This column below was delivered late to Interzone at the beginning of February 2007, but Andy Cox said he was going to put it online as part of the magazine’s promotion campaign. Problem for me is that I haven’t been able to find it in the echolalia of the aether, so I thought it might be an idea to lay it down here, especially as it gives favourable notice to Mary Rickert’s superb first collection, Map of Dreams, which should be bought and read soonest.
column for Interzone
for Andy Cox
Larklight: Or, The Revenge of the White Spiders!: Or, To Saturn’s Rings and Back!
*Robert Charles Wilson*
Julian* *A Christmas Story
Hornsea, Yorkshire: PS Publishing
Map of Dreams
Urbana, Illinois: Golden Gryphon Press
Already 2006 is ago, and the books on review are all dated then. But maybe they’re not quite history yet. Philip Reeve’s spiffy and entrancing Larklight was part of last year’s Christmas spate for kids, and most of us almost certainly missed it in the spray; Robert Charles Wilson’s stealth-quiet Julian, a Christmas book from Peter Crowther’s PS Publishing, also slid pretty invisibly into the darkest days; and Mary Rickert’s Map of Dreams, also from the end of 2006 is a first collection (from a small house without much UK distribution) that I found as exciting as Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts, which slid similarly into the end of 2005 and caught fire partly because it was superb and partly because Hill was outed as Stephen King’s son: I think Map of Dreams is as worthy of awards as Hill’s (which got a few): it shouldn’t be missed.
Philip Reeve is best known to date for his *Hungry City Chronicles*, starting with Mortal Engines (*2001*) and closing with the marginally overlong A Darkling Plain (*2006*), and after four volumes of grappling with the perils of the Ruined Earth it might be said that his latest tale is a bit of a lark. The binding and presentation and elaborated title channel the 19th century shilling shocker via Lemony Snicket’s *Series of Unfortunate Events*, which is maybe too uncloseted a marketing ploy for real comfort; but Reeve is a very different writer than Daniel Handler in Snicket clothing. We may begin snicketly with mouthy children whose father has become vacantly screwloose after his wife and their mother had seemingly died, and ingenious ruthless (and rather mouthy) villains may cast them almost immediately into outer darkness; but after a few pages of this the tale unpacks itself into a steampunk revel whose engines never seize up as Reeve’s alternate history takes off. We are inhabiting a 19th century in which the solar system is dominated by a British Empire fueled through Isaac Newton’s discovery of the aether that fills space and how to exploit it; Larklight is the cast’s home but it is also a spaceship (and maybe a lot more); their mother may not be dead at all, but piracies and abductions and feats in gaslit London and a great deal more must intervene before we reach the end of what reads very much like Part One of maybe a trilogy or more. The genial contrivances of plot and language never fail to mesh; the setpieces are simultaneouskt plot-enhancing and joyous in their own right; and the children become quite a lot less offensive as we get to know them, especially the boy narrator’s prude sister Myrtle (though one does rather wish male story tellers would stop doing teenaged female prudes: an easy target but a false one: because, throughout history, it is the boys and men who are the true prudes). David Wyatt’s numerous illustrations seem initially like competent pastiche — I thought I noticed Albert Robida and Chris Riddell in the mix — until you get used to his way of seeing story, and begin to trust it: he is very good indeed.
It’s all fizz. But it’s fizz with legs.
There is not much to say yet about Robert Charles Wilson’s novella, because it is palpably the first section of what may turn out to be a classic Ruined Earth tale, set in an America governed and/or threatened — as in so many post-catastrophe tales from Poul Anderson’s Vault of the Ages (*1952*) on — by theocracies whose misogyny and Despite of the evidential world mark them as either Christian or (tactfully) something identical by another name. But this time we may be going somewhere else. There are pre-echoes of Gore Vidal’s Messiah (*1954*) in the opening passages of this tale, as the narrator begins to tell the story of Julian Comstock, part of the family that rules America, and who may turn out to be an apostate in the faith-riddled body politic; but it is too soon to know how Wilson, who finally won a Hugo last year for the latest of his steely novels, all of which are Silent Running but churn the stomach with the smell of ineradicable change and loss, will turn his tale. Julian*: *A Christmas Story — the subtitle is one of Wilson’s deadly whispers of warning — could go anywhere. Whatever is to happen, though, is well begun here.
