Message in a Bottle
The Analog Kid

It’s not easy, being a 19-year-old bookseller. I can’t remember a time when the book industry wasn’t on the brink of a potentially catastrophic restructuring, nor can I recall an era before the rise of the internet and ubiquitous cell-phone usage. I am constantly fighting to reconcile my generational ties to the digital age with my deep affection for the old-fashioned brick-and-mortar world of bookselling. While I am very much aware of my contradictory position, I rarely consider the effects that the last twenty years or so have had on the content of the very books I care about so much.

Until now, I’ve taken for granted the fact that cutting-edge digital technology and stories about storytelling rarely co-exist. I’d always found that there was an unspoken rule against combining high-tech plots with stories about the power of books. Even the most forward-looking sci-fi novels exist in the same media as our oldest written narratives, something which their authors seem loath to acknowledge. 

In the past few weeks, though, I read two stories that made me pause. Times, it seems, are changing, and maybe there’s hope for those of us who are young enough to spend much of our lives online yet broad-minded or nostalgic enough to wonder about what is lost in the digital age. That is, members of the Harry Potter generation, riddled with a hipster longing for the analog and accustomed to displaying our ironically low-fi lives on Instagram and Facebook.

The book that first prompted this train of thought was Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. In this debut novel by a relatively young author, a centuries-old cult of readers devoted to the search for immortality meets the brand-new cult of Google employees. Sloan deftly melds a hyper-current information-age sensibility with a bibliophile nostalgia for real-world adventure, mystery, and the smell of aging books. Delightful and unusual as Penumbra was, it wasn’t until I finished G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen that I decided this combination of myth and modernity was more a trend than a pleasant fluke. Wilson seamlessly intertwines cutting-edge digital technology, ancient Islamic storytelling, and contemporary political struggles into a tightly-paced, high-action tale. A story about information, power, and language, Alif is full of dazzling moments of intersection between a past long forgotten and a future about to emerge.

Both books are relatively unassuming: light, smart pieces of entertainment for people who just want a good story. It’s not spoiling much to say that both include an endearingly predictable romantic adventure, a wealthy-but-hopeless sidekick, and a wise, elderly mentor who helps the hero go through a little bit of obligatory maturation. In both cases the writing is good, but not revolutionary. Alif takes itself seriously where Penumbra is satirical, the former being a relatively conventional sci-fi/fantasy hybrid while the latter relies heavily on a surprising plot designed to tug at the heartstrings of young, techie readers.

What’s striking about Penumbra and Alif is the way in which they embrace books, storytelling, and the information-age reality of the internet as part of an unbroken continuum. In both, ancient tomes and futuristic coding are portrayed as two equally important and complementary ways of approaching the problems facing their respective protagonists. By effortlessly blending seemingly contradictory traditions, the authors create stories well-poised to quell the fears of those who believe modernity is inherently at odds with narrative. Alongside texting and high-speed internet connections, myth and magic still exist.


No Neanderthal

I have no memory of the first time I read Ursula K. Le Guin. It must have been sometime in the mid-seventies, when I was a kid indiscriminately devouring piles of tatty SF paperbacks. Her Earthsea books were in wide circulation, and I know she popped up in an anthology or two. I’m pretty sure I had some other titles of hers on my shelf, such as The Lathe of Heaven, about dreams that alter reality. I can’t recall many details of it, and I may in fact be remembering the low-budget TV movie version, which was short on effects but strong on atmosphere. I think it was shown during school for some unfathomable reason. The story is no more than a wispy presence to me, and I don’t know why, but to this day I often confuse it with Ray Bradbury’s “All Summer in a Day.”  If you charted my reading life on a timeline, she’d have a prominent spot in the prehistorical period, a foundational figure warmly appreciated but little understood.

The announcement that Small Beer Press would be releasing a two-volume retrospective of her short fiction at the end of November seemed like the perfect opportunity to engage in some literary anthropology, as it were. I requested advance copies of both books and started in on them right away. Best idea I’ve had in a while. As I should have known by the work that Le Guin continues to produce and the acclaim that accrues to it, she’s no quaint relic. Her older stories hold up under contemporary scrutiny, and her newer pieces stand with the older ones. The collection covers fifty years of writing and the full range of her style, as its title indicates. The Unreal and the Real comprises fantastical and mundane fiction, chosen and sorted by Le Guin herself. Volume One, subtitled Where on Earth, contains stories with a locatable setting, either an actual place or at least a possible one, while Volume Two, Outer Space, Inner Lands, contains her favorite nonrealistic tales. It’s a method of organization that highlights how blurry categories can be where an author like this is concerned—everyday events can sometimes read like fables, and the characters in a magical kingdom can be as rich and real as the people you meet on the street.

Whether she’s updating Native American myth for modern times, depicting a fractured family bickering over drinks in the suburbs, or setting in motion an extraterrestrial mining disaster, there’s a strong moral dimension to Le Guin’s work. How do we react to change and the unknown, to new technologies, new faces, new ideas? Better yet, how should we? She’s an idealist, but not a utopian, as illustrated by her parable “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” In four short pages she lays out the challenges of achieving social justice as well as anyone ever has.

