Friday, 19 June 2009

The City Quiet As Death


'The City Quiet As Death' is a short story I came across by a favourite author of mine, Michael Bishop. In fact, it is co-written by Steven Utley, a name I'm only vaguely aware of. I'm glad to discover he's still writing, in a way, since it's a while since I've come across anything new by him. This may be as much due to the publishing industry here, which doesn't favour American science fiction writers and often seems to put more effort into endless reprints of perennial 'classics'. Bishops novels such as Ancient of Days, Philip K Dick Is Dead, Alas (aka the more prosaically titled 'The Secret Ascension' in its American edition) and Brittle Innings (a baseball fantasia vaguely reminiscent of the Michael Chabon novel Summerlands which fortunately, like that book, requires little enthusiasm for the game in order to enjoy it) have always shown a fascination with religion and the entangling of theological and scientific debates about the nature of the universe and of what it is to be human. This story also explores those themes, as well as being steeped in literary references. It is difficult to place generically, its Caribbean setting giving it the air of magic realism, speculations on the wilder shore of theoretical physics dipping a toe into science fiction, and the air of cosmic horror definitely giving a tip of the hat to HP Lovecraft. The presence of a giant squid may even be a cheeky riposte to Margaret Atwood's dismissive denial that any of her writing was SF, since that was the kind of stuff which featured talking versions of the aforementioned cephalopod. Inserting such an impossible creature in an immaculate facsimile of a respectable 'magic realist' story sends a gently blown raspberry in her general direction, in the unlikely event that she should be listening.

The central character, Don Horacio Gorrion, bears a strong resemblance to Roderick Usher, transferred to warmer climes, so his house is less liable to subsidence. He even has a beloved sister who has died, like Usher's Madeline, plunging him into existential despair. The mannered and overly articulated nature of the prose, which lacks a sense of any vernacular accent, makes it seem even more like a translation of a latin American magical realist story, or one of Jorges Luis Borges fables, an effect that was perhaps intentionally crafted. The literary allusions also include a list of the books in Don Horacio's library, which tend towards the existential and ontologically curious writers. Quotes are also proffered from Keats and George Eliot, which suggest the metaphysical necessity of limits to human perception, the breaking of which would allow a flooding in of sensory information which would result in madness. We should be grateful for what we don't know, it is suggested in classic Lovecraftian fashion. Finally, the setting suggests detail absorbed during a holiday, unless the town is an imaginative construct of an MC Escher like nature. You can imagine Bishop and/or Utley looking down on the precipitously plummeting streets and thinking, 'wow, what if someone where to...' But I mustn't spoil it. Read it here and enjoy.

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