X6 edited by Keith Stevenson
Reviewed by Richard Larson
13 August 2010
The novellas collected in X6 have little in common except that they are billed as "journeys beyond the borders of the real," and indeed, none of the stories take place in the real world; all are clever abstractions, magically unreal versions or extrapolations of the familiar, the mundane. And all possess attributes which make them worthy of the time necessary to appreciate them. But the novella is an interesting form, or at least an interesting length. A question occurred to me frequently while reading these stories: are novellas always either too long or too short? Is there a story, or character, or setting, for which the novella length is just right?
The strongest story in the collection, Margo Lanagan's "Sea-Hearts," is already being extended to a novel-length work, so there is indeed cause to wonder. "Sea-Hearts" is a selkie story that investigates the workings of a mysterious island whose men have stolen women from the sea, hiding their seal skins and forcing them to live on land to conceive, and subsequently raise, the men's children. But the boys, after discovering and even trying on their mother's hidden seal skins, begin to understand the true burden that the women carry on land: "I cannot describe to you the feeling of putting it on. It was as if you found yourself suddenly swimming right down the bottom of the sea, a weight of black water above you" (p.18). Later, the boys devise a plan to return their mothers to the sea, and even intend to join them.
Told in a lovely invented vernacular, Lanagan fully explores her invented world which is riddled with complex hierarchies and prejudices, and "Sea-Hearts" becomes a meditation about men and women, mothers and fathers and sons, all operating in a tangled web of regret and shame and guilt and hope: the examination of nostalgia for a past that was never as it seemed. Gender relations are never easily explainable; say the men of the island, "We were always their imprisoners as well as the men they loved, and the fathers of their children" (p. 75). There is an attempt on the young boys’ part to turn their back on the world that they have been born into, delving deeper into their actual origins: "Was that possible, then? For us to go under and be seals with our happy mams?" (p. 51) But again, the boundaries between worlds are not easily crossed, and when Daniel returns to his father, he feels that he "knew him, that I was surprised, that I was sorry, that I had found my way somehow into this strange, long, wrong-grown body—but all I could manage for the moment was seal-cries, that said nothing, that had to say everything for me" (p. 64).
The pleasure of a Margo Lanagan story is one of letting details flood the senses until everything accumulates and coheres into a beautiful whole. I can only imagine that the future novel, of which this novella is only a part, will be just as strong as Lanagan's most recent novel, the World Fantasy Award-winning Tender Morsels.
Another type of submission to style and voice is necessary to fully partake in the world Trent Jamieson creates in "Iron Temple," which explores a space-faring alternate world torn by a war in which "most battles played out in silence, data stinging your veins, masses of estimates, reeling out into infinity, with tactics hypothetical shifting into praxis so swiftly that you only ever knew they had succeeded when you were light years away from it, and still thinking" (p. 113). A smattering of aesthetics and an underlying critique of colonialism add an intellectual flair to a space adventure with a through-line of romance. However, while occasionally beautiful, Jamieson's writing is often perplexing. Strange shifts in perspective and vague allusions to the inner workings of other worlds end up being more confusing than enlightening, hinting perhaps at novel-length work but definitely extending the density of Jamieson's world-building efforts beyond the edges of this particular novella.
"Wives," by Paul Haines, is a tour de force: a dystopian science fictional horror story which will alternately shock you, disturb you, and break your heart. Adeptly navigating issues of race, class, and gender, "Wives" follows the story of Jimbo, just a regular guy living in a rural factory town in a world where women are scarce and are thus bought and sold as wives, forced to submit to the wills of their husbands. Jimbo's abusive father is dying, he is in love with his cousin who has recently moved to the City to pursue a career, and he has no wife; the latter two issues are ones that he hopes to rectify throughout the course of the story. But his world is riddled with roadblocks. "We're not animals" (p. 186), one character states after setting up the gang-rape of a woman found in the back of a truck, implying that forcing the men to take turns with the kidnapped woman, rather than raping her all together at the same time, reinforces their humanity. There are obvious resonances of Lanagan's "Sea-Hearts" in "Wives," from the idea of women as commodities, property that can be decisively owned, to the importance of language and dialect which are used formally as mechanisms to clearly delineate the otherness of Haines's world. "Wives" is incredibly gritty and messy, whereas "Sea-Hearts" is more lyrically beautiful, but I don't mean the former description as a negative; Haines's ultimate success lies in his story's ability to repulse. This is a world in which sex is traded between young men, not because of homosexuality but because there are simply no other options, and women are forced to use their sexual charm as weapons—but once they become wives, they can be crippled, legally, as punishment for a variety of misbehaviors.
