A short story anthology is not unlike a season of television. You’ll have your high points, your low points, and all else in between. More often than not, it’s the latter, those in-between entries making up the bulk of the assembly, that will determine whether a show or author warrants a repeat viewing. Take Jennifer Pelland’s Unwelcome Bodies for instance. It presents readers with a colorfully divergent mix of subject matter, from AIDS to self-immolation, climate change to fetishistic relationships. Sure, some of the tales work better than others but, as a whole, this is a tight and thought-provoking collection. Pelland‘s storytelling is lean yet fluid, devoid of tangential narrative meanderings and overly-detailed descriptions yet fully accomplished in its ability to touch, impress, and, occasionally, gut-shank. Each of the entries in the anthology are followed by a much-appreciated author commentary on the thought processes behind the various narratives.
The first story, “For the Plague Thereof Was Exceeding Great” focuses on a future in which an airborne strain of the AIDS virus fuels fear and paranoia in a society made up of increasingly isolated individuals. It’s an interesting premise and certainly well-written, but the SF extrapolation of existing contemporary misconceptions about the disease feels at times a little too on the nose.
“Big Sister/Little Sister”, on the other hand, is a creepy little story about sibling rivalry and revenge. No lessons to be learned here, just a straightforward and deeply unsettling tale of Siamese twins and tortured existence.
In “Immortal Sin”, a man’s inability to reconcile his Catholic beliefs with his sinning ways leads him to take extreme measures to avoid eternal damnation – but, in the end, his efforts confine him to his own private Hell. Of all the entries in this collection, this was my least favorite because of its all-too-convenient developments (ie. the man’s incredibly way-off-base assumptions about a waitress who barely knows his name, his good fortune in being able to access the various technologies he requires to extend his lifespan). Still, the passages in which our paranoid protagonist goes to extreme lengths to avoid any possibility of death by misadventure makes for some very entertaining reading.
In “Flood”, a lonely singer performs in a future where the oceans have dried up and water is the most precious of gift of all. A lot of nice little touches in this entry as Pelland paints a wholly believable picture of what the future may hold. Was I the only one who imagined the female protagonist as a parched and miserable Amy Winehouse?
“The Call” is an interesting little short that posits “What if..?” as it takes us through a potential first contact scenario gone awry. An engaging progression of events within the alien ship leads to an unexpected turn to conclude the proceedings.
“Captive Girl”, a recent Nebula Award nominee, is an intriguing tale about Alice, a severely disabled woman whose disabilities make her an ideal candidate for cosmic sentinel duty, tasked with the responsibility of searching the stars for potential threats to the planet. Alice’s sole refuge from her bleak existence comes in the form of Marika, the woman charged with her care. But when the project is discontinued, Alice faces rehabilitation and the heartbreaking prospect of life without her Marika. Your typical love story it aint. A troubling but thought-provoking tale. Equally fascinating was Pelland’s explanation of her decision to make the main players women. How differently would the story have played out had either one or both of the characters been male? I’d say “very”, perhaps not so much in terms of the narrative but certainly in terms of reader interpretation and response.
“Last Bus” is, in Pelland’s words: “the most positive piece I’ve ever written”. The fact that the origins of this whimsical story about an amnesiac traveler and a mysterious bus route have their roots in one of Pelland’s dreams is not at all surprising given the overall bizarreness of the entry. It’s a peculiar, mystifying little piece and yet strangely charming and satisfying.
“The Last Stand of the Elephant Man” sees Elephant Man John Merrick transported to the year 2304 where he has become the victim of a body swap. Someone has laid claim to his hideously deformed physique and, in exchange, transplanted him into a beautiful, unblemished form. Overjoyed at first, Merrick soon discovers that adjusting to life in this new world may prove as daunting as the one he left behind. Again, very interesting ideas at play here with Merrick conflicted over the treatment of the body he renounced and his discomfort with his wholly different celebrity status, although I did find the happy ending a little too tidy.
“Songs of Lament” offers us an all-too-brief glimpse of a not-too-distant future in which humanity finds itself on the brink of war against a most unlikely opponent: the whale population. The fate of the planet is at stake and it looks like we’re fighting on the wrong side. While the military powers prepare a response to the mounting threat, a woman lies in a hospital bed, driven to the point of madness by the sound of whale songs whose meaning she alone can decipher. Another great premise and a solid entry but one that had the potential for a much longer, more involved treatment.
