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Are You There by Jack Skillingstead

Serendipity was a wonderful invention — our eternal thanks go to Horace Walpole for having so powerfully redefined an old name for Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. Having made the discovery, I wish you could bottle it and pull it out on a slow day. Perhaps I am growing jaded as age advances, but random good fortune seems to strike less often than when I was younger. So often you pull a book off the shelves full of the hope that this will be “the one” — not in the sense of Neo in The Matrix Trilogy which is in an anomalous class of its own — but that it will prove to be one of those books whose memory you will treasure for years to come. Although, even there, you find an irony because, as the years pass, you never dare reread any of these treasured books. The constant fear is that your sensibilities will have moved on and, on rereading, the book will prove ordinary, leaving your fond memories in ruins. Sorry, I’m going round in circles here. . . Where was I? Yes . . .full of hope when you pick up a book only to find it ordinary even on first reading.

Well, Are You There is anything but ordinary on first reading. Rather, it is a completely unexpected joy. I confess to living in one of these hermitically sealed worlds. I used to read Amazing back in the 1950s and early 1960s but, since then, apart from the occasional dip into Interzone, I have avoided the medium. Only books have the magic password to enter the reading zone. Thus, the name Jack Skillingstead was completely unknown to me. In fact, I can’t even remember how I came to order it. I suppose I must have read a review of it. Anyway, I run a taxi-rank, first in/first out reading system. All books are shelved in the order they come in and I conscientiously read them in that order. So yesterday, it was Skillingstead’s turn.

He has a deft touch, with casual detail capturing a mood. But his most interesting quality is the sheer simplicity of it all. So often short story writers feel they have to encapsulate their frequently rejected first novel in each story. This means everything including the kitchen sink can be thrown in for us to admire. Yet Skillingstead focusses on a single idea in each story and never overelaborates. This self-discipline makes such a pleasing change. So starting off with “The Avenger of Love” we have a collaboration with Harlan Ellison that proved not to be. The result of this exchange of ideas is what some might call phantasmagoric. A son in pursuit of missing memories finds a way of remembering his father and is recruited into an unusual policing role. “Dead Worlds” continues the theme of love, this time with a couple who snatch a moment before he heads out to the stars again.

“Life on the Preservation” is a celebration of life as a “terrorist” finds herself seduced by the richness of the world she intends to destroy. It’s a pleasingly elegant way of thinking about recursion. Thematically, it links with “Rewind” in which we wonder whether we could ever make the right decisions on the replaying of an explosion in a pub. It’s so tempting to think how easy it would be to go back and rescue everyone, or perhaps just that one person. Similarly, “Reunion” wonders about how we come to be as we are. Many believe we are the sum of all our life’s experiences. If so, we must always insure we have those experiences so we turn out as we should. This musing continues in “Thank You, Mr. Whiskers” in which we speculate on how we would turn out if we could reverse time at the point of death and slowly grow young again. “What You Are About To See” continues the theme of manipulating reality to determine which one will prove to be the most durable. While “Strangers on the Bus” teases us with the idea that one person’s dreams might shape the world around him.

“Double Occupancy” is a pleasing venture into Lovecraftian territory without going totally over the top with tentacled monsters, while “The Tree” is a solid tale of arboreal threats to a young boy. “The Chimera Transit” poses the ever-fascinating question of what makes us human and what we would lose through the scientific manipulation of our brain chemistry. And, perhaps more importantly, what we might sacrifice to journey between the stars. In “Overlay” we have a tired idea reborn. Many have played with the idea of the technology to rent out your bodies for others to use. This wonders whether the host might recover memories of what happened during the “possession” and what he could do with that information.

“Scatter” is a delightfully witty take on the PI trope in which we have an interesting inversion of the first story. Rather than a man recruited into another type of world, we have a man encouraged by a woman to take a more realistic view of her world. In the titular “Are You There” we have a Russian doll story in which personalities can be stored electronically and then interact with the world. Except how do you tell who or what is at the end of any text-only conversation? With “Bean There” we have the first of two stories about evolution in the human race. It’s followed by “Girl in the Empty Apartment”, both thinking about how we might come to recognise the changes in ourselves and get the confidence to experiment with new abilities. Although using different conventions, “The Apprentice” also explores how a boy might learn about latent powers and then make decisions on how best to use them. Similarly, in “Everyone Bleeds Through” we have a kind of world-walking, inter-dimensional story in which a couple manage to find themselves in the right place when it matters most.

Continuing the idea of exploring the implications of what we are, “Transplant” answers the awkward question of what might happen if one person became physically immortal, always able to regenerate any lost part so that youthful perfection was always preserved. In a more humorous vein “Here’s Your Space” offers an insight into the constant requirement if you should happen to find yourself floating disembodied in “outer space”. “Cat in the Rain” deals with the phenomenon of loneliness except, perhaps, it’s all the fault of the aliens. It’s rather the same with “Alone With an Inconvenient Companion” in which we wonder whether beauty is really only skin deep. In “Rescue Mission” we also have to confront the blurry line between intellectual and physical attachments given the knowledge that only physical beings can actually rescue each other from a physical threat. In a more ironic tone, we see that there would have to be at least “Two” to breed their way to victory. It’s slightly different in “Scrawl Daddy” where you might find yourself connected to another version of yourself. In “Human Day” you might have to use a simulacrum to explore what was left of the world after a possible catastrophe.

This is one of the best collections of 2009. If you have not already tried it, it’s still available from Golden Gryphon.

PS Great jacket artwork by John Picacio who holds the copyright on the image reproduced above.

For a review of Jack Skillingstead’s first novel, see Harbinger.

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