The SF SiteAmazing Adult Fantasy Review Focuses on Humor
To begin with, these short fictions are funny.
They are also experimental, wayward and surreal, any of which might make them seem far more serious and “worthy” than they actually are.
They are not stories in the conventional sense. Some of them may offer a narrative, but if you try to follow them too closely you will find characters change, chronologies wander all over the place, and an obsessive interest in something mundane and irrelevant will suddenly intrude into the text. They take risks with what we expect of our fiction, which is a good thing, but not all the risks pay off, of course. This means it is all too easy to linger over phrase-making or ponder construction, or otherwise consider the success or failure of the individual pieces in some drily academic way. But that would be to miss the simple joie de vivre, the devil-may-care insouciance of the pieces.
They are meant to be fun. They are meant to be read quickly, almost breathlessly, because that’s the way you latch on to the twists and repetitions that are so much a part of these stories. You don’t linger over the “7 Movie Reviews,” for instance, even though it says a lot about Hollywood’s conception of history that the film about Charles the First contains an exciting sub-plot about who’s killing off the dinosaurs. But in the course of the reviews, notice the name Jessica Webb crop up, because she will appear elsewhere in this collection. Maybe not the same character, but there is an odd frisson seeing the same name recur in unexpected places; and Jessica Webb is just one of several such characters who appear repeatedly throughout the book.
As the fictional movie reviews might suggest, this is a book suffused with popular culture. One of the longest and best pieces in here, for instance, is “Ota Benga Episode Guide: Season 3,” which is pretty much what the title says. We get a brief description, and star rating, of all 20 episodes of a television series about a Congolese pygmy at the Bronx Zoo. It starts off weird and becomes progressively more surreal, episode by episode, as the underlying war with the monkeys manages to involve a trip to St. Louis in 1906, a white Bengal tiger who is able to disguise himself as a visitor to the zoo, ghosts, Hollywood movie producers, mutants, alternate universes and more. As the episodes become more outré, A.D. Jameson also satirises the way more and more people are involved in the creation of American television shows. Here, episode one has a single writer, but by the time we get to episode 20 the credits list three names under Story, four names under Writer and three more names under Teleplay.
Of course, Jameson doesn’t always have to make up TV programmes; in “Our Continuing Mission” he tells of someone who was in the same class as Riker at Starfleet Academy, which allows him to suggest a very different, and at times scabrous, portrait of the character, along with Data, Geordi and Troi, than we might be familiar with from Star Trek: The Next Generation. “How to Draw The Thing” has a comic book artist musing about how he used to draw the Marvel hero, though as he admits: “More than once, somebody wrote in to prove that I didn’t know how to draw The Thing” (44). While “A New Hope” provides a sense of Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker and the rest as lost characters: “C3PO’s grief holds no bottom. He awakens each night from a sleep that tenders no rest” (67).
These are stories that pick up on the familiarity on popular culture, indeed they rely on that sense of familiarity, but then make us question what we think we know about them. They are fictions, of course; there is no truth upon which we can rely, and fictions are always open to change, to reimagining. And yet we take certain continuities for granted, indeed we expect fictional characters to be more unchanging than real people. To undermine that continuity, that certainty, to say, as Jameson does here, that they don’t need to be like that at all, is remarkably unsettling. That our fictions are no longer stable seems more disturbing than anything else. And that such a disturbance in our equilibrium is, at least partly, Jameson’s intent is obvious from the first piece in this collection. “Oscar the Grouch” concerns the relationship between an unnamed narrator and the eponymous poet. As the piece progresses, however, our conception of both central characters becomes unstable. Oscar is, at various points, an academic and living in an alley, a poet with acolytes and one who nobody reads; the narrator seems to change age, to be someone who worshipped at the feet of Oscar and someone who knew him only as a voice on the radio. There are moments when you might think Oscar is a cat: “I reached out my hand as though I would pet the soft exposed fur of his throat” (11), and you wonder how much is in the imagination of the narrator. There is no way that we can tell; but then you wonder whether that would change how we read the story in any way.
Fiction is a blank sheet of paper which we might imagine into any shape. Mostly, however, we place restrictions on what those shapes might be. We sometimes compare the imagination with dreaming, but we usually expect a coherent shape of fiction and dreams are rarely coherent. Jameson’s fictions are closer to dream than most you might read.
If “Oscar the Grouch” draws its dream language from the literary and academic worlds, the majority of the stories here steal images and references from science fiction. From a sly demolition of the action hero in “Indian Jones” to a disjointed account of what goes in inside a video game in “Big Bird and Snuffy,” we get an extraordinary sense of the different and insidious ways that the fantastic has infiltrated all aspects of popular culture. These pieces are not in themselves science fiction, but they are stories that do not make sense without an awareness of science fiction, stories that draw their language, their imagery and their impact from the science fictional things that surround us every day. Thus the sequence of “Solar Stories” that draws this collection to a close plays with the repeated imagery of moon rocks and astronauts, without ever really leaving the earth (though we get the delightful image of a train to the moon, with astronauts riding ahead on motorcycles to lay the track). Instead we get a distillation of all the things we have read in the collection so far: people changing their names and characters, plots unravelling around odd and intrusive obsessions with things like mahouts and gamelans, the world becoming unstable in the telling. It seems only too appropriate that the final words of this collection read: “Our stories, we have to admit, have been the cause of all our problems. Fiction, I’d like to insist, has been to blame” (164).
And the fiction, I repeat, is very funny.
[This review was originally published on The SF Site.]