Locus Magazine Review

Thumbprints, by Pamela Sargent (Golden Gryphon 1-930846-29-0, $16.95, 282pp, tp) October 2004. Cover by Jill Bauman.

Pamela Sargent's new short story collection is a fine introduction to one of the field's more underappreciated writers. Sargent is not unknown, of course — she has a Nebula Award, and such novels as Cloned Lives and Venus of Dreams have been very well received. But somehow she seems less celebrated than she might be — perhaps she has not been quite prolific enough — who knows?

Thumbprints collects stories from nearly the whole extent of her career — from "Gather Blue Roses" in 1972 to the title story, original to this collection. There is a noticeable range of length (short stories to novellas) and of tone (poignant to spooky to satirical). In all, a beautifully balanced and wholly representative selection.

Several of the stories are at least peripherally related to Sargent's novels. She wrote Ruler of the Sky about Temujin (Genghis Khan) and in this collection she offers "Erdeni's Tiger," about a young woman with a chance to deflect Temujin's career before it starts. But the heart of the story is about the woman's struggle to fit into her husband's tribe despite her scary brushes with a shaman's talent. "Spirit Brother" is about Temujin's sworn brother and lover, who became his enemy, but who is compelled to try to protect him after death. These stories are historical fantasies — but Sargent also features Mongolia in "Climb the Wind," a striking contemporary SF story.

"Venus Flowers at Night" is a pendant to her Venus novels. In an Islamic-dominated future, a young man, somewhat non-traditional, is sent to North America, in part to consider the possibility of terraforming Venus. This is controversial because of cost, and the deflection of resources from a decaying Earth — and a virtual tour of a potential new Venus is a key aspect of the supporters' presentation. Nice work, though I suspect it works better in association with the novels.

Sargent's satirical side shows forth in the delightful "Originals," which asks what would be valued in a society with duplicators. Original recipes are one thing — but the story's shallow protagonist despairs as her chef's creations are served elsewhere. The new story, "Thumbprints," is also satirical, mordantly so, as a struggling novelist is faced with the temptation to switch agents to a controversial but very successful one. However, the new agent's clients seem unusually prone to dying young — Could a dead author be worth more to the agent than a blocked live author? Fun as well is the parodying of contemporary bestselling title and authors.

There's much more here. "Gather Blue Roses" is a moving tale of the holocaust and its effect on future generations. "Shrinker" is an amusing look at another struggling writer and his wife and a cockeyed idea to solve writer's block and financial problems. "If Ever I Should Leave You" is a moving time travel story, a bit reminiscent of John Crowley's magnificent "Snow" or even Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, as a woman visits her dead lover in the past. "Out of Place" is funny and scary: What if we started to hear animals' thoughts? "Amphibians" is a fine ghost story about a woman dealing with her father's death. And "Utmost Bones," another recent story, tells of a future Earth isolated after people have taken to virtual experience. Add an introduction by James Morrow and an afterword by Sargent discussing the stories and we have a first-rate collection.

— Rich Horton, Locus, October 2004


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