Unpossible and Other Stories by Daryl Gregory
Unpossible and Other Stories by Daryl Gregory (Fairwood Press, 2011) is fuel for the old grey cells, offering thought-provoking ideas in some elegant prose, capturing all human emotions and putting them on display much as a lepidopterist pins moths and butterflies to white cards and keeps them under glass. It all begins with “Second Person, Present Tense”, a fictional exploration of the phenomenon sometimes called parental alienation syndrome. This is a neologismic way of describing an age-old problem where a child falls out of love with one or both parents. Who knows why it happens. It may be a reaction to real abuse, whether physical or emotional, or it may be simple perversity — everyone expects the child to love so, of course, the child does the other thing. Perhaps the why is less important than the effect. In a slightly different context where runaways have joined cults, some parents feel they should engage experts to deprogram their children. As if such a process can somehow return the lost love. This story rather elegantly introduces a new drug which erases the old personality from the body and allows a new one to grow in its place. It’s the ultimate divorce. So, with a different person looking out through the eyes, how should the parents react? Perhaps, more importantly, how should the state react? If this drug really does replace the person in the body, is it appropriate to continue the parent-child relationship based purely on DNA? In practical terms, should parents be allowed to imprison strangers in their homes until they are legally adult?
The titular ”Unpossible” asks a slightly different question. As a child, you have an essential innocence. It allows you to suspend disbelief and to imagine yourself in completely different worlds. But, as you gain experience, you learn to distinguish the real from the fictional. If, as an adult, you wanted to return to the world of imagination, you would have to unbelieve the real and focus on the unpossible. It would be a neat trick if you could pull it off. “Damascus” deals with a disturbing possibility. What we usually define as terrorism is people using violent means to intimidate others for political purposes. This story changes two of the variables. The motivation of those involved is religious in the most general sense of the word. There are no bullets or bombs. The means is love. Indeed, think of it as a form of communion. But millions will die. We see the vector take shape in an all too credible way and understand how defenceless we would be against such an attack.
And, talking about defenceless, here’s a ground’s eye view of what it feels like to be collateral damage. “The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” (from Eclipse Two) is a pleasingly angry story about what happens between the rock and a hard place when military forces collide. In such cases, all the survivors can do is pick themselves up and go back to work, hoping their next contribution to the war effort will be more successful than the last (and that they will survive, of course). “Gardening at Night” is a bit of an old chestnut but it’s been heated to just the right temperature for another outing. If we go back to the garden of Eden, what was God’s plan? He had Adam and Eve, and there was a tree with an apple. The simple rule was not to eat the apple. Assuming adequate supplies of alternative food, this is an easy test to pass with top marks. Which is presumably why God allowed the snake to come in. Yes, God controls the environment and gets to say who can or cannot talk to the human test subjects. So God can continuously change the environmental controls to pressure the humans into eating the apple. It’s a bit like destruction testing for safety critical parts. The engineers slowly increase the stress levels to establish the part’s breaking point. Put another way, if you don’t test to destruction, how do you really know the strength of your design. God had made Adam and Eve. He was therefore testing them to breaking point. As a reward for eating the apple, He allowed them out into the world. It’s the next stage of the test. Now apply this to an engineer developing programmable machines. Once they’ve completed their assigned task, are they not entitled to a little R&R?
“Petit Mal #1 Glass” is a wonderful short, short story in which it’s suggested the scientific method effectively turns researchers into sociopaths when they invite the participants to a clinical trial. Half receive drugs knowing the very real risks of adverse side effects. Half are willfully denied all possible benefits because they get the placebo. “What We Take When We take What We Need” has us in the same universe as The Devil’s Alphabet and, for me that’s not a good place, although I concede this reads well as a stand-alone story. “Petit Mal #2 Digital (an original to this collection) was written to be read aloud and is an extended shaggy dog story about where a man’s consciousness might truly reside — assuming it was not in his head, that is. “Message From the Bubblegum Factory” is another humorous contribution, this time focusing on the need for a superhero to have a nemesis. Fortunately, we have a volunteer for the role of insane criminal mastermind to take down Earth’s defender, even if he has to invent and then go into an alternate reality to do it. But first, he needs sidekicks. “Free, and Clear” appeals to me as I also grew up with terrible allergies. Unfortunately, it was in the days before the advanced massage therapies described in this story although, in other contexts, it might be suspension bondage. Perhaps if Daryl Gregory could provide an artist’s impression of the equipment used, we would all have a better idea of how to get into this promised allergen-free land.
“Dead Horse Point” reminds me of my cousin Paul who worked for NASA and did clever things with brains (other people’s while they were alive, of course). He’s one of the most absent-minded-professor-type people I ever knew. Not on the same level as the person in this story, of course. This is an affecting tragedy as it unwinds, presumably only tolerable to those involved because, when the work is done, they know their sacrifice may advance human knowledge and understanding to a new level. “In the Wheels” gives us a parable about two boys growing up together in a post-apocalypse world where one form of magic works. The father of one boy is a worthless drunk, beaten in spirit but, when his son is trapped, he pulls himself up and, with the help of the loyal friend, they set about trying to redeem the son and friend. It’s a version of the line in John 15:13 so that it reads, “Greater love has no man than this, that a father lay down his life for his son.” “Petit Mal #3 Persistence” is the second original story, a vignette describing a persistence of vision. It would have been better if the final image had been more peaceful. Finally, “The Continuing Adventures of Rocket Boy” deals with the quiet desperation of an abused boy and the failure of his best friend to do anything effective to protect him. As teens, we are rarely intentionally cruel to each other but, because we feel powerless, we distance ourselves. We cannot help. We feel terrible guilt. So we cannot be there. In later years, we can look back at all the might-have-beens, explain the past in ways that might make us feel better. Or, perhaps, circumstances will arise in which we can play replay the role, but be more effective. This is a sadly moving tale in which past and present collide as Rocket Boy goes for relaunch.
Unpossible is a wonderful collection, contriving to enlighten and entertain — a rare combination to be savoured and enjoyed.