“Firebird” is told through a series of diary entries. Our narrator is about to begin her first year at a woman’s college and she is thrilled to discover that her roommate will be Kay Myerson, a former pop star turned activist who made “international headlines by setting herself on fire to protest continued inaction on the issue of global climate change”. In the eyes of the narrator and the rest of the student body, Kay is someone to be admired for her dramatic stand. For her part, however, Kay regrets her actions, the effect it has had on her life and the lives of the dozens of copycats who killed themselves by following her lead. Kay wants nothing more than to be left alone but our narrator, consumed with a fangirl devotion, will not let her forget her past. Remember the high points I referred to when I kicked off this review? Well “Firebird” is one of them – disturbing, provocative, and soulful.
“Brushstrokes” is the last story in the collection and, in my opinion, the best of the bunch, an intra-gender cross-caste SF romance that reflects an author at the top of her game, incredibly self-assured and deeply creative.
Unwelcome Bodies is a deliciously dark collection. One of the things that struck me about Jennifer Pelland is her ability to come up with big, engaging ideas that could easily serve as springboards to lengthier works. Is there a novel in her future? I suppose that’s a question for the upcoming Author Q&A.
Okay, there’s plenty to discuss here. I’ve kept my initial thoughts succinct but will be weighing in as I the discussion gets rolling. Also, author Jennifer Pelland will be coming by later in the week so start posting your questions.
Well, I was back at work today and, despite a full slate of meetings, it wasn’t so bad. Assistant A.D. and official Stargate curmudgeon paid me a rare compliment by telling me he actually liked the script! The Concept Meeting went smoothly and we followed up with a brief Prosthetics Meeting, ultimately deciding to use a combination of visual effects and practical movie magic for the forest sequence. The Art Department Meeting went well – until we got to the scenes in Woolsey’s quarters. Well, the first and only other time we’ve seen his quarters was in episode #3, Broken Ties, and it was a night scene that offered up a magical view of the city outside his bay window. Alas, those magical views don’t look quite as magical in the day time and so, rather than go with a projected image, we’re talking about making the view a visual effect. That would, of course, assure its magical quality – but at potentially great expense. We decided to table the discussion until tomorrow’s visual effects meeting but, in the end, I have a feeling we’ll be going with a combination of visual effects and creative camera angling on the part of wiz director Will Waring. Evil Kenny took us through the Props Meeting. We talked guns, vests, knives, and nasty machetes. The Costumes Meeting was also a breeze. It was t-shirt over long-sleeves, blood and bullet holes over none, and a military look for our guest star over his admittedly suave civilian look. After lunch, we had our casting session and checked out Kiangs, Libermans, soldiers, and Luthor Dovelocks.
Which took me to about 3:30 p.m., just in time for a double note session on my final draft of Remnants (for those of you wondering how I can make changes to a draft that has already been marked a final, check out this post: THE ULTIMATE EXTREME EXTRA SUPERFANTASTIC BEST LUCKY ULTRA NUMBER ONE FINAL FINAL DRAFT
http://josephmallozzi.com/2008/03/10/march-10-2008/), and Marty G.’s first draft of Brain Storm.
It looks like a busy morning tomorrow. We’ll be kicking things off with a location scout (tentatively entitled A Production in Search of a Cliff), following up with the Visual Effects and Playback Meeting, the Stunts and SPFX Meeting and, finally, capping things off with the Extras Meeting. I’ll be sure to bring lots of chocolate.
David writes: “Joe, as much as your life is interesting with having book clubs, enjoying fine dining, and playing with your dogs, I hope you realize 99% of the people come on here to here about Stargate Atlantis. Why 2 days without a mail bag update?”
Answer: My apologies for not fielding your queries in a timely manner. It would serve me right if you elected to go elsewhere to have your questions answered.
P.S. Dovil, I’ll happily do without the Christmas Turkey and Hanukah Suckling Pig, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to draw the line at the Annual Arbor Day Pinecone.