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Life on the Preservation by Jack Skillingstead

October 18, 2013 1 comment

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For some inexplicable reason probably connected with the increasingly rapid death of brain cells, this book reminded me of several works from the 1950s. I start with Earth vs the Flying Saucers, one of the better alien invasion films I paid to see when it first came out in 1956. These pesky creatures land in their ships and so long as they stay inside their force fields, they are invulnerable to our primitive weapons, until. . . As a short story, I always liked William Tenn’s “The Liberation of Earth” (1953), while Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke (1953) has a slightly more peaceful, but nevertheless disruptive, invasion. As to the alien’s motive for the assault on our green and pleasant lands, I offer The Genocides (1965) by Thomas M. Disch and Of Men and Monsters (1968) by WIlliam Tenn. I suppose these works have stuck in my memory as yardsticks against which to measure the level of intelligence in the vast number of alien invasion plots encountered since.

All of which brings me to Life on the Preservation by Jack Skillingstead (Solaris, 2013). This plot depends on several overlapping ideas. The aliens have invaded and the devastation produces a post-apocalyptic situation in which survivors struggle to survive in a devastated environment. In this thread, Kylie and her man (he’s impotent thanks to the residual poison in the environment, so he’s not her lover) live in what’s left of Oakland. In this thread, it’s 2013, and her nemesis is a mentally unstable religious fanatic who has plans for her which he claims will save Earth. There’s one anomaly in the devastated landscape. It’s called the Seattle Preservation Dome. As in Groundhog Day (1993), this is a city caught in a time loop — it’s always the fifth of October. The questions, of course, are how this anomaly came into being and what sustains it as Ian Palmer and his friend, Zack, iterate through marginally different versions of the same time period.

Jack Skillingstead

Jack Skillingstead

The good news it that the post-apocalypse element works well as Kylie is forced to leave Oakland and ends up at a survivor-inspired project to bring down the dome. These humans have both a theory as to what the dome is and a fighter jet which they believe can fly inside. The less good news is that, despite the valiant attempts of Zack to remind Ian they are in a time loop, our hero in this narrative thread is stubborn. Admittedly, it does sound a little nutty to suggest everyone is stuck in time, destined to repeat the same day over and over again. But Ian does take a long time to admit the truth of his situation. This means we have to read through the same day quite a few times before things grow more exciting.

As our example to compare, the short story by William Tenn is nearest in spirit, i.e. the cause of Earth’s destruction is similar. The essential difference lies in the introduction of the time loop which, in a Matrix kind of way, offers some degree of preservation for those inside the dome. As a plot, this is all rather elegant even though the first step for exiting the loop (the first time) is not completely voluntary. I would have been more impressed if the relevant individuals had come up with this idea and then had to trigger the major change. The uncertainty in whether it will work would have produced real tension. I was also slightly disconcerted that, as written, the plot has Kylie disappear from the action for quite a long time as we move through the final third of the book. Since their relationship has been set up as love-at-first-sight between two humans who share a certain characteristic, I’m not sure I approve of this way of finishing the book. I understand the author’s choice. He’s free to write the book he wants. But if the final answer is going to depend on the strength of their romance, the demonstration of their love is long time coming.

So as written, Life on the Preservation starts off in a way confirming the strength of Jack Skillingstead’s craft. There’s real cleverness in the different ways in which the fifth of October are presented. Once the ultimate alien threat kicks in, the pace picks up and there’s considerable excitement. This just leaves us with the ending which is slightly muted. I suppose it’s appropriate for there to be an absence of triumphalism. That would be “unrealistic” in this context. The best we can hope for as an outcome is a marginal rebalancing of forces. If nothing else, it’s a triumph of persistence. As George R Stewart tells us, for now Earth Abides.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Harbinger by Jack Skillingstead

October 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Thinking back over my life, I am conscious of the fact that I always seemed to miss out on the big picture, whatever it happened to be at the time. I lived contentedly through the 1950s, and learned ballroom dancing rather than going into the wild world of rock-and-roll. The 1960s may have been a drug-soaked venture into the unknown for many Hippies but, apart from alcohol and tobacco, I was never interested in stimulants. Then there was this New Age thing. No-one in my circle of acquaintance gave a hoot. In short, I never tuned into whatever the rest of the world was doing and just got on with my own stuff.

Yet, with Harbinger by Jack Skillingstead (published by Fairwood Press), I find myself having to question what the New Age movement was aiming for. In a sneaky kind of postmodernist way, Skillingstead seems to have woven a story out of threads drawn from what I imagine the spiritual movement was all about. In my mind, it’s one of these holistic concepts where, to put it in a nutshell, everything is simultaneous. Or, if that’s too strong a word, there’s a universal oneness. Having written that, I find myself rather disgusted by the word “oneness”. Monism may have a similar meaning and is a respectable concept but, somehow, my mind balks at the bluntness of the idea that a number can have any kind of transcendent significance. In this, I blame the Wachowski brothers who seem to have ripped One out of its usual meaning and bent it into a new shape, more suitable for their cod metaphysics.

But, back to Harbinger. We could have had a rerun of the mind-expanded, drug-fueled counterculture literature of the 1950s where Kerouac, Burroughs, et al experimented with and validated nonconformism. And there are signs Jack Skillingstead recognises the drive felt by many people to escape the security of suburban life and to become a part of a movement encouraging society to evolve into a better version of itself. In this, he avoids the heat of the rebellion that ran through the late 1950s and early 1960s. The power of conservatism was much stronger then as my choice of ballroom dancing suggests. In the New Age, the “revolutionaries” felt they were pushing on a more open door. They believed soft power could see them through. Except, of course, like any organism, society evolves more slowly than many expect. Society is an autopoiesis, organising itself and growing at its own pace. So what would it take to accelerate this process of growth?

Jack Skillingstead now has us consider what would happen to our inherently conservative world if there was incontrovertible evidence of something impossible. This goes beyond mere faith. There would be verifiable proof of an anomaly — something that should not exist. This, he asserts, would be a harbinger, a sign of things to come. This, he would have us believe, would open the mind of the world to new possibilities and encourage the process of change. Indeed, if the harbinger was sufficiently dramatic, it might encourage a paradigm shift in our belief system about what is possible.

The book develops out of the concerns demonstrated in Jack Skillingstead’s excellent collection, Are You There, capturing the uncertainty of those who might be on the verge of evolving and gaining new abilities. More importantly, it takes “Transplant” to heart, providing a context for the story. It’s always interesting to see how an author first captures ideas in short stories and then builds a novel around them. In this, we have a seamless transition with the result a pleasing journey through the mind of a person cut off from the world in which he lives.

Think of this isolation as being an act of self-defence. Once you were forced to accept you could not die of natural causes, how could you face making any permanent relationships if those you loved were going to die? This retreat would be more complete if you were also having problems with grief, having lost your mother and older brother in a car accident. You would build a wall around your emotions and never want to let them out. Once inside this prison, you would crave blindness, both physical and emotional. Indeed, allowing your body to be harvested for spare parts would be a form of self-punishment. You never asked for this regenerative power. You cannot deny it. But you can stop living for yourself. Except. . . Except, of course, circumstances change and there may come a time when you see you should trust yourself to handle the potential pain of accepting yourself and others.

I think the metaphorical bus episode goes on slightly too long at the end. I can understand the hero’s need to travel through the landscape of the past to get where he needs to go. It’s a necessary part of bringing the grieving process to an end. But we could achieve the same effect of forgiveness in fewer words. Nevertheless, overall, this is a very satisfying first novel and well worth the price of admission.

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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