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Beautiful Blood by Lucius Shepard

July 7, 2014 6 comments

BEAUTIFUL_BLOOD_by_Lucius_Shepard

Beautiful Blood by Lucius Shepard (Subterranean Press, 2014) is, in a word, magnificent! It manages something only rarely seen in these increasingly less intellectual years. It takes a work of fantasy about a dragon named Griaule and contrives to make it about ideas. Under normal circumstances, no doubt even the most hardened fantasy lover would run screaming from the room. But this carries off the entire project with such panache, you can’t help but be enthralled by the chutzpah and emerge applauding at the end.

Way back in “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule” (1984) we were introduced to a large lizard. As a result of combat with an altruistic magician, concerned the dragon was becoming too much of a hazard for local people, the giant beast was, for the most part, frozen into immobility. Proving that humanity is remarkably adaptable, a settlement springs up around this beast in its magically-induced coma. In due course, the settlement becomes a village becomes a town becomes a small city. The few straggling lean-to hovels, develop a life of their own as some buildings extend up the sides and on to the back of the beast. Others become the essential ground-based buildings any group of people need from church to brothel, from militia compound to tax collection vaults. One of those who come to this new spawning ground for humanity is Richard Rosacher. He’s a man who pursues a dream of science and seeks to understand the body so obviously dominating the local landscape. Being a man who likes to work with blood, he pays a local to climb into the mouth of the beast to extract some of the life-giving essence from the beast’s tongue. Unfortunately, through circumstances outside his control, our hero ends up with a substantial amount of this blood injected into him. We spend the rest of the book watching what happens to the man and attempting to distinguish between evidence of determinism and free will.

Lucius Shepard

Lucius Shepard

So let’s get to some of the ideas. Going back to the origin of this enforced sleep, the beast has entered a phase of what we might term physical stasis, i.e. the body is not affected in any significant way by the passage of time. So Richard finds himself experiencing a form of dislocation in time. It seems he lives through the years but only fully inhabits his body at intermittent moments. This is sufficient to accumulate memories of what he has been doing but, only when he surfaces, does he pick up the thread of running the body in real time. At such times, he can receive warning messages in his dreams from contemporary or future individuals who have a “relationship” with Griaule, e.g. as scalehunters. In other words, he becomes a form of sock puppet for the dragon. Even when he’s autonomous, there’s still some doubt as to whether he’s truly free. Assuming the dragon to be a form of god, this may be inevitable since gods always manage to get their prophets to do what they are supposed to do. There’s a parallel model of this state in a child rapist called Frederick. He’s also transformed by Griaule and becomes altogether something more primal. The point of this counterpoint is to show both Richard and Frederick have different kinds of friend who offer guidance or direction, yet both in their own ways end up as forms of marauders.

In turn, this leads on to a consideration of the extent to which the beast should be considered a deity. At an early stage, we see flocks of birds and insects being influenced as they move around or fly close to the surface of the dragon. Even Richard finds he achieves a rather pleasing meditative state at some points on the dragon’s skin. During these times, he feels his mind can make sense of different factual elements in his life. Who’s to say whether he’s integrating these facts into a coherent understanding or telepathically communing with the dragon and listening to its thoughts. No matter who’s doing the thinking, the result is that Richard survives and the dragon’s existence is not threatened in any meaningful way (unless you count the poisoned paint and only the dragon knows whether it’s permitting the slow death to come). It’s therefore not unreasonable to believe the dragon is influencing the people who live on it and, to a lesser extent, around it. When a major physical beast or object can interact with those around it, promoting the interests of those who do its bidding and punishing those who defy it, characterising it as a deity is not unreasonable. Indeed, the otherwise powerful church feels threatened by the presence of the beast and would like nothing better than to dispose of it. Unfortunately, the fallible human beings in charge of the church lack the control over the people to sway them away from dragon worship (which can come with fringe benefits) in favour of conventional beliefs which have less provable benefits in a life hereafter.

In turn, this leads to a meditation on the different forms of leadership and whether it’s ever going to be possible to have a human leader without faults. For these purposes, we’re offered many exemplars. At the apex, we have Breque, an overtly corrupt and not a little incompetent man when it comes to the management of finances. He runs the city forming around the dragon and, amongst other things is responsible for defence. Carlos is the king of the neighbouring state. He lives for and through his people. If there’s a local problem, he jumps on his horse and rides out to solve it. He asks no thanks, only that his people love him. Ah, so he’s a narcissist and while such men can go through a benign phase, they can get a little tricky to manage if they lose confidence the people actually love them. Some of the most interesting debates consider how best to motivate the mass of people into doing what you want. One might develop an opiate for the masses, i.e. leadership through the exploitation of chemical dependence, or another might rule through a primary emotion like love or fear, or someone might seek influence through the interpretation of faith, and so on. Power comes in many forms, whether between individuals in relationships or at wider levels. Curiously, the dragon’s rule (if such it be) is through passivity. This leaves its presence as enigmatic and, of course, that allows people to develop all kinds of superstitions about it. Perhaps that’s the most effective long-term way to control people. To allow them to deceive themselves into doing what you want. Put all this together and Beautiful Blood emerges as the most intelligent work of fantasy published so far this year.

