20 December 2003

"A Walk in the Garden"
by Lucius Shepard

This past summer, Lucius Shepard published a story at SciFiction, "A Walk in the Garden", which takes place in an Iraq occupied by American soldiers, soldiers not too different from the ones currently there except that they are well-equipped with state-of-the-art armor that offers them every convenience of the wired world, as well as protection against every imaginable form of attack. (Quite a contrast to the soldiers who really are in Iraq and don't have the armor they need.) Shepard's soldiers end up going to a mountain where a blast from a new type of bomb has ripped a hole in the quantum fabric of the universe and created a portal to a world based on some Muslim beliefs about hell and paradise. Their trip becomes one of carnage and suffering, with plenty of scenes which would fit well into the screenplay for a hundred-million-dollar summer blockbuster starring the current governor of California. To maintain a bit of self-respect, apparently, Shepard has included a couple of sentences of pop-metaphysical speculation, thus lending the otherwise purely entertaining tale a thin veneer of lit'ry virtue.

Entertaining it is. It's long, but most of it reads quickly, aside from some paragraphs in the last third which could stand a bit of editing. Shepard is one of the most capable writers ever to grace the pages of science fiction and fantasy magazines, and he's had a bit of crossover success as well, publishing in Esquire and Playboy, among others. He's often cited by SF fans as a writer people who aren't SF fans ought to be able to respect.

While Shepard certainly has a fine flair for language, a rare one, he's often his own worst enemy, giving his plots over to the worst excesses of the Tom Clancy School of Reader Manipulation. Only a few of Shepard's stories have ever seemed to me to be truly successful as works of literature, regardless of genre or marketing labels, with "The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule" standing as the pinnacle of his achievement, at least among the works of his I've read. The effect of this work on a reader is exactly the effect of the greatest literature -- it wakes you up, startles you, moves you, disturbs you, makes you view the world through a lens you couldn't have imagined before. ("R&R" seems to me almost as successful.)

How frustrating, then, to see an author of such potential and power offering us the half-baked blather of "A Walk in the Garden". If it were a story purely bent on being entertaining, it would be shorter, tighter, with clearer character arcs and a more satisfying conclusion. If it were a story which were really literature, both entertaining and enlightening, it would offer more complex characters (the characters in the story are little more than stereotypes, authorial cannon fodder), more convincing imagery (the conception of the flowery hell is really rather silly, and I found myself laughing at the whole conceit), more political and social ambiguity -- for though this is a story which has plenty to say about the current situation in Iraq, its commentary is hardly subtle and feels tacked-on. It's also now outdated, as early in the story one of the characters says, "Where you think Saddam's at? He's not dead, man. Some guys're sayin' the flowers might be the front of his secret hideout." A good story has no need to be historically accurate -- this could be an alternate universe, after all -- but nevertheless, the current-events patois doesn't so much lend the story any sort of verisimilitude as it does give in to the commodification of yesterday's news, making actual death and suffering into a story device, a cheap trick.

What caused Ellen Datlow to publish "A Walk in the Garden"? Shepard's high profile within the SF field, the reputational gravitas which lends his every pen stroke into a sacred SFnal text? He's a good writer, a damn good writer at times, and every few years or so produces something which can hold its own with the best of contemporary fiction of any sort, but the reverence he inspires in the SF field does him no good, at least if "A Walk in the Garden" is a result of this reverence. The best thing Shepard could get would be an editor who wasn't a friend, an editor who held him in barely any esteem. I think he'd enjoy the tension and frisson of such a relationship, and the result might be great work.

Fame and reverence tend to affect writers badly, as can be seen in the work of almost any writer who got famous and kept writing. Look at Faulkner and Hemingway -- hollowed out by alcohol, Portabled and Nobeled, their last works were worse than last gasps, sad attempts to recapture the spark and fury of the stories and novels they wrote when they were living in poverty and obscurity. Shepard could easily be as good a writer as Hemingway, and probably a better one, a more versatile and humane one, but he can't let the sappy success he's had within the SF field blind him to the greater possibilities within his work.