Vacancy and Ariel by Lucius Shepard
It is interesting to see the convention of the Ace Double resurrected by Subterranean Press, i.e. two works of more or less equal length published back-to-back. In my collection, I have a significant run of the early Doubles. They are interesting books. Ace decided in advance on the size of font and the number of pages. It then bought material to fit. The majority of the authors were aware of the limitations and contrived to produce reasonably well-written and coherent content at the right length. But there were times when the editor had to cut the word count to fit into the number of pages available. This could lead to entertainingly arbitrary endings. Perhaps wisely, Subterranean has avoided the trap of prejudging the book design limits but, unlike Ace, it’s preferring to recycle novellas (one from a print magazine, the other from online) rather than commission original material which is mostly what Ace did. This is disappointing. Although I have not actually read either of these Shepard novellas before, there is a principle at stake here. It’s somewhat depressing that Subterranean should be repackaging collections in this way. You get fewer pages of fiction for more money by this route. Although it’s a relatively extreme example, it’s instructive to compare this book with Cryptic. Both are published by Subterranean, but the McDevitt contains 38 stories on 592 pages for $38. The Shepard is a mere 220 pages for $35. The price of the latter is, it seems, justified by the relative novelty of the back-to-back format with two pieces of dust-wrapper art work.
As to the stories themselves, Shepard has produced two delightful explorations of life, the universe and everything. In “Vacancy”, we meet a film actor who has managed to achieve some mild success, including an appearance in a series of camp supernatural films shot in the Philippines. There is enough money in the bank to retire and he now lives a lonely life in a beach cottage, selling cars as a hobby — a way of passing the time. Over the months and years, as he sits on the car lot waiting for customers, it slowly penetrates his slumbering mind that there may be something strange about the motel on the opposite lot. It seems the owners only let out bungalow 11 when all the others have been rented. This rental causes the Vacancy sign outside to display the No prefix for preternaturally short periods of time. Perhaps the people who come to occupy this particular bungalow disappear. This is the trigger for an elegant tale as the man suddenly finds the past unexpectedly linking to what he takes to be current reality. The whole becomes a metaphor for examining what makes a person. If an identity is the sum of all memories, then loss of those memories would produce a vacancy in the mind — the disturbing possibility posed by Alzheimer’s that stalks those who age. Similarly, if a person’s name is only memorable so long as there are people around who remember him, loss of those people will cause the name and its linked identity to fade, preserved only by details memorialised in official records and, perhaps, in media such as film (or the scrolling end credits of all those who contributed to the making of a film). It’s curious to speculate what we might remember if prompted. It’s sad to predict what would happen if we forgot or were forgotten.
“Ariel”, the second story, takes its theme from the Judaeo-Christian mythos in which links the figure with notions of angry retribution. One of the more common ideas in many cultures over the centuries has been that individuals and their relationships can transcend time. We see it in the repeated myths of reincarnation where those who die are reborn into new bodies. In many instances, this is romanticised so that lovers can be reunited. But, when karma is added into the mix, we have the possibility that destiny is shaped by our acts and omissions in this life. Stepping outside the formal realms of all the potentially relevant religions, Shepard asks whether individuals are always destined to meet. No matter how many lives they may have, will the same pattern of behaviour always tend to be repeated? By definition, this denies free will. It assumes there is some external force which ensures that every version of each person will stay true to the basic template.
When born, most do not come with preloaded memories of their past lives. Thus, in scientific terms, their roles as lovers or betrayers would have to be forever etched into their genes. What would it take to break this karmic or biological cycle (assuming you wanted to break it, of course)? Would loss of memory allow the immediate body to continue, acquire new personality traits and follow a new path through life? And this is where the pairing of these two stories becomes more interesting. Epistemology is that part of philosophy focussing on “knowledge”, asking what we know and why we know it. For now, let’s accept the common assertion that memory of who and what we are is central to our identity and shapes the way we choose to live our lives. Perhaps this proposition would allow us to outmanoeuvre our fate if we could decide to forget and reset the personality to a tabula rasa. Now putting both sides of the “Ace Double” together into a single coin. Whereas an externally imposed loss of memory is actively dangerous to our retired film actor in “Vacancy”, a self-imposed loss may offer hope to the characters in “Ariel”.
Overall, this Subterranean Double offers a linked theme with two good stories laid over some stimulating ideas. Despite the price, I recommend the book.