27 February 2018

Review - Starlings by Jo Walton

Cover by Elizabeth Story
Jo Walton
Tachyon, 1 March 2018
PB, 272pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book via NetGalley.

I knew of Walton from her longer fiction but hadn't known that she wrote short stories or poetry (the title of this collection comes from a poem, the starlings being a metaphor for light received by the earth from a distant stellar nursery). So it was a delight to read this collection - even if the author, rather modestly, distances most of the contents from actually being "short stories". She maintains instead that many of them are exercises, attempts to capture what she calls mode, or simply written before she knew how to do short stories: "For ages I felt a fraud, because my short stories were either extended jokes, poems with the line breaks taken out, experiments with form or the first chapters of novels".

I'm less sure - whatever you call these pieces, there is some very good reading here. Starlings is a nicely varied collection showing a great range from fantasy to SF to fairy tales to things I can't really classify. They are vastly entertaining, often thought provoking and invariably worth paying attention to. While one or two of the pieces are very short or are definitely, as Walton says, jokes, most are longer and stand up well by themselves.

The first story in the book, Three Twilight Tales, is a good example, joyously adopting the form of the fairy tale. "Once upon a time", it begins, as it spins its three interrelated narratives featuring a pair lovers, a man made of moonshine, an inn (complete with a mantelpiece decorated with all kinds of interesting bric-a-brac about which I want to know more), the Lord's daughter, a blacksmith's apprentice, a pedlar, a king and a white hart. The atmosphere is magical, the people are real. Just perfect.

Jane Austen to Cassandra imagines a (massively) misdirected correspondence... Walton writes her letters with such conviction you'll believe, even so, that it might, might, might just be possible - and in so doing makes some sharp comments about history, war and fate.

Unreliable Witness features just that - an old woman in a nursing home whose memory is going but who nevertheless feels the loss of her old life ("I taught you to read myself and now you're taking my books away"). Such a person may imagine all sorts of things, but does that mean they can't encounter the extraordinary?

On the Wall is another fairytale. Walton explains that this was potentially the first chapter of a novel, retelling a classic story from an unusual point of view, but she realised that she need write no more, the rest simply unfolds. And she's so clearly right. It's a gorgeous story, with faint tones of menace, shadows of the future we know will come to pass (like Jane Austen to Cassandra, and several of the other stories). Walton is though being harsh on herself by saying it's not a short story, because it is, and a perfect one.

The Panda Coin is almost  a mini SF epic. Set aboard a (perfectly realised) space station, it follows the path of a rather special coin from hand to hand, giving a glimpse of all levels of the little society portrayed. So many paths cross here and so many stories are hinted or left untold. Deftly done, with just the right amount said (and unsaid).

Remember the Allosaur is one of the jokes. What if an allosaur wanted an acting career? What could he (Cedric) do, and not do? It's acting, right so shouldn't he be able to act any part? As with other bizarre concepts in this collection, Walton writes with such conviction that, joking aside, you abandon scepticism and just think, well, what if...?

Sleeper is another excellent mini-epic. Set in a future gone drearily wrong, it both diagnoses a problem ("The Soviet Union crumbled away in 1989, let its end of the Overton Window go, and the world slid rightwards") and proposes a solution - one which raises some mind bending questions about personality, truth, memory and the future. Subtle, sophisticated and thought provoking.

Relentlessly Mundane is I think given the publication date some years ago an early entry in what is becoming a popular subgenera, which one might call post fantasy stress disorder: the return from a realm of fantasy adventure and peril to the mundane, and the effect this has. Just what would that do to you and what might it make you want to do? Here, after mourning their loss, a group of friends vow to put their experience to good use.

Escape to Other Worlds with Science Fiction is, with Sleeper and Relentlessly Mundane, another story that proposes something is wrong with the world. Here, though, we see it gradually going wrong. Told through adverts, newspaper cuttings and snippets of story - with that continual promise that SF can take you away from this - we see temptation and the coming of evil. We tell ourselves that we would resist this kind of evil but would we? Could we? It's scarily current and deeply troubling.

Joyful and Triumphant: St. Zenobius and the Aliens is a piece that Walton wrote for Christmas 2011. Its actually a fairly theological "what if" that plays little games and is also rather funny.