For other reviews of books by Lucius Shepard, see:
The Dragon Griaule
Louisiana Breakdown
The Taborin Scale
Two Trains Running
Vacancy and Ariel

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

The Dragon Griaule by Lucius Shepard

Many moons ago, Lucius Shepard launched a dragon called Griaule into the unsuspecting literary world. Although it’s always tempting to apply the usual label of fantasy to such flights of fancy, the reality was that of a sophisticated allegory and, in the six stories published as The Dragon Griaule by Subterranean Press (2012) we get to relive the excitement of five reprints, and savour the latest contribution to this hopefully continuing saga.

So what exactly is Griale? At face value, this is an enormous beast that, in the best traditions of fantasy, rose to the top of the predator tree. When it became too dangerous to be allowed to roam freely around the countryside, eating whatever it fancied, a world-class magician was summoned to kill it. Unfortunately, this meeting ended in a draw. The physical body of the dragon was brought down to the ground by the spells and substantially frozen into immobility but, even though the magician gave up his own life as the price of the beast’s death, it did not die. It continues to think and, at set moments during the day, it opens and closes its eyes. Although this might not seem a bad outcome, the dragon possesses the ability to influence the thoughts of those who come into the zone of influence. Not unnaturally, it’s somewhat displeased with its present state and so tends to influence the humans and animals around it to act to their detriment. It likes a good war every now and again, finding amusement in bringing down the proud and foolish that would stand against it.

Now let’s translate this dragon into a major leader like Genghis Khan. Those who assert the right to govern a country are rarely altruists. They are more usually selfish and power-hungry. Without active constraints, they move across the land like predators, asserting control and killing the opposition. But no matter how bloodthirsty such individuals may wish to be, they lose momentum as states develop. Then a magician may cast a spell we can call the Constitution and give citizens power over the leaders through the ballot box. This brings the wannabe leaders down to Earth but does not kill them. They band together into parties and try to influence people into voting them into power. Once in government, the victorious predators move both overtly and covertly to implement their policies. On occasion, this means fighting a war here and there. But in a democracy, the leaders must sell the idea of the war to the citizens who must do the fighting. By a curious coincidence, wars often bring prosperity to the winning countries. Memories of these benefits influence some citizens into a benign view of the policies. Those who disagree are branded unpatriotic and cowards. This creates a deterministic universe in which the majority are manipulated into conforming to the wishes of the dragon. Free will in an individual cannot access power. Through the socialisation process, every aspect of our lives is directed by minds beyond our capacity to understand as individuals. Even the language we use is distorted as the meaning of words is “enriched” by more subtle undertones, enabling the leaders to convince us to do as they wish. For these purposes, it makes no difference whether we’re being convinced to accept a religious faith, or believe in science, or follow the wishes of a dragon.

Lucius Shepard diagnosed with an acute case of dragonitis

So how are the opposition to fight the manipulative power of this sleeping dragon? There can only be so many Kent State massacres and less fatal public demonstrations. Alternative ways of finally killing the dragon have to be found. “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule” (1984) suggests that, over a period of time, the artists of the world can slowly kill the beastly policies by overlaying them with the paint of more environmentally friendly policies. They can mine the earth for the poisons that create the most beautiful colours. When the world sees the old set of predator policies redefined by the veneer of modern sensibilities, they will be freed from the thrall of the dragon. Such are the dreams of the idealistic young and so probably doomed to fail because grasping the meaning in Griaule’s thoughts is beyond us. Who’s to say it was not the dragon’s idea that teams of painters labour for decades to make it look more beautiful? As “The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter” (1988) and “The Father of Stones” (1989) demonstrate, sometimes the best you can do is get on with your life. There’s no point in worrying about things you can’t control. So the young girl moves inside the dragon’s body to spend her life as a carer, while our worthy lawyer is engaged to run the ultimately paranoid version of diminished responsibility as a defence to murder, “The dragon made me do it!” However, even though the body of the dragon may be already dead or, perhaps, merely dying, it still wants to make little dragons so “Liar’s House” (2004) sees its efforts to produce an heir. “The Taborin Scale” (2010) is discussed in another review linked below, which leaves us with the new story.