As Jimbo nears the acquisition of his own wife, he begins to wonder about his mother's past; "he wondered if the Old Man had beaten Mum when they'd first got married, and how long it took before Mum had decided she was happy enough to want to stay. Or stopped trying to leave" (p. 201). But these thoughts are a "dark place where such realisations were never dwelled upon" (p. 260), representing a general denial on the part of each individual about his complicity within the vicious system of gender imbalance and, frankly, torture. Marriage, of course, isn't what Jimbo had hoped it would be, and revelations about the realities of marriage—along with the true power and control of the Cartel, the organization that sets up the purchasing of wives—form the bulk of the novella's final sections. When everything seems to have gone terribly wrong, Jimbo still refuses to cry in front of his friends, regarding such an emotional display as grossly unmanly. So when he is told later to "act like a man" (p. 297), we begin to wonder what exactly that might mean. Jimbo, for sure, doesn't know, but by the story's end we have certainly discovered, poignantly and tragically, what he thinks it means.
"Heart of Stone," by Cat Sparks, features journalist Jade Stone on an investigation of strange occurrences most likely related to the presence of aliens. The questions raised here are grand and existential: "What if we are alone? How's that for a terrifying thought. One tiny planet brimming with life, a good whack of it hurtling down the road to extinction. What price do you put on life when there's nothing and no-one else out there?" (p. 314) The story has a dark, noirish feel as Jade questions a variety of people related to a series of strange deaths. She soon discovers that there has been a massive cover-up on the part of mysterious authorities, and her investigation becomes extremely personal when she is targeted by the aliens, who have proven not to have humanity's best interests at heart. She begins to wonder, "Is any of this for real?" (p. 340) And this question widens beyond the scope of just the results of Jade's investigation. What starts off fairly formulaic and extremely reminiscient of The X-Files becomes something altogether different by the end: an investigation into what we know of ourselves, where we come from, and where we're going. "Her utter terror as she glimpsed what sat beyond the layers. Nothing. Not darkness, not even an impenetrable void. When the mask was gone, nothing would remain. Not even memory, so it seemed" (p. 361).
Cat Sparks is already a well-established talent, and here she captivatingly co-opts genre clichés and turns them inward, transforming a standard genre plot into a journey of self-discovery. And if "Heart of Stone" is about discovering the self, Louise Katz's "The Absent Men," the next story in X6, is about discovering the world as a whole. "The Absent Men" begins with a series of disjointed events which seem, at first, to be unrelated. A woman named Pippa has stumbled into an alternate reality hidden inside her own apartment. "No other room could possibly fit between my loo and the flat beyond it. There was just no room in either sense of the word. But I had been there," she says to herself, feeling "crushed between these two adamant truths that are entirely incompatible" (p. 385). The otherness of the alternate world is represented formally with playful language and unexplained events. Everything accumulates and thus acquires meaning in the context of the novella's form: "Can there be such a thing as a kind of syntax that echoes the actual shapes of things, real things in the world? Like sentences composed in the same patterns as the fundamental architecture of nature?" (p. 389)
A delightful narrative filled with colorful characters and important revelations, the story sometimes suffers for its lack of foundation. Alternate realities can be confusing without something to hold onto. But at its best, "The Absent Men" reveals shades of Michal Ajvaz's brilliant The Other City, a recently-translated novel about a secret version of Prague existing beneath or alongside the more commonly known version of the city. The prose—in Ajvaz's novel as well as in Katz's story—confounds and conceals until suddenly everything snaps into focus. Pippa, in "The Absent Men," delves further into this other world and begins to leave her mark on it. And when a group of characters meets to discuss "all that they knew about this mystery and all that they could not know; the meaning and possibly the meaninglessness of what had happened to each of them" (p. 457), the details accumulate to provide a lovely, beautiful possibility of "uncountable universes" (p. 458):
