Kansas City Star Review

Books: Reality bites into these science fiction stories

Black Pockets and Other Dark Thoughts, by George Zebrowski (275 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.

Zebrowski's collection is the more topical. It's actually being marketed as horror, but the author's range is broader than that, and many of the "horrors" display an admirable currency.

"I Walked With Fidel" depicts Cuba's Fidel Castro as a zombie. Penniless, stripped of power, cancer-ridden, Castro seeks and finds a dubious medical treatment that prolongs his life. He lives on, even as Zebrowski implies that he longs for release. It works as pure, creepy narrative but also as rich political symbolism. No matter which party has been in power, the United States has for years viewed Castro as a kind of zombie despot, the oppressor who will not go away. Yet Zebrowski's yarn is not judgmental, or at least not strident. A mere 11 pages, this is a terrific little read.

And so is "The Coming of Christ the Joker," in which the Second Coming occurs as Gore Vidal is appearing on Larry King's TV show. As Vidal offers his arch, skeptical views on matters religious, Jesus himself appears on the set, out of thin air. This time around, though, the Savior has come not in disgust for moneychangers but in amusement, playing jokes on humanity for its own good: "He came to ridicule, not to teach or save, following the principle that a good horselaugh is the best weapon against stupidity." Jesus strips politicians naked, showing the world that its emperors have no clothes. Jesus eats a hot dog and wipes the mustard on a self-righteous policeman's uniform; when the officer threatens to arrest him, he replies, "Oh come now. If you've heard my parable about the mustard seed, you'll know why I did it." Jesus enrages Wall Street brokers by mixing up the numbers on the stock exchange's big board. They accuse him of being a terrorist.

If this seems too irreverent, remember the New Testament: There, too, Christ was a rebel with several causes. It's just that in Zebrowski's story, he smiles quite a bit more. Look back, too, at Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer-winning novel Gilead, in which the protagonist muses about whether human beings provide God with amusement. Yet Zebrowski's story, as it progresses, swims in a deeper sea, riding waves of faith, cynicism and metaphysics. Despite all his gags, this "Christ the Joker" seems to require of his true followers that they begin "searching the lower infinities" as best they can.

. . .

Oh, the tales we all tell.

— John Mark Eberhart, The Kansas City Star, Sun, May. 21, 2006


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