Mary Rickert signs herself M Rickert, and this seems right. She can surely be found within her tales, almost all of which to date have now been assembled in Map of Dreams, but the lock must be picked; though we must be chaste about presuming that in attempting to listen to the real author (Mary) at work we are not disobeying her clear intent to be read as nothing but an M. of no gender. The gap between the implied narrators of these tales (that is, the author we construct out of the words on the page) and their actual author is, in other words, more than usually opaque. But the tonal intensities, the reiterated character types, and the sense that some abyssal understory shapes these tales of family romance and tragedy: everything provides the reader with a rhetoric of transfiguration: something unendurable being transfigured into art.
It may seem presumptuous or merely vulgar to suggest this — why not in all decency just leave the author alone and read the work — except for one additional and inescapable uttering out of this play of concealment and exposure. The title novella, first published here, is Rickert’s fullest presentation to date of the primal trauma that her best work radiates out of: in this case, nakedly, “Map of Dreams” takes its incipit in a mother’s inability to accept the death of a child, and climaxes in her still-anguished but no longer pathological awareness that she can do nothing to change the past. In “Map of Dreams” her name is Annie Merchant; her first-person narrative transacts the torture of her fate very fully. After the death of her son, shot down by a random sniper, she abandons her previous life, essentially because those with whom she has spent that life fail to heed her intransigent adherence to her state of denial. She begins to stalk a writer named Max von Feehler, whose wife had also been killed in the same massacre, because she believes (rightly) that he has discovered a way to travel through time (her description of this resembles J W Dunne, but in the end it moves elsewhere). She follows him to an island off the coast of southern Australia, where he has undertaken forays into the dreamtime of the aboriginals who suffered genocide at the hands of the people who now occupy their land: he has, in other words, travelled back through time to a world in which they are still alive, an experience which afflicts him savagely. (There are a few echoes here perhaps of Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood [*1984*].) She follows him into the dark abysm, where she witnesses the utterly intolerable sadness of the last aborigenes as we rape and destroy them. She also discovers — basing her reticence, I think, on the assumption that her readers will know what she’s doing here, Rickert does not make this explicit — that any attempt to change the past is an Appointment in Samarra, that it is the actual presence of Annie and von Feehler at the scene of the massacre that in fact causes it. The depth of their passion to save constitutes a complicity in the coils of time with the loss they cannot live with: until they do. By the end of the long tale, Annie is fragilely home in the present again. She will live. She begins to write stories down, out of the dream time and out of her life. And here’s the point.
The rest of Map of Dreams, which in “reality” comprises M Rickert’s work from her first publication in 1999 to now, is here presented as the set of those stories written down by Merchant. There is a deep and rather strange game being played here. Are we to take Rickert’s life’s work as coming out of Annie Merchant’s recovery from the tragedy of “Map of Dreams”? Is Map of Dreams a kind of game of Twelve Step? Maybe, maybe not; maybe so what? My personal interest, as reader, focuses mainly on the fact that an intricate game is being offered by M Rickert here in terms she does not seem to wish us to be able to refuse. My impulse is to play the game up to the point where it threatens to become more than a game of art; and to stop there. But where does this leave us?
It leaves me, for one, with a body of stories two or three of which seem masterful, and several of which seem disembodied. At times the hummingbird hovering of her presentation of register generates a tale like the superb “Cold Fires” (2004), in which a married couple — locked literally in estranging ice as a cold cold winter traps them in the house of their failed marriage — tell each other tales of supernal severing out of their own lives. The story is like a monad of many colours, hovering weightless but infinitely grave in the mind’s eye. “Anyway” (2005) is a word-perfect harrowing of America in the time of plague of Iraq, a multitude of stories — and exquisitely distinguished characters — in one levitated voice of telling hard as diamond. At other times, though, in a tale like “A Very Little Madness Goes a Long Way” (2006), Annie Merchant (or whoever) begins to pound the eyes with the staccatos inherent in her chosen radical of assertion, and I lose headway, and wish to stop.
But always to return. Rickert is as good as anyone I’ve read in recent years at first paragraphs, which means she has a genius for knowing where to start. Her best stories build from that thrust of beginning like James Tiptree Jr in her pomp. And in good stories and less good alike, there is a density and swift grasping rightness in Rickert’s verbing, and a nakedness of passionate intensity that needs not utter itself, which reminded me strongly of Emily Dickinson, who burns you when you see her face on. But then we know that, in our hearts: we know that the highest art, the level of art which Rickert clearly aims to attain, is a heavenly hurt to mortals.