“The Skull” is set in contemporary South America. When Griaule was finally pronounced dead, i.e. the buyers thought it was safe to dismantle the body, the parts went to all parts of the world and so spread Griaule’s lies and political misinformation everywhere. The skull was bought as a single lot and, after much effort, transported to a country not unlike Guatemala where its presence stimulated much bloodshed. Later, when the trappings of modernity littered the landscape in the form of cities, the skull remained in the jungle, slowly accumulating worshippers. At this focal point, an American man meets a woman. Perhaps they fall in love but, in a moment of panic, he runs back to the safety of US soil. Later, when he hears rumours, he returns to find the skull has literally gone missing. When he explores further, he finds a form of reincarnation has taken place and the spirit of the dragon has a different voice.

From a metafictional point of view, all these stories could be viewed in completely different ways. Some have suggested that the dragon is itself a metaphor for fantasy fiction. The exploration of the body allows Lucius Shepard to investigate and reflect upon many of the tropes that have been an integral part of the genre. So, as readers, we should look beyond the superficial events described and see the broader discussion of storytelling. He can look at the different ways in which stories can incorporate myths to act as a lens through which to view realism. By questioning and challenging the current conventions of narrative, he can discover whether it’s possible to discover new ways of expanding the craft of telling a story, of reshaping words into different artistic forms. Such are the dreams of those who pursue metafiction. Although, if we wanted to be less theoretical, we could take a more literal view. As in all stories, characters have no true will of their own but must perforce act out whatever the author dictates. If we view Lucius Shepard as Griaule then the world he creates must always work in the way he specifies. There should be no escape for the characters. Except there’s a sense that, when there’s real love, the characters may achieve some degree of independence. That they can to a greater extent live their own lives. Perhaps if a pair of lovers were to meet up with Lucius Shepard in the real world, they might find him vulnerable. Try as he might to fly up and away from them, love might conquer his imaginative creativity and allow the couple to live happily ever after — as in all the best fairy stories.

Interesting jacket artwork by J. K. Potter.

For other reviews of books by Lucius Shepard, see:
Beautiful Blood
Louisiana Breakdown
The Taborin Scale
Two Trains Running
Vacancy and Ariel

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

This collection has been shortlisted for the 2013 Locus Award.

 

The Taborin Scale by Lucius Shepard

November 8, 2010 1 comment

Those who have read some of these reviews will have detected my interest in semiotics which studies how meaning is communicated. The process depends on our ability to attribute meaning to signs. So, for example, a collector may hold an old coin in his hands and, by observing the surface detail and applying imagination, gain some insight into the time when people routinely handled the coin as money. Think of Sherlock Holmes who is able to make deductions about Watson’s father from a pocket-watch in The Sign of Four. There is meaning even in the slightest scratch if only you have eyes to see. For those who use symbols as a part of their faith, there can be multiple levels of meaning in, say, a statue of an elephant for someone who believes in Ganesh, to a cross for someone who believes in Christ. All such signifiers stand in the place of the originals. They trigger a recall of our stored beliefs and memories. Potentially, they give added meaning to our lives.

All this works well so long as you do not have access to the original. But imagine the loss of significance in the image of a godlike dragon, if you live in the shadow of its body. This is the position for inhabitants of Teocinte, a burgeoning city built on and around the body of the Dragon Griaule. Indeed, you can get an idea of how devalued the Dragon has become because, in a classic case of rampant capitalism, the city government has presold the Dragon’s skin and bones for traditional medicines, aphrodisiacs and more social purposes. Never has so much indignity been heaped upon this great Dragon, and all these scavenging merchants need now is evidence the dragon is dead. Obviously, it might not go down to well with the godlike animal if people start to dismantle it for parts while it is still alive.

Into Teocinte comes George Taborin, a coin dealer looking to buy new stock and planning on a little R&R while apart from his wife. In one transaction, he acquires a small scale, supposedly from a dragon. Shortly afterwards, he makes a deal with a prostitute, buying her services for the scale. However, just as handling a coin may evoke earlier times, so cleaning and rubbing the scale may also induce transport. In this case, George and the prostitute find themselves in an earlier time or, perhaps, a different dimension with no sign of Teocinte. Shortly after their arrival, a young Griaule herds them to pools fed by lazy streams where they are left to practice wilderness survival skills.