Turnover is a lovely SF story set on a generation ship. I loved the way it portrayed the ship with a vibrant cultural life, not just a bunch of redshirts and a team from Engineering. The designers of this community had appreciated what would be needed to keep a vessel alive and it isn't just air, water and food. But things will change when the ship reaches its destination: who wants to leave a metropolitan life for one of isolated farmsteading? Like Luke Skywalker, Fedra Orville wants to be at the centre of things. At the heart of this story is an ethical, cultural debate quite unlike anything I'd read before. Again, well-realised and thought provoking.

At the Bottom of the Garden is a short piece that made me deeply sad. But it is I think devastatingly well observed.

Out of It (for Susanna) is another retelling of an ages old story but I can't say which one because the gradual realisation is one of the joys of the story. Again, it completes something else while being complete in itself.

What a Piece of Work anticipates, I think, by several years much of the current debate about the powers - and dangers - of Big Data, as well as putting a spin on the old Asmovian idea of the Laws or Robotics. We never did get around to plumbing them into Google's servers, did we?

Parable Lost is an odd little piece: an "extended joke", Walton calls it, but as with some of the other pieces, to try to explain would give away the punchline, so I won't.

What Would Sam Spade Do? imagines a world where Jesus has been cloned. Just what would that be like? What if one of them set up as a hardboiled PI in a seamy district... partly a (well done) exercise in style, partly a genuinely intriguing piece of detective fiction, this is perhaps one the weirdest stories in the book - which is saying something!

Tradition is another weird story, one touching on themes of prejudice and tradition. Just why do we do things the same way as we were shown by our parents? And why did they do them And what's the point, really? Here the mystery is solved and it all comes to make sense but, the story seems to suggest, that didn't have to be the case.

What Joseph Felt is another very Christmasy story. I read this book in January, just missing the festivities but thesis such a well realised exploration of Joseph's role in all that that I may just show it to my wife, who's a vicar, when she's pulling together that difficult Christmas Day sermon in eleven moths' time...

The Need to Stay the Same pokes gentle fun at the pressure of creators to continually move on and explore new horizons - by posing an example that seems absurd yet comes very close to home.

A Burden Shared is a rather sad story, based on the premise of being able to assume another's pain. What difference would this burden make to a life? It's well thought out idea with some very human emotions behind it.

Three Shouts on a Hill is a play script, at one level a preposterous story beginning with Old Irish myths but then gradually roping in aspects of history, the modern world, other countries' myths and stories and finally becoming self aware and circular. By the time that happened it has rather grown on me. Great fun.

I feel less able to comment on Walton's poems (now who's the fraud, O Reviewer?) Like the stories they show great range, covering fantasy (Dragon's Song), neon midWest revenge (Not in this Town), Classical mythology (Hades and Persephone) and history (The Death of Petrarch) and Norse myths (Advice to Loki - that advice in a thoroughly modern vein: "You're worth it, and he's such a selfish prick. Go do new things, burn brighter than before...", Ask to Embla)

"Three Bears Norse" is a wonderful reworking of "Goldilocks" in the style of a saga ("An old home, a bear home, remote from human haunts/ Wall-girt and weather-warded, where ones wise in woodcraft
Lick into new life, a baby, a bear cub...")

"Machiavelli and Prospero", based, apparently, on a real letter, is like the Austen/ Cassandra correspondence an imagined communication between two people we may well suspect would have much to say to one another. "Cardenio" is a poem that Walton admits "doesn't actually mean anything" but it still says it in a  very impressive way! In "Sleepless in New Orleans" the tone is very much set by the opening lines "The moon has set/ and the fucking Pleiades/ and I have to be on a train at seven o'clock/ this morning/ but here I am/ writing poetry under the covers/ as if I am twelve"

Finally, "The Godzilla Sonnets" is a zany collection of pieces imagining Godzilla as seen through the writing of Shakespeare (Just read it. It'll make sense, really it will).

Overall this is a nice collection. While some of the pieces probably aren't short stories as such they illustrate the range of what Walton can do and almost everything here contains an arresting thought, a well turned phrase or a perceptive, different view on something. Recommended, and not just for Walton completists!

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