SEPTEMBER 18, 2012
KATHY GOONAN IS SOMETHING of a writer’s writer, a highly literate SF novelist, enormously respected by her colleagues but less familiar to the general reading public. She’s best known, perhaps, for her “Nanotech Quartet,” beginning with Queen City Jazz in 1994, which follows a young woman through a future America rendered strange, beautiful, and dangerous by out-of-control nanotechology and genetic engineering. Her 2007 novel In War Times is a gripping, sometimes dream-like tale, set during and after World War II, that makes subtle use of physicist Hugh Everett’s many-worlds theory to examine alternate ways in which the past 65 years of history might have played out. 2011’s This Shared Dream, a direct sequel to In War Times, is also receiving strong reviews (a paperback edition will appear in early July). Many of Goonan’s novels have been nominated for genre prizes, with In War Times winning the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best SF novel of the year, and she is also an excellent short story writer.
As is the case in her novels, most of the tales in Angels and You Dogs, her first published collection, center on well-developed characters living in the near future who must deal with the deep weirdness of unrestrained technological change. The volume opens with the oddly titled cover story “Angels and You Dogs.” This is actually an atypical work for Goonan, and for this collection, because it’s fantasy rather than science fiction. It concerns an accountant, Evan, who is deeply depressed because his much-loved partner, Charles, has left him for another man. Advertising for a roommate to share his beautifully-put-together Key West home, he winds up with Lulu, an eccentric young woman who owns a dog named Ambrose and who immediately begins violating his house rules and seriously shaking up his life. Although Lulu does help pull him out of his depression, Evan soon discovers that she has her own dark secret: she accidentally killed her husband and is now contacting him through a psychic who uses the dog as a medium. The story shifts fluently between the serious and the comic; Evan’s somewhat fussy house and his collection of classic Fiestaware are lovingly described, and both protagonists come believably to life. In its superbly crafted language, strong descriptions of scene, and well-developed characters, this story exhibits Goonan at her most literate and literary.
“Solitaire,” the second story in the book, moves us into the realm of science fiction but still lacks any of the futuristic background for which Goonan is best known. It concerns an odd little boy, Norman (nicknamed Stumblebum for his clumsiness), who is smart but perhaps mildly autistic. A loner and intensely introverted, he loves playing cards by himself, and does so over and over again. One day, however, forced by his mother to go outside to play, Norman discovers another boy, one even odder than himself, living alone in a shack outside of town. They form a friendship by playing solitaire — and we eventually realize, as does our protagonist, that the second boy is both an alien and a shapeshifter whose spacecraft has crashed in the nearby woods. More alone even than Norman, the alien yearns to go home. Loneliness and the need for companionship, as seen in both “Angels and You Dogs” and “Solitaire,” is one of the most common of Goonan’s themes and will appear over and over in this collection.
Many of the stories that follow appear to be set in either the universe of the “Nanotech Quartet” or one similar to it. They share a number of basic assumptions and extrapolations: nanotechnology and genetic engineering will develop quickly in the near future, with awe-inspiring results, but will also go badly wrong — perhaps due to overzealous usage without proper safeguards, perhaps due to intentional sabotage, or both. Large swaths of the United States, and particularly the big cities, will become either uninhabitable by normal human beings or extremely hazardous, threatening to change those who trespass into something far from human. Those who remain untransformed will watch from a not-particularly-safe distance, deeply puzzled by the mysterious, possibly self-conscious actions of the nanotech that will gradually and unpredictably transforms parts of the planet into a sort of fairyland.
“Sunflowers,” the first nanotech story in the collection, concerns a man who has lost his wife and daughter after a terrorist attack in which they accidentally inhaled nanos that eventual transformed them into something more or other than human. Able to perceive so many alternate realities in such overwhelmingly beautiful detail, they essentially have chosen to commit a form of ecstatic suicide rather than retreat from their visions. Years later, the protagonist travels to Amsterdam to buy those same nanos on the black market, hoping to follow his loved ones into a less painful place, but he meets another woman who has taken them and survived and who shows him how to use the art of van Gogh to hold on to reality. This is a richly textured, deeply emotional tale, an example of Goonan at her best. “The Day the Dam Broke” concerns a doctor from the domed city of Los Angeles, a high-tech haven, who volunteers for a medical mission to the hinterlands where she will use advanced nanotechnological techniques to help the somewhat backward indigenous population deal with serious, often rogue nano-induced illnesses. Upon arriving, she immediately earns the enmity of the local doctor, who hates nanotechnology because he doesn’t understand it and sees her as competition. This leads to the eventual destruction of the town and the protagonist’s decision to live as a heartbroken hermit somewhere in the northern Rockies. Like most of Goonan’s work, the story features well-conceived, deeply flawed characters, while at the same time incorporating a nicely science-fictional homage to James Thurber. Unfortunately, it also has a significant structural weakness: to strengthen her climax, Goonan finds it necessary for the dam on a nearby river to fail, coincidentally, just at the moment when the town is faced with a serious nano outbreak. The author tries to prepare her readers for this eventuality, but it doesn’t entirely work.
