Birthday Reviews: Cadigan

After an August overflowing with birthdays, where I covered most of the ones I wanted to at four a week, this month looks to be much sparser and starts with just one. But what a one, and I’ll take the opportunity to talk about two of her stories of outsiders from one of the best collections of all-time.

Pat Cadigan (1953-09-10)

“Pretty Boy Crossover” (IAsfm, January 1986)

The Pretty Boy of this story has lost his boyfriend and fellow Pretty Boy, Bobby, to the digital world as the Corporations That Be have convinced Bobby to upload his consciousness, which makes him a sort of product of theirs. Pretty Boy is trying to be famous and popular and “in” while also missing Bobby and trying to decide if he wants to join him, should he be Pretty enough to be able to. Is Bobby really real anymore? Will he be? Eventually, Pretty Boy realizes a way in which he can claim a stake to self-hood and hold on to some power of his own.

This story takes the colorful energy of some 80s club scenes and turns it up to 11 with some science fictionalization that is beyond what we’ve got even now so that it would seem to be blatantly foregrounded, yet it’s mixed in to such an inherently tech milieu while the story is focused on people and their egos and confusion that it actually seems subtly part of the background. Either way, the protagonist’s effort to find some sort of place to stand is effectively portrayed.

“Angel” (IAsfm, May 1987)

“Angel” features another anonymous and lost narrator who has a friend but this one is present. It also features sexual matters that weren’t mainstream in the 80s (and at least one element that isn’t now). It’s also a strange sensory blend but, in this case, it’s a surreal fantasy feeling with the friend being “Angel” except that Angel is also one of the most distinctive aliens you’ll ever meet. He’s been exiled for an alien crime which is revealed before the end and is ironically tied to the protagonist. Angel can look human but isn’t and can speak but prefers telepathy. He doesn’t eat but can benefit when his friend does but really powers up on intense events of any kind because the universe doesn’t care about good or bad – only less or more. The two go through a city of dreadful night doing strange things with strange people while running from the malicious woman who had previously been bound with Angel. When Angel tries to work his overextended charms on a bartender and it fails, he and the narrator are beaten up for “faggots” and this causes them to fall into the clutches of the mystery woman. Matters reach quite a climax from there.

This is an extremely vivid, mesmerizing story full of Cadigan’s singular black humor, fresh imagery, and tough compassion which takes us through pain and death to find that sentience and love can be transcendent.

Birthday Reviews: Bretnor, Stableford, Watt-Evans

This week’s birthday boys bring us a bassoon, a bullet, and burgers! The one is used to turn interdimensional critters into weapons, the second is a metaphor for a genetic endeavor with unforeseen and dramatic consequences, and the last is sold at a place where no one really knows your name.

Reginald Bretnor (1911-07-30–1992-07-22)

“The Gnurrs Come from the Voodvork Out” (F&SF, Winter-Spring 1950)

This is essentially a fantastic comic variation on “The Pied Piper” but, since it makes reference to dimensions and time, you could let it fly as SF if you wanted. In it, we’re at war with Bobovia and lecherous old moron/”chenius” Papa Schimmelhorn has invented a sort of bassoon with a tuning crystal in it which makes the gnurrs come from the voodvork out. He takes it to the public Secret Weapons Bureau which is intended to filter madmen and pranksters out but he gets in and, eventually, a pantsless lieutenant runs into the general’s office telling him they have an effective new weapon. The general, who hates new-fangled gadgets and believes the finest way to fight future wars will be with a sword atop a horse, is initially resistant but, when he’s convinced that the gnurrs who eat almost everything inanimate are actual animals, he’s more willing. There follows a dizzying ride in which the bassoon weapon is deployed by Papa alongside a crew of swiftly and repeatedly promoted soldiers before things inevitably go wrong and the day must be saved again.

This has a serious point regarding fighting the last wars, but is otherwise quite light. Humor is in the eye of the beholder and, while it’s not a side-splitter, its farcical but mild humor was grin-worthy throughout and chuckle-inducing more than once.

Brian Stableford (1948-07-25)

“The Magic Bullet” (Interzone #29, May-June 1989)

Lisa Friemann is a scientist and police officer but, on this night, she’s been called in to shed light on a case because she knows the scientist who has been shot and whose lab has been destroyed, killing the thousand mice he had for genetic experiments. She knows him very well, in fact, though perhaps not as well as she thought, as they’d had a sexual relationship for decades and he won’t tell her what’s going on in his final time before dying – at least not until the national security cop has to take care of other aspects of the case and leaves it in Lisa’s hands to get something out him. When he does finally tell the tale, it involves his experiments, a chance discovery with apocalyptic implications for half the human race, and his other lover.

If I understand this story and if Lisa is supposed to be the hero of it, rather than just part of it, then I ideologically dislike it but, aesthetically, the four characters mentioned above and their conflicting motivations are used to produce interesting dynamics which make a story which is arguably two infodumps feel sufficiently dramatic. The scientific ideas in this are of the biological/sociological sort which drove much of the author’s work in the late 1980s through the 90s and are stimulating and weighty enough to be used in that extended way. There is also the interesting (disturbing) line about “the so-called Plague Wars, which might not have been wars at all, but which wiped out a third of the human race in the early part of the century.”

Lawrence Watt-Evans (1954-07-26)

“Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers” (IAsfm, July 1987)

The narrator starts out his tale as a sixteen-year-old needing money with not many options in Sutton, West Virginia, so he talks Harry into giving him a job at Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers. Harry warns him that he gets some pretty strange customers and not to stare or bother them or anything. Eventually, the narrator learns that Harry wasn’t kidding, especially when the three topless women come in and, later, the flying saucer parks in the front lot. As time goes on, he learns what’s going on and tells us about it. He also starts feeling like Sutton isn’t a place he wants to be any more and is about to take a very dangerous and irrevocable step when he has a transformative conversation with one of the strange customers.

This is a very hard story to describe because, in a way, there’s almost nothing to spoil and you can talk about 95% of it but that seems intrinsically spoilerish anyway, so you can hardly talk about any of it. What you can say is that it’s told with a very believable narrative voice which contemplates its central science fictional concept in a very effective Everyman way and ends just so. It’s a very personable story and fun to read.