The fascination of this novella by Lucius Shepard is watching how George and the prostitute relate to each other. Both, it seems, have journeys to make as they adapt to differing circumstances. With Griaule as a catalyst, the best and worst of their characters come into view. When George encounters other abductees and rescues an abused young girl from them, a different balance comes into the relationship with the prostitute. Even in a wilderness, life can take on the mundane trappings of married life. Even in a mundane life, violence may be necessary in self-defence.

This work may see the end of the series of Dragon Griaule stories which would be a shame. It has been entrancing to watch the relationship between the Dragon and this world unfold. I hope for more.

A final word about the physical book. Quite often, books published by Subterranean Press are merely functional, but this has an additional design element with the front and end papers being a high gsm, coloured blue in honour of Griaule, and embossed in scale-like fashion. It’s a nice touch and doubly justifies the price — a good physical book to hold and excellent content to read.

For my other reviews of Lucius Shepard, see:
Beautiful Blood
The Dragon Griaule
Louisiana Breakdown
Two Trains Running
Vacancy and Ariel
and for a novelette in the anthology Other Earths.

Two Trains Running by Lucius Shepard

May 23, 2010 1 comment

This is yet another of those days on which we can celebrate the prophetic powers of science fiction with the announcement of a synthetic lifeform (or, perhaps, it would be more honest to call it a variation on the human lifeform given the new cells are based on human DNA). But, hey, what’s with the details when this is the bestest scientific advance since the invention of sliced bread? Except even that’s an ironic idiom since we’ve had bread and knives to cut it with for centuries. The idiomatic sliced bread is that soggy stuff designed to fit into our toasters and the whole thing is marketing speak to make us feel better about eating cardboard rather than “real” bread.

Anyway, it seems the laboratories of humankind have now acquired godlike powers to bestow life on the clay of the inanimate. So far, there’s been little commentary from the Creationists and others of a religious bent. Perhaps they don’t feel threatened by this one giant leap forward for mankind since, as it stands, it’s hard to see what value this leap has for us (other than the potential to make a monster of some kind — mad scientists in books and films are notorious fabricators of life so there’s no need for them to be shy in replicating this in the real world). Except, it will be decades before anyone makes money out of it (the true criterion of utility in these commercialised times), unless the real plan is for weaponisation as super soldiers or a bacteria that will wipe out everyone on the planet except those with a science gene. A hypothetical Darwin would warn we have created the species that will displace us in evolutionary terms. Being old, I fear I will miss out on seeing how these interesting times turn out.

All of which brings me to the second book in my brief Lucius Shepard retrospective. This is Two Trains Running (still available for you to buy direct from the excellent Golden Gryphon if you are so inclined). This is a synthetic bookform made up of the DNA of non-fiction, journalism, non-genre fiction and a genre-bending science fiction and fantasy. Confused? Well so you should be when confronted by a new lifeform. In his introduction, Shepard explains how he was commissioned to write a magazine article about an alleged “hobo” organisation called the Freight Train Riders of America (FTRA). We then have an expanded form of that article, followed by two short stories capitalising on the research — only one is genre fiction. The result is a potential textbook to teach the techniques of writing for different markets. But, for me, it offers little value.

As an inveterate surfer of the net, serendipity offers hundreds of chances a day to read about events and ideas. My eye would have passed unhesitating over an article about FTRA. This is not to deny articles of this ilk any legitimacy but, time being limited for browsing, interest is unlikely to be piqued by information about biker gangs in Tokyo, murderous vagrants in US box cars, and sewing circles in Maidstone. Frankly, actually reading the article on the printed page does not make the information any more interesting. More importantly, it adds nothing to the two stories to understand the actual source material. Culturally, we have all the right stereotypes of those who use freight trains as their private passenger service. Television and film routinely exploits train hopping and the lifestyles of the homeless as plot devices. Indeed, arguably, the one genre story, “Over Yonder”, did not have to rely on “hobos”. The plot is that anyone can be tested and, if found of suitable mettle, offered new opportunities. So, for Shepard, it was serendipitous he happened to be thinking about FTRA when he sat down to write a redemption story.

All this is my fault. Before spending my money, I should have read the blurb posted on Golden Gryphon’s site. As it is, the book came as a rude awakening and will sit in a box untouched by human or Craig Ventor’s new lifeform until I sell on the rump of my current collection. Definitely not worth the money for me but, if you are into an infodump on FTRA, this book is for you.

For my other reviews of Lucius Shepard, see:
Beautiful Blood
The Dragon Griaule
Louisiana Breakdown
The Taborin Scale
Vacancy and Ariel
and for a novelette in the anthology Other Earths.