"And what happens when two of these universes bump up against each other is a big bang, which is how ours is supposed to have come into existence. But what if we avoid the bump—but only just? Say, by the tiniest fraction, and at a point where the skins of our respective universes are very, very thin—that is, if we just sort of brush up against another universe? Hover cheek to cheek, like air-kissing actors at a cosmic cocktail party?" (p. 458)
The final novella in X6, Terry Dowling's "The Library," is a story about a man with a complicated mission. Tom, the story's reluctant hero, is faced with a vast and complex puzzle, one which a large cast of characters is employed in either complicating or, alternately, helping to solve. The exploration of the intricacies of Dowling's science fictional world is handled without too much distraction from the story's central conceit, which is the idea that books, and thus stories, are incomparably important to the world. Books are collected, concealed, and sold on a black market; libraries have been both plundered and worshiped. "Since I've run out of National libraries, I might look where libraries might have been at one time or other" (p. 521), Tom declares, bringing the importance of history into the mix as well. The extensive and impressive world-building is successfully buoyed by the intricacies of the story's relationship with the more theoretical constructs of history's validity and relevance to culture, its possibilities of revision, and our obligation to protect our own stories.
When Tom enters a library early in the story, he notes that it was "an amazing sight, an Aladdin's cave shimmering behind a series of plastic dust curtains" (p. 532), restoring an almost old-fashioned sensibility that readers and writers have long considered obvious but that the general public, in our overtly televisual age, may have forgotten: that books are, indeed, awesome.
In Dowling's world, there exists a black market of knowledge itself. People called the Antique Men—"these ultimate bookmen" (p. 542)—take on the task of
storing knowledge in an older, different fashion, in tech-assisted eidetic memory, all the lore people chose to forget or suppress, keyed by mantras and mnemonic tags, accessed by association, by ingested or injected catalysts and RNA assists. Like monks in ancient monasteries, they accumulated information of all kinds, then as generalists, specialists and synthesists, pluralists and explainers, they interpreted what they had gleaned, made conclusions, hoarded, sold, perpetuated. (p. 543)
A technology of knowledge, memory, and archive: what a novel(la) concept. And the characters of "The Library" must discover a way to navigate the rules of history and narrative in order to defeat an enemy who "seems to tell us at every opportunity that he exists, no doubt out of delight at being immortal, at simply existing and knowing he is unassailable in his maze of history and fact" (p. 584). And by the time all of the various puzzle pieces are presented on the same plane, the story elements of "The Library" cohere vividly and poignantly. An entire world, more extensively than in any other story in the anthology, is revealed.
The importance of any anthology of fiction, just as Dowling represents in "The Library," is the preservation of story itself. "Stories!" exclaims Tom; "I wish I could remember living so long to have all these stories" (p. 559). I find it particularly fitting that in an anthology of such range and diversity, the final piece is one that reinforces the importance of story and narrative to the survival of our culture at large, or at least culture as we know it. And X6 takes on the additional task of championing the form of the novella, one which the publishing world has frequently encountered difficulty in placing within the crowded marketplace. Too long for a literary journal, too short for a standalone book, the novella tends to flounder in the spaces in-between: not unloved, surely, but often unread. But while a novellanthology, as X6 bills itself, proves to be quite large and also possesses, more so than short story collections, the potential to be remarkably uneven and bogged down by work that doesn't reach the standards of its company, I hope that X6 opens up the potential for more books of a similar kind. I would go so far as to say that it makes a case for the notion that there are stories for which the novella length is exactly appropriate, and Keith Stevenson, in soliciting work from many of Australia's finest speculative fiction writers, has brought several of them into the world with the publication of X6.