“Memory Dog” may well be the most powerful story in the book. Its narrator is a dog who has had her former master’s mind incorporated throughout her nervous system. In a complex back-story we learn that the human narrator was involved in the development of memory-enhancing drugs and rather stupidly experimented on himself. Losing track of his surroundings one day, he accidentally allowed his three-year-old to run out into the street, where she was killed by a car. This negligence has destroyed his marriage and led him to the brink of suicide, and perhaps beyond. His wife has turned to another man for solace, a famous political activist and author of “smacks,” incendiary political messages sent out using advanced, nano-based podcasting technology that the repressive government can’t censor and that those who receive them believe implicitly. For this he is eventually arrested and tortured. Now, although he has had a serious stroke (induced by his torturers), they are on the run from the government, continuing to send out the smacks he had previously recorded. The narrator, in dog form, stays with and watches over his unsuspecting former wife, eventually providing her with an inventive, high-tech way to overthrow the government. Goonan does a marvelous job of portraying a consciousness that believably combines human and canine attitudes and abilities. We understand not only the agony and guilt of the narrator’s human side, but also the dog side’s single-minded enthusiasm and absolute love for her mistress. “Memory Dog” was the runner-up for the 2009 Theodore Sturgeon Award for short fiction.
The less complex but still dazzling “Electric Rain” features another distinctive narrative voice — a preteen girl living in a future Washington, DC where terrorists have unleashed rogue nano with astonishing results. “The Bridge,” which might easily be filmed with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, is an odd but highly successful take on the noir detective tradition (the hero even has a bottle of whiskey in his desk drawer); at first Goonan lays on the noir tropes so heavily that one assumes the story is going to be a parody, but she plays everything straight, confronting her has-been, technophobe P.I. with a devilish murder mystery that can only be solved by a well-conceived combination of nanotechnological wizardry and old-fashioned, 1930s-era detective work. I was a bit skeptical of this story at first, but it quickly won me over.
Other tales in the volume, probably unconnected to Goonan’s nano future, include: the funny and very silly “The Bride of Elvis,” set at a future Graceland where Elvis has been deified and his five brides either are, or think they are, aliens, waiting for his spaceship to return; the much more serious “Susannah’s Snowbears,” which features advanced and mysterious aliens who manipulate the title character and her scientist parents to get what they need from a repressive future society; “Klein Time,” a nicely done riff on the classic C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner story “Vintage Season,” in which a pair of immaterial beings, presumably from our far future, hitchhike in the minds of a married couple in post-World War II Prague, bickering and soaking up the sights until one of them decides to defect; “Dinosaur Songs,” a surreal tale in which dinosaurs are revealed to have been singers whose songs were addictive, making them of considerable interest to the military; “Waiting to Talk to You,” which concerns the grief of a mathematician whose work led to the discovery of a hyperspace transportation system, but whose lover was lost in the first attempt to use the new technology; “The String,” the story of a man whose daughter is dying from cystic fibrosis and who becomes obsessed with the idea that by solving the complex topological problem represented by her knotted-up kite string he can save her life; and “Sundiver Day,” which concerns a brilliant teenager who becomes obsessed with the idea of cloning her recently dead brother, even if it means carrying him to term in her own womb.
One of the fascinating things about reading a single-author collection is that you can quickly pick up on themes the writer keeps returning to, as well as their favorite tropes and stylistic techniques. I began by mentioning Goonan’s fascination with the possibilities and dangers inherent in both nanotech and genetic engineering. Although these two research fields obviously terrify her, she seems to believe they represent the best chance for human beings to transform themselves into something superhuman — or, to use the currently fashionable term, posthuman. In story after story we meet characters who are still much like us, but who are forced to interact with those who are no longer bound by human limits. There’s awe in these interactions, not to mention fear, and a good bit of yearning, for Goonan’s characters, over and over again, are intensely lonely and looking for someone or something that is absent from their lives. They deeply miss loved ones who are either estranged or gone, whether into death or posthumanity. Once in a while, as in “Klein Time” or “Memory Dog,” we see things from the posthuman side, but these viewpoint characters are invariably limited by their biological containers. The truly alien beings who appear in such stories as “Solitaire,” “Susannah’s Snowbears,” and “Sunflowers” are always portrayed from the outside. The stories’ viewpoint characters can see their forms (sometimes organic, sometimes not), and can even develop relationships with them, but can only guess at what is going on beneath the surface. Perhaps this is just Goonan’s way, a science-fictional way, of empathizing with the human condition — limited by the flesh, but always yearning for the ineffable.