Leviathan Wept by Daniel Abraham
I first “met” Daniel Abraham in Hunter’s Run (a collaboration with George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois), and then heard nothing of him until “The Pretender’s Tourney” turned up in Eclipse Three. That was a sufficient recommendation, so here I am holding a copy of Leviathan Wept (Subterranean Press, 2010).
“The Cambist and Lord Iron” (2007), a finalist for both the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards, starts us off on a very positive note. This is everything that can be good about a short story. It takes just enough time to consider elegant ideas and then moves on before we have a chance to grow bored. Too often, those who write more philosophically-inclined stories tend to grow excited by their own cleverness and forget the need to invest in believable characters, create credible situations, and move the narrative along. The author is, after all, supposed to be in the business of delivering entertainment rather than producing some dry academic article. But here we have three increasingly profound questions asked and answered with wit and intelligence — a rare combination of edification and delight.
I confess to initial confusion at “Flat Diane” (2004) — a finalist for the Nebula Award. It’s such a radical shift in style and tone from the first story that I was slow to pick up on exactly what was happening. But, once the penny dropped, it reveals itself as a wonderfully dark story in which something genuinely innocent and well-intentioned becomes the source of distress.
In “The Best Monkey” (2009), a new dystopia may dawn in which technology adjusts the human brain so that we evaluate each other with a different sense of perspective. In the same vein, “Exclusion” (2001) also has technology enabling a practical ending of social relationships. This is an author using metaphors to discuss matters of more universal interest. As a group, we can send someone to Coventry, i.e. deliberately ignore their physical presence. As individuals, we can block those we dislike from access to our profiles and conversations on social sites. The question Abraham poses is whether these casual terminations of electronic relationships devalue real human relationships. If in an idle moment of pique we can exclude people from our social circle, should there be a price to pay? Our “hero” in this story experiences a kind of redemption through being forced to acknowledge that, hard though it may be, it’s usually better to talk to people.
“The Support Technician Tango” (2007) is an exercise in magic realism cloaked in wry amusement. The McGuffin is a book that, with malicious glee, offers snippets of advice to readers who pick it up and read pages at random. Somewhat in the same spirit as “Blued Moon” by Connie Willis, the usual laws of social cause and effect are subtly disturbed so that, as electrons and protons may be pushed into different orbits at an atomic level, so people are manipulated and become slightly different beings. It’s rare to find contemporary humour that crosses cultural boundaries and retains its freshness.
“A Hunter in Arin-Qin” (2010) is a nicely realised fantasy in which a hunter must decide her role in society and, perhaps more importantly, understand her duty as a mother. “Leviathan Wept” (2004) has us flirting with a slightly different kind of “Screwfly Solution” — a classic short story by Raccoona Sheldon, née Alice Sheldon. It’s a depressing metaview explaining one possible genesis of the current hostilities between Christianity and Islam, and showing how it may develop. “As Sweet” (2001) also takes us into dangerous authorial territory with a story about a teacher seen through the prism of her subject specialism — in this case, Shakespeare. Fortunately, Abraham avoids the trap of simply indulging his own interest in English Literature, and creates something close to a universal story about love (both in and out of marriage).
“The Curandero and the Swede” (2009) is a delightful, rambling conversation piece, albeit primarily a monologue, in which we range over the history of Route 666 in Arizona and how the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination affected one of the many men hearing it. It reminded me of two virtues. As a boy growing up before televisions routinely graced our homes, my family and friends relied on each other for entertainment. Conversation was not so much an art as a necessity to avoid boredom (although the radio and our family’s collection of 78s was a good substitute). Secondly, we become individuals through the stories we tell about ourselves and those important to us. These often repeated epics define us in the eyes of others, and more importantly, pass on oral histories through the generations. I vividly remember the stories my grandmother used to tell of life in late Victorian and early Edwardian England. Abraham makes me regret I will never pass them on to anyone else.
I began this review with the words, “I first met. . .” because, in reading these stories, I feel as if I have just enjoyed a long conversation with Daniel Abraham. Words on a page are spoken words written down. You can get a sense of the person behind the words, hear them as if spoken. This has been a special few hours and, for anyone out there who enjoys thinking while reading, this book is for you: an eclectic, challenging and, perhaps most of all, fun collection of stories.
For reviews of other books by Daniel Abraham, see:
An Autumn War
A Betrayal in Winter
Caliban’s War written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
The Dragon’s Path
The King’s Blood
Leviathan Wakes written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
The Price of Spring
A Shadow in Summer.