31 March 2004

"Unidentified Objects" by James P. Blaylock

Every now and then I discover, usually toward the back of a double-stuffed bookshelf, a book I forgot I owned, a book I can neither remember buying nor receiving as a gift. These are magical moments which cause me, for a second or two, to believe in book fairies, those wonderful sprites who bring books to their perfect readers. (Sometimes their judgment is wrong, alas, but I love them nonetheless.)

13 Phantasms and Other Stories by James P. Blaylock is a book I forgot I owned. I must have bought it recently, because it is the April 2003 printing. But when? Where? Why?

Why is perhaps easiest to guess at. Blaylock is one of the many writers I have long been meaning to read. Long ago, I read his story "Unidentified Objects" because it accomplished the nearly impossible: it was included in an O. Henry Awards collection, after having been published in Omni. A science fiction story published in a science fiction market reprinted as one of the best short stories of the year in a mainstream collection. When I discovered that O. Henry volume in the local library, I held it like an egg containing an earthquake. I thought: If an SF story can make it into an O. Henry Awards collection, it must be the greatest story ever written by any human being in history.

I read the story and didn't think much of it. "No wonder it didn't win any SF awards!" I said to myself. "It doesn't explain how the spaceships work!" I decided that any SF lauded by non-SF readers must be nambypamby, hoitytoity, pretentious junk.

Perhaps that's why I bought the book. "Unidentified Objects" was published in 1989. I am a very different reader now than I was fifteen years ago. I expect I bought the book because I wanted to know what had so desperately upset my younger self.
All the collected pieces of our imagistic memory seem sometimes to be trivial knickknacks when seen against the roaring of passing time. But without those little water-paint sketches, awash in remembered color and detail, none of us, despite our airy dreams, amount to more than an impatient ghost wandering through the revolving years and into an increasingly strange and alien future.
"Unidentified Objects" is one of those stories that makes defenders of the science fictional tradition pound their fists against dilating doors and retreat to shelves of mouldering Analogs to regroup. (Blaylock would not hold this against them, and the title story of the collection is a gentle homage to such folks, though it does suggest they need to mail themselves back to 1947.)

The beauty of "Unidentified Objects" is that the fantastic elements are not ambiguous, but the realistic ones are. I never doubted the science fictional ending, but nearly everything else in the story is left incomplete, ambivalent, a welter of suggestion.

Blaylock has won and been nominated for a number of awards, including two World Fantasy Awards for short fiction, but this story doesn't seem to have garnered much notice within the SF world, and certainly no notice comparable to inclusion in an O. Henry Awards collection. Here, then, we seem to have a story which is publishable within a science fiction market but appeals more to people who don't read SF than people who do. I would happily give this story to anyone who told me they hate SF, because it is evocative and quirky, an affecting exploration of nostalgia and the passage of time. The writing is excellent, with some sentences and paragraphs so carefully balanced that the addition of one word would ruin them. There is nothing within this story that could ever embarrass the SF genre.

Except it doesn't tell you how the spaceship works. It doesn't imagine a carefully-extrapolated future world or a bizarre and complex far future galactic empire. It doesn't explore alien biology or anthropology. It doesn't have any wizards or wyverns, dark lords or dwarfs. It is not set in an obviously alternate reality. No Great Beings peer from beyond the shadows, sending us colours from outerspace. The reader does not come away with a sense of wonder. If anything, there's a sense of loss and confusion, the smallness of any individual life.

Could this story have been published outside of the SF markets? Anything is possible, but it would probably have been difficult, because most mainstream editors would, I expect, want the science fictional ending, understated as it is, made more "realistic". They might have published it anyway, though, because it's such a fine example of all that can be accomplished within a short story by a writer in full control of his craft. Certainly, most mainstream fiction magazines are not limited only to publishing stories of the most stringent realism, though most SF magazines, by their nature, are limited only to stories which have at least a hint of an SF element.

Samuel Delany has said that SF is the most encompassing form of writing, because any sentence could appear in an SF story, whereas "mundane" stories are limited to sentences which make sense in the "real world". Our publishing practices, though, turn this equation around: mainstream markets are welcome to publish any sentences they want, while SF markets can only publish sentences which add up to a story that is at least marginally SF.

Hence, while SF is the most encompassing form of writing in theory, in reality it is considerably more limited than mainstream fiction.