his insecure friends, and the bogey man is hunted down and assassinated in the Italian night in a spray of carabineri gunfire. I haven't read any of Buzzati's novels, which I hear can get somewhat long-winded, but I find these micro-stories to be compact, idiosyncratic and intensely fun mash-ups of fable, myth, and fantasy with a spritz of science fiction....more
In these stories Joel Lane gives us some wonderfully pitch-perfect dark urban fantasy/horror. While his prose isn't as poetic as M. John Harrison's anIn these stories Joel Lane gives us some wonderfully pitch-perfect dark urban fantasy/horror. While his prose isn't as poetic as M. John Harrison's and his characterization lacks the psychological plumb-bob of J. G. Ballard, Lane excels in settings, all of which are dark and dangerous and unreal, and the subtle, often grotesque plot twists....more
It wasn't until I was about a third of the way through this book that I started to believe Michael Swanwick capable of writing a pretty awesome story,It wasn't until I was about a third of the way through this book that I started to believe Michael Swanwick capable of writing a pretty awesome story, and it wasn't until reading "The Very Pulse of the Machine," and everything that comes after it, that Swanwick became a strong contender for my favorite writer ever.
For the first third of this collection I had to struggle to find a way in to these stories: "The feast of Saint Janis" and "Ginungagap" were snappy tales with interesting premises but which felt more like a surrealist writer's take on wacky science fiction. "A midwinter's tale" and "The edge of the world" were decent stories that had their moments but were otherwise unremarkable. And "Griffin's egg," "The changeling's tale," and "Trojan Horse" sailed clear over my head.
Maybe it took Swanwick a while to find his groove, or maybe it just took me a dozen or stories to get the feel of this wonderfully outlandish writer, but either way I'm glad I stuck with it. The flavor of these later stories is somewhat darker - refugees from a future holocaust whose horribly violent nature is only hinted at flee through a time portal in "Radiant Doors"; a woman stumbles into a far future slave earth in "Legions in Time"; scarcity-induced genocide is hard-wired into an alien society in "From Babel's fall'n glory we fled"; and in both "Very Pulse of the Machine" and "Slow Life" doomed women on distant planets in our solar system make incredible discoveries - but what makes these stories sing is the depth of the characters, typically a spunky woman, who, through their actions tell more of the strange worlds they inhabit than the spare and highly caffeinated prose (Swanwick's descriptions feel more like rough charcoal pencil sketches, all smudged and scribbly, than the clean Edward Hopper-esque scene painting I've come to love in the work of Lucius Shepard).
Despite the fact that the first third of the book left me somewhat cold, most of the stories in the final two thirds of this retrospective are so wildly good as to tax my capacity for hyperbole. ...more
When I was young I was always able to tell when I was listening to Brahms: not only would it be all romantic and blustery to my young ears, but thereWhen I was young I was always able to tell when I was listening to Brahms: not only would it be all romantic and blustery to my young ears, but there would always be a point during the piece that I was convinced was the finale, where the music had reached a climax and was about to dive into a speedy, victorious coda and come to an end. If I was still listening to the same piece ten minutes later, I could be certain it was Brahms. Only later, probably only in my late twenties, did I finally come to be able to hear the depth of Brahms's symphonic music and really fall in love with the sound world of those long, meandering pieces (particularly the piano concerti). Although the music is no less long-winded to my ears, I no longer mind so much because I don't want the dream to stop.
I feel like Lucius Shepard works in a similar way. His stories are jammed full of words - wonderful, poetic words - and he sure as hell takes his time wrapping up a story, and I'm not so sure how I would have felt about that ten years ago. But now I can't get enough. Shepard is capable of getting so much of a character's interior life onto the page that aspects of the story that are conventionally important in sf & fantasy - the far-out ideas, the magic, the macguffin - seem of secondary importance, and, in the lesser stories here, can even be slight distractions.
In this sense Shepard reminds me of Graham Greene, particularly because they write a similar kind of protagnoist: reflective, disillusioned, deeply flawed, weakness for women and alcohol, wearing the scars of a hard life. Shepard also shares Greene's taste for exotic locales. Although I'm pretty sure Greene never set a story in a near future central American vietnamesqe guerilla perma-war (as in "Salvador" and the intensely cinematic "R&R"), or the near future southeast asia of the traveling circus in "Radiant Green Star," or the white trash southern Florida of "Hands Up! Who Wants To Die?", there is nonetheless a similar fascination for the down and out fringe elements and an ability to make a place seem remarkably familiar, like a place we remember growing up, despite its foreign trappings.
At over 600 pages this book was a monster to carry around on my daily trek through the city, but now I'm kind of sad it's over. ...more