An author I’ve looked at before.
This retro review is from December 29, 2012, and the book came from the author via LibraryThing.
Review: Long Eyes and Other Stories, ed. Jeff Carlson, 2012.
If you had a chatty friend who was a good cook and he force fed you a meal, the experience might be like reading this collection. The stories are all competently done even if they’re not all to your taste and you might prefer being served the dishes in a different order, but you still would have a good time.
In fact, I haven’t had this much fun with a book of short stories in a long time, and I’ve read a lot of them lately. The variety Carlson serves up and his chatty story notes remind me of Isaac Asimov and Roger Zelazny story collections. It’s not that the stories are like those two authors in style or theme, but the sheer fun of reading the collection is similar, and all three authors wandered from genre to genre as Carlson goes from mainstream stories to horror to science fiction and even one fantasy.
Maybe Carlson’s “Caninus” brought the Zelazny comparison to mind. It’s a story of vampirism and dogs and reminded me of Zelazny’s “Dayblood” about vampires who feed on vampires. “Pressure”, with its hero who finds himself modified to live unaided below the sea in order to build a turbine generator system, put me in mind of sections of Zelazny’s My Name Is Legion and all those late `60s and `70s underwater science fiction tales (not to mention the alienation of a similar human science project in Frederik Pohl’s Man Plus).
In fact, several of these stories reminded me favorably of other science fiction works – not ripoffs or copies, but playful and meaningful variations of classic setups and themes. “Long Eyes” has a survey ship crewed by a woman cyborg who enjoys the isolation of deep space. She comes across the ruins of a crashed colony ship and the much altered descendants of its survivors. They have taken extreme steps to survive on a resource poor world. It is a well worked out hard science fiction story. “Planet of the Sealies” comes at some of the same themes through a story of clones, with a sort of technologically mediated telepathy, conducting archaeology. But what they hope to find in the garbage dumps of our time turns out to be a surprise and a clever play on the title.
Carlson has his romantic side too as evidenced by the title “Romance“, a Quentin Tarantinoesque mainstream short short about a mob boss’ daughter running away with a mob bagman. “Gunfight at the Sugarloaf Pet Food & Taxidermy” adds robotic deer and a fish out of water plot with black Miami transplant Julie Beauchain encountering drug smugglers in Montana and wishing Indian Highsong would start thinking of her as more than just a co-worker in the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. It was a pleasant enough story, but I much preferred the couple’s second adventure, “A Lovely Little Christmas Fire“, when they must prevent Missoula, Montana from being literally devoured by a menace that has escaped from the lab. Future sports, specifically Lunar Smashball, get mixed up with romance in “Enter Sandman“.
Of course, not all romances end happily. When the sculptor hero of “Pattern Masters“, who has taken to stealing unsecured photos from developing shops in order to use them in a collage skin on a work in progress, encounters a woman who appreciates his work, offers helpful advice – and even gets his credit card bills cancelled, things are too good to be true. Another story, “Meme“, is also inspired by the photographic records of strangers that can be found at the photo shop. Its musician hero encounters pictures of a strange script that may just be a tune – a really, really infectious tune. Carlson takes the idea of an infectious meme new places.
It’s no surprise, since Carlson is best known for his apocalyptic Plague Year trilogy, that disasters of one sort or another show up here. Sometimes the disaster is very personal as in “Monsters“. Carlson, in what he calls the most disturbing thing he has ever done, takes the old urban legend of HIV-tainted needles waiting to infect unsuspecting users of public restrooms, gas pumps, and movie theaters as a starting point. His protagonist encounters just such a booby trap, and this story is his psychological and moral journey after that. I was reminded me of the talk radio host Dennis Praeger’s argument that unhappy people cause most of the world’s evils. Only slightly removed from the mainstream “Monsters” is “Nurture” which has a young coroner in Oakland, California investigating strange deformities in the temporal lobes of those she examines. She finds that adapting to the stress of urban environments can carry its own unexpected risks. (It is the one previously unpublished story here, and Carlson argues that it was never accepted by an editor due to its unusual ending, an ending I found credible and satisfying.) “Interrupt” is a very fine apocalypse story in which solar storms are not only powerful enough to fry Earth’s electronic infrastructure but the human brain and prevent it from forming short term memories. Its protagonist, an American physicist stranded in Latin America, finds himself trying to defend his research station against native mobs, find food and fuel, and somehow work out a way to protect his brain. His journal documenting mental deterioration reminded me of the classic “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes and Arthur Herzog’s IQ 83. I am quite pleased that a novel expansion of the story seems to be in the works.
Off by themselves are two other stories. The jokey “Snack Food” is set in a future where hordes of people walk around recording everything and hope to sell it to reality tv. One such member of the Watch threatens to reveal the narrator’s habit of eating the hair of his customer’s at a salon. Carlson has said he does not read much fantasy and doesn’t, as a rule, write it which may explain why “Damned When You Do” didn’t do much for me. The voice of its narrator, father of the future, much beloved messiah Albert, is well-done, and the notion of Albert’s footsteps literally turning the Earth under his feet was interesting, but I found the ending unsatisfying, and the tall tale tone an uneasy fit with Albert’s role as messiah and scapegoat.
Rounding out the collection are a couple of essays on writing and readers’ reactions to Carlson, a poem, and some nice artwork illustrating or promoting specific stories.
I have read collections lately that may have had more skillful stories, a higher level of art if you will, and more complex presentations, but I haven’t read any that were as much fun in working out speculative ideas or varying horror and science fiction with such personable material.