By John Clute
14 November 2011
Here are two novels told by two beings for whom death is not the end. Though Robert Charles Wilson's Vortex ends in what may be a time loop (which may be no more than the spiral of time pur as viewed by mortals) at the heart of which a nearly immortal but now deadish entity from beyond the end of the universe reincarnates itself in a twenty-first century male mortal human body who will transcribe and house its not-yet-written and/or already-incised-in-flesh memoir, and while Daryl Gregory's Raising Stony Mayhall is on the other hand simply narrated by a zombie who has been killed for good at last but becomes the Spirit of Place of its childhood home, both terminate (which may not be the mot juste) in the bosoms of two reunited families, sort of, during the end of America.
The two novels are not otherwise very similar: but they do both end up somewhere closer to the bone than the stories they seem to have gone out into the world to tell—Stony seeming to be the Bildungsroman of a zombie with soul; Vortex seeming to be the cosmogonic climax to Wilson's superb Spin sequence, universes spinning like a dime in the grips of what one is induced to call a vortex—even though both novels honour these briefs. What they also confirm is the sea-change that has begun to transfigure the SF of this century.
It has become a familiar argument (which does not make it untrue) that twentieth century SF could be described as announcing that the reward for Saying Yes is the future; and that twenty-first century SF at its most prescient might be described as making it clear that the reward for Saying Yes is death. They are of course the same thing in the end, in the sense that anything humans make can be defined as an Attempted Rescue, but contemporary SF evinces an increasing tendency to cut the cackle. Despite market-driven apophatic-lock-in denials that the book is going to talk about what the book is going to talk about, most genuinely modern SF novels—like most modern fiction stripped naked enough of flannel to be called fantastika without shaming the term—do eventually talk the talk, if only sotto voce, do eventually leak memes of recognition of the way we live now.
But if it is a stricture to suggest that apophasis-ridden SF texts are time-wasters (I do mean to suggest that), then Wilson and Gregory are exempt: Vortex and Raising Stony Mayhall can both be read as examinations of denial. They open the gates of story for us and we run the gauntlet of portal and find that portal is the door to cenotaph: that the world of traditional SF is a Somme of monuments to that which was never there in the first place: that Vortex and Raising Stony Mayhall expose the worlds of SF to the wounded gaze of readers no longer avaricious for comforts that never did really work.
It is almost certainly something to be remarked upon that in two of the best SF novels of 2011 the Hero of the Thousand Faces returns from his traditional journey to break the news that there is nothing out there worth leaving the gated community to search for, and anyway it turns out that the Hero is already dead and his destiny will be to serve as fertilizer for such garden as remains. For anyone writing today Voltaire's original tale is of course an inescapable model about falling into the hell of history and recognizing it and escaping to cultivate the remains of the Garden; the most moving contemporary adaptation of the 1759 original is probably Leonard Bernstein's astonishing tragicomic opera Candide (there were several versions between 1957 to 1989, the last being the best). Candide is the story of our lives if we get lucky.
It has to be said that Gregory's fast smooth pliantly told tale comes to the table with a few strikes against it. Raising Stony Mayhall is a zombie novel, and must therefore weave its way delicately (which it does) through a strip-mined badlands of topoi that never bore much fruit; it is, as well, in part, a Young Adult novel, though much of it escapes that marketing prison, but quite astonishingly transfigures several rather long passages about adolescents into something rich and strange and kind of coral; it is, furthermore, set partly in Los Angeles, and it's a mug's game to try to capture Los Angeles unless you are a very much more visibly savage writer than Gregory (though he's a dab hand at affect horror, limbs falling, off, heads tipping you the wink, whole bodies suffering Colony Collapse Disorder). But almost all of the rest is praise.
We begin with a prologue whose first sentence—"It is traditional to end with the Last Girl, the sole survivor, a young woman in a blood-spattered tank top."—makes it clear that not only will the implied narrator turn out to be one of the figures depicted in the book, not only that he (it is a he in the end) will know an awful lot about the megatext he's drawing his tale from, not only that we are about to read a story about telling a story; but that it all happened a long time ago, back in America before the rain. Or not quite. We are in an alternate world version of that America when cigarettes smelled good, the jonbar point being signalized by the fact that George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) has been made as a documentary about the events of 1968. We are near Easterly, Iowa, late in the year, some time after a first onslaught of zombies or undead or seriously sick has been contained. (There is an underlying though entirely undeveloped SF premise that zombiism is a disease that has suddenly run rampant.) Wanda Mayhall discovers the body of a dead woman and her seemingly lifeless baby. She takes the infant back to her semi-rural home, and to her three daughters, and the four adopt him, all knowing, without exactly saying so, that young Stony is undead; and that he will almost certainly be shot if discovered, for the bite of a rogue zombie inevitably infects the bitten.
The first hundred pages of the book, which are sustainedly engrossing, contains some of the most quietly virtuoso negotiations of the SF megatext I've run across for a long time. It is not that the book refers recursively to analogous situations out of the megatext, for all contemporary SF must have tramlines to follow and transgress, as that it seems to do so from birth, seems to swim in recursion like a dolphin in native water. Two classic patterns predominate: the overall story of the childhood and adolescence of a pariah with gifts, like Olaf Stapledon's Odd John (1935); and the more specifically American Superhero Origin Story (the secret cellar that Stony has carved out for himself is referred to at least once as the Fortress of Solitude). But the depiction of Stony himself survives recursion nudzhes; Stony is a strange creature, heartless but not coldhearted, unhurtable though blows erode his body, wily but naive, aspirational for some larger world.
