Other Seasons: The Best of Neal Barrett, Jr.
Other Seasons: The Best of Neal Barrett, Jr. by Neal Barrett Jr. (Subterranean Press, 2012) leads me to ask one of these silly-clever questions. When you’re publishing a collection of the best of an author’s work, the editor has a choice. Either the running order of the stories selected can be chronological so we can observe the writing styles or authorial concerns evolve, or it can group the stories by theme (all the vampire stories together — only joking). This collection groups by decade, but not in strict chronological order. What advantage is derived by the reader? Apart from putting two historical fantasies back-to-back, I see no benefit, only confused editorial thinking. Normally, this would not matter but, when the author offers up such a wide range of content, why not formally separate the SF from the crime from the alternate history? Or would this detract from the fun of unexpectedly passing from humour to seriousness, from post-apocalypse to contemporary crime, from straight SF to weird, and so on?
“In the Shadow of the Worm” (1964) is one of these deceptive stories about the “end of humanity” that manages to cram a short novel into 40 pages. Why might our species end? For generations, we’ve gone forward, always pushing on to see what’s on the other side of the horizon. But suppose we came to a vast ocean and were overtaken by fear of the unknown. What would happen to our “soul”? Would we only experience spiritual degeneration or might we lose the essence of what made us giants? If the latter, would we fall back down to a level more like the animal? “To Plant a Seed” (1963) plays the Hal Clement game of allowing us to watch over the shoulders of a pair of humans whose job it is to observe an alien race. Naturally, our happy couple have no idea what the lifecycle of these aliens is so, when it looks as if they are all about to commit suicide, their duty of noninterference is challenged. In terms of semiotics the story is also making the point that humans don’t interpret signs and signals in the same way of the locals. What may look like a half-empty glass to one, might be a half-full glass to the other.
“The Stentorii Luggage” (1960) is typical of stories from the Golden Age of the magazines. There was an honourable tradition in presenting heroes with a puzzle and then watching them solve it. In this case, a hotel acquires an infestation of chameleon-like pests. The staff then have the problem of tracking them down. This is fun. It’s a little like Keith Laumer writing the preview of The Trouble With Tribbles (1967). “A Walk on Toy” (1971) asks a very pertinent question about identity. How far should a society go to eradicate differences? Through peer socialisation, we try to create the next generation in our own image or in an image we hope will be better than ours. But what do we do with the square pegs who won’t or can’t fit into the round holes we so carefully craft? I suppose, in the days when we still had land to explore and colonise, we could send off all our misfits and become the perfectly homogenised society. But would that actually be an improvement for those left behind?
The Flying Stutzman” (1978) is the kind of story you used to see on The Twilight Zone in which a man finds himself on the way home but by a rather devious route. In terms of human endeavour, you should never do anything unless and until you can do it right. In “Nightbeat” (1975) we learn of a new set of responsibilities for the police when nightmares come. For the minor outbreaks, shoot drugs into the body. For the older first timer, a physical bridge may be needed to bring the patient back to awareness. “Hero” (1979) is one of these timeless stories about the frontline soldiers who survive the traumas of war and wonder what to do with themselves when they have a chance for a little R&R. While “Survival Course” (1974) reflects all the frustration we non-computer-literate people feel when we can’t quite persuade a machine to do what we want — in this case, save us from death. There can be similar problems in debating the nature of the precise nature of the afterlife with aliens as “Grandfather Pelts” (1970) so perfectly demonstrates.It reminds me of “Beyond Lies the Wub” by P K Dick.
“Diner” (1987) captures the desperation survivors feel post-apocalypse when their local community comes under the control of the Chinese military. The locals rub along, tolerating each other’s eccentricities. With language and cultural divides, the Chinese are less sympathetic. How will can-do, collaborator mayors cope? “Sallie C” (1986) is an rather engaging alternate history fantasy in which a young Rommel witnesses the Wright brothers first flight as Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid watch from the wings, as it were. Pursuing this alternate history, “Winter on the Belle Fourche” (1989) is a wonderful story of a trapper who comes across Emily Dickinson in the wilderness, fights off a few Indians, and explains his need to carry written poetry. “Stairs” (1988) is weird, suggesting a world of high-rise living that’s broken down but not in the hard SFnal or traditional post-apocalypse sense. It has a slightly trippy, LSD-downer feel Burroughs or Ginsberg might have crafted to show the breakdown in capitalist systems. “Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus” (1988) was shortlisted for the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards for Best Novelette — I can’t think why unless all the men who read it thought a speeded-up fantasy might be fun to try and damn the danger. This is how post-apocalypse should be with dog-eat-dog or possum-skin-dog as the scavengers of the world unite — they have nothing to lose but their independence.
“Highbrow” (1987) shows that, during courtship, the man who can not only turn a girl’s head but also take her hundreds of feet in the air, stands the best chance of success. “Perpetuity Blues” (1987) is wonderful. I read it years ago when Gardner Dozois picked it up for The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Fifth Annual Collection and it’s as good today as it was back in 1988. Suffice it to say you should always trust the man who tells you his spacecraft disintegrated over the Great Salt Lake and he’s stuck until he can recreate the technology to get himself where he ought to be. “Tony Red Dog” (1989) is a great crime story about a Red Indian trying to make a living working for the Mafia in New York. This is not a place he can relax because no-one likes him, except the women. For some reason, they do like him until circumstances change. “The Last Cardinal Bird in Tennessee” (1990) is a one-act post-apocalypse play which is something you see as the titular bird. As a professional, you always want everything to go off exactly as you’ve planned it. The “Hit” (1992) shows the flip side when everything that can go wrong, does go wrong — even the dog thinks you’re a sex object. “Cush” (1993) is another wonderful confabulation where the Kuttner/Moore Hogben stories get religion (and not in the strict Lovecraft sense although some knowledge of Dunwich would be helpful).
“Under Old New York” (1991) is another post-apocalypse story, this time an economic collapse in which no-one has any real work except the chance to rebuild some of what the lost generation burned down. “Rhido Wars” (2001) is back into the more experimental, slightly weird mode as a group are forced to leave their forest where the grub is good and go out on to the plains where the sun is hot and danger lurks. While, in “Slidin’” (2008), we get to visit Dallas so we can be reminded what it was like in the Time Before. And if your world had all gone down the crapper, you’d still want news and a little light music to help you through the day. “Radio Station St. Jack” (2008) would fill the need and it will stay that way if only it can produce a miracle. “Tourists” (2004) is a kind of companion piece to “Stairs” as trippy visitors come back as passive observers and remind themselves not to remember so they can continue the trip. “Getting Dark” (2006) continues a more general preoccupation with memory and reflects on how we make life palatable for ourselves by remembering times in which we felt safe and happier. “The Heart” (2006) is one of the best pieces of straight humour I can remember reading this year. It’s not laugh-out-loud but it has such a view of human nature, of that inherent willingness to suspend disbelief otherwise known as gullibility, you just have to smile as the layers of onion are pealed away to the essential truth within. And finally “Limo” (2009) finishes us off in a magnificently macabre style.
No matter how you view this collection, it’s mavellously entertaining and eclectically satisfying as you turn from one genre to another, never quite knowing what’s coming next but sure it will be worth reading. Other Seasons: The Best of Neal Barrett, Jr. is terrific value for money! Thank you Subterranean Press!
Suitably evocative artwork from Vincent Chong.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.