Book Review – Ghost Seas by Steven Utley
This edition of Ghost Seas is a 2009 reprint of the original 1997 collection by US writer Steven Utley. Utley is a member of a talented crowd of Texans who made names for themselves in the 70s. Other members of the Turkey City Writer’s Workshop include Lisa Tuttle, Bruce Sterling and Howard Waldrop, the latter of whom is an amazing (and amazingly oddball) writer himself. There are some similarities between Waldrop and Utley in terms of their writing, and they’ve collaborated on at least one major story, “Custer’s Last Jump,” as well as the delightfully whimsical “Willow Beeman” in this collection. Utley’s solo stories are impressive in their construction, but even more so in terms of the range of subjects and genres employed. This writer’s reluctance to produce novels, or to stick to one genre, is part of the reason he remains an “Internationally Unknown Author”, as the Afterword helps to explain.
Utley’s use of science fiction tropes is often upstaged by his attention to real world events and settings, sometimes to the point where the SF devices are relegated to minor league importance. This is evident in “The Tall Grass”, which is notionally a time travel narrative in which two explorers crash land in the Devonian Period, hundreds of millions of years before our own time. Trapped in the ancient past and doomed to die, our protagonist spends his final minutes recalling his childhood on the island of Okinawa (where Utley himself lived at a similar age). The Okinawan childhood is described in loving detail, and the justification for the time travel motif is only given in the final lines when our unfortunate adventurer encounters a prehistoric centipede which he can’t remember to “flick, not swat” (p39).
More cohesive is “The Dinosaur Season”, a contemporary tale of Angstrom and his fellow dinosaur hunters at work on a dig in Texas. One of the scientists, Brian Barbee, meets an unfortunate end in the desert at the hands of those who would seek to oppose conventional scientific thinking regarding the vintage of dinosaur remains. At one point I thought this story was going to take a leap into the fantastic, but it remained firmly planted in the real world to the end, and the narrative is better for it as a result.
Utley’s fully science fictional stories, at least those collected in this volume, tend to be brief and often flippant in character. In “Upstart”, the all conquering and apparently omnipotent alien Sreen finally meet their match in the form of a human captain with the arrogance to defy them. “Race Relations” is more developed, but based on the premise that aliens kidnap humans for decades and return them to Earth transformed into hideous, hairy monsters who can only eat fruit. “Dog in the Manger” features a man vainly trying to save the Unipolitan Center (which houses many of the precious artifacts of world literature, music and art) from the military who would rather burn it down than have it fall into the hands of all-conquering aliens. The most amusing of these brief SF stories, “Michael Bates Michael Bates Michael Bates Michael”, is a fresh idea (to me at least) in the well-worn time travel paradox sub-genre.
My favourite story in Ghost Seas is probably “The Electricity of Heaven”, a truly fearsome tale that recalls the apocalyptic power of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian. Mr Maury is a newspaper editor living in Richmond during the American Civil War. Not especially concerned with printing the ‘truth’ in his paper, he refuses to believe that General Lee has been routed and that the Union forces are poised to destroy the Confederacy until he sees the proof with his own eyes. Skilfully written and obviously meticulously researched, and without any attempt to put a SF spin on proceedings, “The Electricity of Heaven” showcases the power of Utley’s work most impressively.
I can’t help but feel that Utley’s work demonstrates an ambivalent attitude toward the science fiction genre in general. “Haiti” helps to explain why this might be. The story is again lovingly crafted, and again contains a science fictional element that is here quite deliberately sidelined. The place is Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, and the time is an indefinite future in which Man, and specifically American Man, has just landed on Mars. “Haiti” revolves around the trials of an American working in a local hospital, and specifically in trying to contain an outbreak of cholera in the city’s worst slum, Cite Carton. The slums and their piteous inhabitants are described in searing detail, and the turn of events, in which our protagonist fruitlessly seeks the assistance of the U.S. Embassy for medical supplies, seems all too real. The contrast between the squalor of Haiti and the opulence of America, with its colossally expensive Mars landing, is made explicitly clear. Mars, Utley seems to be saying, should be off limits until humans can provide a basic standard of living for those right here on Planet Earth, and it is here that the tension between Utley’s realism and the conventional optimism of science fiction is starkest.
And there, I think, is one of the reasons why Steven Utley is an excellent writer but not, at least not as far as Ghost Seas is concerned at least, an excellent science fiction writer (his upcoming collections, due out from Ticonderoga Publications over the next couple of years, may prove otherwise). Utley’s stories simply don’t embody the optimism of traditional science fiction. To my way of thinking, this is less a criticism of Utley and his work than it is of the field itself, which hasn’t always encouraged unpleasant truths to be aired.