Nothing afterwards quite holds up perhaps as well as this, especially the second section set in a zombie safe house or two in Los Angeles after he's been driven out of the American homeland. The surviving zombies, we learn at enough length to fuel a miniseries, have divided into factions, the most dangerous of these being the Biters, who hope to end their persecution (Gregory is actually very good at tamping down any tendency to use his zombies to stand in for the oppressed underclasses of modern America) by infecting the population at large, at one go. There is quite a bit of action, we meet a zombie guru (who is actually pretty convincing) and a secret Deep Pockets, a Colonel Sanders stand-in named Commander Calhoun whom Gregory seems to be rather proud of and shouldn't really. There is a convention of zombies held in a big box in secret which ends in tears.
The third section, far more coherent, is set in the detention centre (we run across similar abominations in Vortex, too) where captured undead are retained until they rot, and where Stony continues to learn more about the world, and—half Candide, half reluctant Messiah—to become more dangerously iconic within it. The final section—typical of so many novels in a culture that goes postal over spoilers, so that nobody ever gets around to criticizing how they fail to work out—tends to skid and slither, until Stony finds himself back in Easterly. We will not "spoil" the book by saying how it ends, partly because we already did so in the first paragraph, but it is confirmed that Stony 1) turns out to be the narrator of the entire novel, having in his gift a wide range of voices including, rather attractively, that of Stephen King at his best now-I've-got-you-in-the-claw-of-my-hand voice; 2) that he is telling his story from, as it were, beyond the grave, which makes more storyable his occasional fits of supernatural savvy; 3) that his return to the homestead allows him to save the core of his prelapsarian family from the inevitable Biter plague; and 4) that he is finally killed in the body but not in the spirit, which remains immanent in the enclave where his home is hidden, protecting his loved ones from the increasingly rancid world out here.
So Raising Stony Mayhall—which is SF in part because it accepts no supernatural explanation for the zombie, though it gives none other—is pure SF for the moment. Commander Calhoun's wild scheme to build a spaceship to carry zombies to a new life on other planets turns out to be a scam, violating the outcome we almost expected to see repeated out of the megatext, though exactly like what happened to the space race after President Nixon bit it in the neck. Stony's own story, ostensibly aspirational at all the right points, turns out in fact to be recessional, lit from deep within the inside-outside of genre, a reversal of all the Memes of Next. For all the Christmassy family stuff at the end (Gregory is American), it is a grave story for grave days.
Vortex is told by an exceptionally more complicated ghost than Stony saying Aw heck even though eloquently in tongues; and is a nearly word perfect tale that tells a story while making it clear that the voice that tells the story made it all up. A dispassionate polish has always marked Wilson's work, a tone that befits the exilic locked-in-a-bell-jar tonus of so many of his novels; and although Spin as a whole is told with more surface animation than he used to allow himself, the underlying resignation of the implied author operates here as well to confirm readers in the suspicion that the almost literal bell jar that confines Earth in an impenetrable time-stasis not only marks the tale as SF being born, but also registers a recognition that the world is the case we inherit, that we do not dictate the case of the world. Only a few years ago, for many of us, the world seemed transactional. It is only yesterday that we began to feel like goldfish suddenly able to see that the world stopped here: that homo sapiens had hit the glass ceiling.
The story itself soon bifurcates. In America some time after the bell-jar froze the hive in Spin (the first volume of the trilogy), Dr Sandra Cole interviews a disturbed potential inductee into the Texas State-Care detention centre where the unwanted are housed. Orrin Mather is mild, thin, slightly hollowed-up; and has been taking spirit dictation from Turk Findley, an emigrant across the Arch to a second bell-jarred planet known as Equatoria (see Axis, volume two of the trilogy), where he has been abducted into yet another time-stasis by the Hypotheticals—the alien manufacturers of all these space-opera macrostructures that Wilson describes with occasionally numbing aplomb—only to awaken ten thousand years later into the now-devastated planet which he traverses on a moving island inhabited by . . . but at this point the plot has thickened past easy synopsis, though Wilson superbly keeps all his balls in the air. Enough perhaps that there is no tangible connection between Findley's first-person narrative, though it seems he may somehow be inscribing it, and Orrin Mather back here, whose stenography remains unexplained. Sandra Cole finds him haunting, though occasionally he seems to stare through the world as though he was somehow heavier than the cage of the real.
This and much more is of course the case. The narrator, which is to say the creator of the story, which is to say the maker of universes, has not yet been mentioned. He/It turns out to be a transfigured Isaac Dvali (from volume two), who speaks to the Hypotheticals, in so far as a non-sentient galaxy-spanning crypto-organism designed to do nothing more than shape information for retrieval can be spoken to with any hope of an answer; who outlives the immediate scene, the immediate galaxy, the universe itself; and who dies and returns to the beginning of things; and who creates a new universe and an Orrin reborn (it may be) to receive the story that tells him.
All of this is hugely easier to read than to read about. Wilson tells the stories we used to tell with utter competence, though he takes them elsewhere. The heart of the action lies in the dying fall of return to a world—it is perhaps ours—free of all the fiddle of the stories we used to tell. A new Orrin cultivates his garden in the hand of an America in the hand of a maker who has saved America from the stories we used to tell. The world may be cached in the universe-memory and the world may do nothing but repeat its litany, like the seasons, but that, Wilson seems to suggest, is a better deal than Recognition.
In the greenhouse at this nursery where I work [says Orrin Mather at the last], there are paths between the plants and the seedling tables. That's so you can get from one place to another. Also so you can work on the plants without stepping on them. Those paths all connect with one another. You can go this way or you can go that. It all has the same beginning and the same ending. Though you can only ever stand in one place at once.