Last Summer at Mars Hill and Other Short Stories, by Elizabeth Hand

Last Summer at Mars Hill and Other Stories, by Elizabeth Hand
Publisher: Open Road Media
324 pages, Kindle Edition
Published May 2013 (original publ. 1998)
Source: NetGalley

I know Hand’s name and writing primarily from her book review column in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Prior to this collection I had only read one short story of hers, and I can’t say I remember anything of it. I guess her first short story collection is a good place to start, and I hope now that I’ll see more of her fiction in the magazines I subscribe to. It would be curious to see how similar or different her writing is now to this.

The story from which this book takes its title is the first and my personal favorite of the bunch. It is also one of the brighter and more uplifting pieces here, though that is by no means why I enjoyed it most. But that opening story seems to best capture the best of Hand’s ability, to tell a captivating story that explores archetypical human themes and emotions in rich, poetic language. She does this without fearing or hesitating to enter into heavy, traumatic, and emotionally crippling directions. In this first story, and in some of the others that follow, Hand manages to do this all with supreme subtlety, and for that I find the first story the most successful and resonant with readers.

At other times, however, her stories deal with traumatic and heavy themes with unforgiving brutality. This honesty has made some of the stories unpalatable to editors, and even it seems unpopular with some readers. Even those that get darkest, though, it is hard to ignore their absolute beauty and the elegance of her prose. Dark or light, horror or fantasy, or even science fiction – her stories are all magical. Suffused with close ties to history and mythology they have that classical feel of the fairy tale, but made modern, feminist, and given a personal twist born from Hand’s own unfortunate experiences of psychological and physical trauma.

Even though I loved the writing throughout, some of the stories just failed to capture my interest on the emotional or plot level. And (as is the case with one story that she explains being written while working in a particularly bad office job) Hand sometimes writes in obvious emotional reaction to some experience in her own life, so transparently that it becomes too little about the characters, and more like a personal venting of the author’s that feel the need to hear, thereby taking you of the story.

Each story is followed by an all-too-brief note from Hand related to the story, and the close of the book includes personal photos and captions and biographical/bibliographical information. On the whole it worked as an effective introduction to Hand for me, and I’m intrigued to see what her later work – short or novel-length showed for her growth.

Four  Stars out of Five

Lexicon, by Max Barry

Lexicon, by Max Barry
Publisher: Penguin Books
400 pages, Kindle Edition
Published June 2013
Source: NetGalley

Words matter. I first learned about this novel through words, the written words within columns by the Kirkus Reviews and the New York Times about exciting 2013 summer reads. Words can be used to convince. The details in these reviews persuaded me that “Lexicon” has a good chance of being a story I would greatly enjoy, and that it would be conveyed in a manner that would be unique and compelling.

Lexicon is a novel generally about words, language, the process of drawing meaning from symbols. It is also about how words can be used, manipulated, and selectively disseminated to persuade, to control. Words can be weapons; in the case of the plot here, quite literally, in a world where modern-day ‘sorcerers’ that are naturally captivating and persuasive are trained in the lexicon and practice of wielding words. They call themselves “poets’ and adopt names of famous literary figures, and their abilities impart them great power. Like all powers, the power over language can corrupt.

The story begins by jumping directly into taut action. Fantasy in a strict sense, sci-fi in its use of biological and psychological explanations for apparent ‘magic’, the novel mostly feels like a thriller. The reader is dropped into the action immediately and it hardly lets up until the conclusion. Through this Barry does extraordinarily well in keeping detailed explanations from the reader, allowing one to adapt to the ‘universe’ of the story and its internal ‘rules’ , letting one gradually figure out what is going on, which characters are ‘good’, which are ‘bad’, and that such a dichotomy may not even really exist. Yet the reader never feels lost or misled.

With an internally consistent, exciting plot and complex, relatable characters the novel would qualify already as a great easy ‘summer’ read. However, it is also filled with interesting psychological ideas about how we as human beings gather, receive, process, and project information – in terms of the individual, social network platforms, the government, and the media. Through it all it becomes clear that Barry has an intense love and respect for language: its beauty, its power, its potential for abuse, and the myriad dangers associated with either limiting how information is conveyed/received or easing restrictions on access to private information.

In this final aspect it reminds me of themes found in other fantasy literature, such as Le Guin’s Earthsea series, where the knowledge of someone’s private name gives a wizard complete control over that being. This is of course an old concept in the myths of sorcerers and magic. Yet recent news of extensive data gathering on people by governments and corporations in the name of ‘safety’ or ‘efficiency’ remind us that this concept symbolized in mythology is quite the reality.

Five  Stars out of Five

The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories

The Best of Connie Willis: Award Winning Stories
Publisher: Del Rey
496 pages, Kindle Edition
Published July 2013
Source: NetGalley

Reading this reminded me how useful it is to read a collection of an author’s short stories every so often. I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy short stories in print and online magazines. I begin to recognize author’s names as familiar and for a rare few I see and recall the names sufficiently to know if I tend to like their work enough to search out their novels or collections. But the vast majority of names get lost in the sea of memory. Two of the stories in this collection (“Inside Job” and “All Seated on the Ground”) seemed familiar, the latter which I fully recalled reading and loving. Looking back in my records I found they are the only two Connie Willis works I’ve ever read. Now after reading the other stories in this collection I know I need to keep finding and reading more.

Willis introduces this collection stating that the only unifying theme of the stories is that she wrote them. The genres of sci-fi, the plots, the locations, the voices, the tones: they all vary. The idea struck me while rereading the two stories I was familiar with, and considering those new to me, that there is another link between the stories found here. Each at its heart is concerned with characters facing absurd and inexplicable situations that they then struggle to make sense of. The stories are of people trying to find order in a seemingly chaotic, uncertain, and inexplicable world. This fact, more than any genre conventions make her stories science fiction, for they are all about discovery, of observing something mysterious and working out the truth behind the matter.

The most absurd of her stories include one where attendees of a quantum physics convention in Hollywood try and deal with the counter-intuitive nature of their field and the city’s culture. In another, tourists wander through Egypt uncertain if they are alive or dead. With “Inside Job” a professional debunker is faced with the prospect that the spirit of US history’s greatest skeptic is communicating through a charlatan medium. In another, aliens arrive on Earth only to just stand in silence, absurdly looking dour and displeased, doing nothing to communicate as the humans scramble around attempting to understand what the visitors want.

All the stories thus seem extremely ‘literary’ despite being couched in science fiction settings and straightforward, light language. She writes with a bright humor, poking fun at her characters as they fumble down the road to understanding. Her writing is suffused throughout with a joy for stories: those of literature, theater, and film. At the same time she conveys a deep respect for scientific, rational thought in all walks of life, but a sense of wonder and belief in the capacity of the human soul for love and finding things greater.

Five  Stars out of Five