I was particularly taken with a sequence of related stories set in the imaginary country of Orsinia, a place that blends aspects of several real European nations. We catch glimpses of Orsinia in many ages, as a feudal land transitioning from paganism into Christianity, and as a puppet state struggling to part an iron curtain. By focusing on the day-to-day concerns of kings, commoners, and comrades alike, Le Guin makes us feel what it is to be moved by the inexorable tides of history and politics. A wealth of perfectly chosen detail creates a reality for this fictitious landscape that goes beyond the bounds of the page. A construction site will often be hidden by a fence; each Orsinian tale is like those small windows that provide a peek at the grand edifice being built on the other side.

So fired up was I about these stories that I went in search of more. There are several that aren’t included in this latest collection, comprehensive as it is, and there’s even an out-of-print Orsinian novel about 19th-century revolutionaries called Malafrena. I hunted down a used copy and tore through it with equal alacrity and enjoyment. When I turned page forty-eight of the time-scorched paperback, a slip of paper fell out. It was a receipt from the original purchase, priced at $1.95 and dated October 29, 1977. It had served faithfully as a bookmark for almost exactly thirty-five years, waiting for someone to come along and finish the story. I don’t think it started out on my childhood shelf and found its way back to me after all these decades, but it’s nice to pretend that it did.


Fancy Bred in the Heart and in the Head

This morning I read my daughter a story featuring dragons, a wizard, and (inexplicably) three musketeers. While I’m typing this, my son is reading yet another volume in an ongoing saga about intelligent wolves. Fairly typical kid stuff, really. But their book choices lead me to ask again a question I’ve posed more than once before in different ways on Message in a Bottle: Why don’t most adults include fantasy as one of the colors on their literary palette?

Almost all children are unfazed by tales of ghosts, talking animals, and magic spells, but most of us put that sort of thing aside as we age. That wasn’t always the case—the folk stories collected by Aesop, Charles Perrault, and the Brothers Grimm were originally intended for a primarily adult audience, who must have found a great deal of entertainment and enlightenment in them as they were handed down over hundreds of years. It seems to have been the rise of the so-called realistic novel in the 18th and 19th centuries that pushed fantasy and adventure to the margins, as readers began to crave the kind of insight into human nature that comes from examining individual characters rather than archetypal figures.

Now, I’m a grownup who appreciates the drama of everyday life as much as the next guy, and who understands that basic human emotions are just about the most powerful forces at work in the world. I don’t want my fiction populated by cardboard cutouts who wave tinfoil swords at each other while Evil Casts Its Mighty Shadow Across The Land. I also don’t want to read about people who live in houses just like mine and drive cars just like I do and never confront any problem that I might not encounter on any given day. Ideally, I want a writer who can stretch my imagination and show me the unexpected, but do it in a convincing, grounded way. Fortunately, we’re in something of a golden age where authors like that are concerned.

Graham Joyce is a perfect example. His most recent novel, Some Kind of Fairy Tale, kicks off with the surprising reappearance in a family’s life of the daughter who vanished twenty years before. From the reactions of her emotionally withered parents, who don’t seem able to cope except by treating her as the teen she was two decades earlier, to the responses of her ex-boyfriend, whose life was ruined by police suspicions, the devastating effects of her loss and the shocks induced by her return are beautifully rendered. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more potent, accurate depiction of the different ways trauma can affect those left behind. Even more unsettling, though, is the explanation for her absence that slowly emerges. Can she really have been spirited away by fairies? The girl herself admits the ridiculousness of the idea, and freely submits to the ministrations of a psychologist, but why would she invent such a story? And why does she seem so much younger than she should? It would be more of a crime than usual to spoil a plot such as this, but suffice it to say that the impossible comes to seem merely implausible, and perhaps even inevitable, as Joyce spins out his pages. Whether the answers are ultimately realistic or fantastical doesn’t matter by the end, since every character’s every action is so believable.

Joyce’s prior novel, The Silent Land, is a similar combination of truth and mystery that I think is even better. In it, a married couple takes a ski vacation in France and gets caught up in an avalanche. When they struggle off the mountain and back to their lodge, they find the town completely depopulated. As they await rescue after this apparent evacuation, strange events occur that call their entire lives into question. The suspense of their situation is formidable, but what makes the book work as well as it does is the portrait of the marriage at its heart. Joyce hasn’t created this pair simply to put them through the wringer of his plot, he’s done the reverse and engineered events to illuminate their humanity. There’s a real sense of history that the two share, and the imperfections they reveal make their relationship all the richer. An extreme scenario such as this is exactly what is meant by the phrase “a test of character,” and reading The Silent Land even in the heat of summer, you’ll feel the chill of their crisis because of the warmth they share.


Joyce is not alone in his ability to balance reality and fantasy, of course. The most famous name in this category is probably Stephen King, whose finest work has this quality in spades, but there’s also Jonathan Carroll, whose directness and simplicity lend his fiction authority even when he’s at his most bizarre, describing talking dogs who help save the world from apocalypse. He’s like a guy on the next bar stool who tells unbelievable yarns—you know they can’t be true, but his details are specific and his grasp of human behavior is strong, and he doesn’t seem to care whether you’re impressed or not, so maybe they’re true after all? One seat over in that same saloon, you might find Jeffrey Ford, author of The Shadow Year and the forthcoming story collection Crackpot Palace, who has an equally wild imagination and an equally assured, no-bull tone. The very best of the lot, though, may be Kelly Link, whose collections Stranger Things Happen, Magic for Beginners, and Pretty Monsters are must reading for anyone who wants to see how psychological acuity and flights of fancy can come together in marvelously productive ways. She’ll be appearing in Seattle on July 17th as part of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, helping to nurture the next generation of creative cross-genre authors. Go see her if you can.


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