Books: Reality bites into these science fiction storiesThe Empire of Ice Cream, by Jeffrey Ford (319 pages; Golden Gryphon Press; $24.95)
People who dislike science fiction and fantasy often say it's because such stories have nothing to do with "real life."
I beg to differ. And offer, as evidence, two new story collections, George Zebrowski's Black Pockets and Jeffrey Ford's The Empire of Ice Cream. Yes, these writers break the laws of reality, but their fictions have teeth because they bite into issues confronting us, from politics to the perils and promises of the Information Age.
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Ford's The Empire of Ice Cream is more surreal . . . More focused on the beauties of language a good writer can deploy, it still manages to be relevant while offering arresting tales.
The title story is a perfect example. It concerns a man with synesthesia, a rare condition in which a person's sensory inputs blend; some folks, for example, can "hear" colors or detect tactile elements in visual stimuli. The subject matter is perilous; any author trying to pull off such a story faces the danger of condescending to a character stricken with such a condition or producing a kind of literary freak show. But the quiet beauty of Ford's writing stimulates our fascination and also our empathy:
"Are you familiar with the scent of extinguished birthday candles? For me, their aroma is superseded by a sound like the drawing of a bow across the bass string of a violin. The note carries all of the melancholic joy I have been told the scent engenders — the loss of another year, the promise of accrued wisdom. Likewise, the notes of an acoustic guitar appear before my eyes as a golden rain, falling from a height just above my head only to vanish at the level of my solar plexus. . . . These perceptions are not merely thoughts, but concrete physical experiences. Depending upon how you see it, I, like approximately nine out of every million individuals, am either cursed or blessed with a condition known as synesthesia."
There is both warmth and menace in those lines; already, we wonder where this story, and this cursed-or-blessed narrator, will go. The way he perceives the world is unusual, and yet the story reminds us that even those of us considered "normal" must see the world far differently from any of our peers.
The tale also can be read as a sort of extended metaphor for living in the Information Age, where sensory overload or at least confusion seems almost impossible to avoid. With our camera cell phones, our Blackberrries and laptops, our plasma TVs and iPods and movie multiplexes, we are, daily, presented with an avalanche of input. We donít have to be synesthetic to feel vexed.
Ford is on his game, too, in "Botch Town," a novella set on Long Island. Again, he tinkers with reality, but in this case the mere passage of time becomes a tool for the twisting and untwisting and re-twisting of human souls. If you still think you dislike speculative fiction, read this story. Yes, it has its odd elements, but it also has Ford's eye for the human condition, especially as seen through the eyes of children. In one passage, parents have decided to tell their sons that a certain fat, jolly man who brings presents once a year is, in fact, a construct. Our narrator takes it like a young man; his brother does not:
"Jim went to pieces. He sat down in the rocking chair by the front window, the snow falling in huge flakes outside in the dark, and he rocked and sobbed with his hands covering his face for the longest time."
Oh, the tales we all tell.
— John Mark Eberhart, The Kansas City Star, Sun, May. 21, 2006