Louisiana Breakdown by Lucius Shepard

May 20, 2010 1 comment

It’s a rather strange but understandable human need to seek comfort in certainty. Choose between the two different signs in P.T. Barnum’s tent: “This way out” leads to clear understanding and positive expectations, while “This way to the egress” leads to frustration and an understanding the world is not always reliable. So it is that we live in a world dependent on labelling. For example, marketers tell us whether the cheese is from cows, buffalos, goats or sheep, whether it has interesting additives, was left by a fire for smoking, has been infected with hopefully benign bacteria, and so on. There are hundreds of different varieties to label, but the permutations of processing techniques and the compatibility of ingredients do have a finite limitation. If it will not set, it cannot be labelled “cheese”. Now consider labelling the arrangement of words. Ignoring the fact of different languages, the use of words within each culture is potentially infinite, limited only by the imagination of the creators and the sensibilities of the audience. The number of labels we have invented for describing word usage are therefore mind-blowingly diverse and confusing.

Take, for example, the notion of purple prose — we should be thankful the Romans valued purple as their stand-out colour rather than chocolate which might be mistaken for some of the bullshit we see deposited on the pages of some books. A sentence like, “Her face aglow in the dashboard lights, the sheen of sweat on the upper slopes of her breasts glowing as well.” captures the slightly pulpy feel of romantic fiction as the man observing the woman anticipates a possible explosion of delight. Now, guiding you through my thinking process, where is the line between purple and gothic? I see you pull back, snarling that I’m drawing you down a false path. A single sentence cannot be the litmus test of gothicness. Yes, to the ideas of allusive romanticism and, to some extent, melodrama, but to be gothic it must be in service to the genre we now call horror. Context is everything! So that’s why, when you limit the geography to a small chunk of the US and ensure some horror or supernatural content, you get the label Southern Gothic.

And Louisiana Breakdown by Lucius Shepard is a brilliant and sustained example of the most wonderfully purple prose you could ever hope to find corralled between the boards of a hardback book. Frankly, after the first few pages you stop caring that this is an overwritten style. It all blurs into a single tour-de-force, delighting the reader’s ear to hear an author’s voice lusting after just the right words to capture the mood of this Southern town called Grail.

Grail — such a wonderfully ambiguous word with denotational and connotational meanings springing to the ever-alert mind. Perhaps the one most appropriate here would be the notion that, no matter who or what you are, you can spend a lifetime in a futile search for something once important to you. Why futile? Because the activity of searching comes to define who you are. The commitment and determination are investments of effort. The greater the investment, the more likely it is that continuing the search becomes more important than the object of your search. The sad result is often that, even if you do find it, you are unlikely to feel it was worth all that effort. Put another way, a disconnection or breakdown occurs between process and purpose.

Imagine a town rather than an individual entering into a kind of Faustian bargain. Do this and you will prosper. Generations later, the inhabitants still go through the motions. They have had the benefits of the deal, such as they are. But even those most committed to the original spirit of the deal grow tired of its limitations. Two hundred years ago, prosperity in a flea-bitten town on the Louisiana coast might look good. All you have to do is stay put and all but the unlucky chosen will have a good standard of living. Translate that into a modern context where you can see the world outside doing rather better than your run-down pinprick on the map. Now you have to wonder whether the “grail” of prosperity is still worth pursuing. And then you ask whether you are allowed to stop the process and what the consequences might be if you did.

At one level this is a story of “love” at first sight as a stranger in town falls for a local woman. Except such romanticism can never be separated from the context of who we are as people, where we happen to be, and why we are there. Sometimes life, or more supernatural forces, can play tricks on us but, in our hearts, we are always the victims of our own weaknesses and failings. So often, we can never rise above our own limitations and be better people. We can wish it were otherwise. But that’s the inevitable flaw in what makes us human.

At this point, I will reach my climax with two quick bullet points:

buy this book even though it’s only a novella length — it’s cheese set in Southern Gothic and you won’t regret it;

buy this book from Golden Gryphon and, when you look through the in-print catalogue, there are some other masterpieces there. Support the small press industry by buying direct!

See how even my bullet points are shooting blanks today.

For my other reviews of Lucius Shepard, see:
Beautiful Blood
The Dragon Griaule
Two Trains Running
Vacancy and Ariel
The Taborin Scale
and for a novelette in the anthology Other Earths.

Vacancy and Ariel by Lucius Shepard

August 5, 2009 1 comment

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.

For my other reviews of Lucius Shepard, see:
Beautiful Blood
The Dragon Griaule
Louisiana Breakdown
Two Trains Running
The Taborin Scale, and for a novelette in the anthology Other Earths.

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