You know, since I got into this writing about Speculative Fiction gig, coming up on three years ago, Ben Peek’s always been there. It’s odd that I haven’t actually read anything by him before(besides his blog posts). Sure, I have work that he did with Twelfth Planet Press (on my notorious TBR-after-review–copies-are-done pile) but one thing leads to another and I never quite make it through that pile.
In some respects though, reading Dead Americans, which collects some of his best work over the last decade, is the best way to discover him. You get to see a good range of work and you get to see a consistent facility with words and style. I have no reservation in saying that he’d be one of Australia’s best writers. He demonstrates in Dead Americans, the ability to play inside the science fiction genre, riffing off it’s history or building dark futures so real that you shake the ash from your coat after reading. Then with seeming ease he will walk you into some fractured liminal zone between genres where you don’t quite know where you stand or what the rules are.
Collections by their nature can be quite fractured, different pieces written at different times with different influences, but I find Dead Americans hangs together well. There Is Something So Quiet and Empty Inside of You That It Must Be Precious, kicks off the collection. A story that took us to that fractured liminal zone straight away - a Longmire meets the Twilight Zone filmed through a brown filter:
In the colourless bright light of the afternoon, Williams drove to where she lived, a spare key from the landlord, talking it out to himself—“Burnt down as a cover, killed cause she was too beautiful, maybe; beautiful to someone, anyway”—beneath the drone of the radio. Currie had a roommate, but no one had answered when the real estate called so, on instinct, he decided to go and have a look. Instinct, that was all. He did not know Amanda, did not know her family, and he took that to be a sign that she was a decent, reasonable human being, and someone who was not prone to burning down a mosque because she was too white and too Christian to leave the petrol can at home. Not that he thought she did that, anyway. The burnt out mosque was just a setting, a place where the event happened, where her burnt face had pressed itself into his mind, and he had not found a way to leave it behind, yet.
While Peek’s got us there in that zone, he switches direction, wrong footing the reader with The Dreaming City – the real tale of Mark Twain and his visit to Sydney. At this point I am marvelling how he can twist early Sydney and Ned Kelly into the one story and maintain a style that while not a pastiche of Twain, certainly evokes a tone and style that points to him.
The deck was ragged, empty, and filled with invisible spirits: the till turned left and right, spun by the hands of an unseen and pointless sailor; above, the remains of the rigging flapped, trailing through the air as decayed streamers and confetti; while the cabin door to the captain’s quarters was twisted off its frame, and hanging on one hinge, the glass window shattered, leaving jagged points into the middle. Twain walked on rotting planks and passed broken railings that were circled with rusted chains.
It was a parade of death, cheering him towards the hulk’s rotting belly with relentless determination.
With Johnny Cash, Peek lost me a bit. But the fault is mine, I think. I just don’t have the reference points for what he is trying to achieve with this piece – a story told in a questionnaire where you only get to see the answers. Perhaps it requires some subsequent rereading. Nevertheless, it marks nicely the shift into more solidly science fictional material or a shift from liminal spaces that could be our world into the clearly delineated fantastic whether it’s science fiction, fantasy or a melange of both.
Possession starts our descent in both in narrative and tone. Is it part of the Red Sun stories that follow? It has The Returned – bronze cyborg’s fashioned out of parts of the dead and messenger crows, that feature in the following stories, but it feels a bit cleaner, polished (in a aesthetic, not technical sense, all his stories are polished in that regard), more hopeful than the other stories. Perhaps the world of the Red Sun at another time. We are introduced to both Eliana, a botanist working in the Aremika Shaft (a practically bottomless fissure) – helping to heal it and the broken remains of a Returned, caught up in debt that won’t let her die.
“I figured the Shaft would be a good choice. That was my idea. The Shaft. All you had to do was jump. I could never sit there and let a man cave my head in. That waiting, that—no. No. All I had to do was push Joseph back—let him get me in close, first, tell him I wanted to stand on the edge, tell him it excited me. That was all. Then I could just push him back. Then I could just jump. Then—then—I would be free.”
I have heard of these Red Sun stories ( a name coined not by Peek himself) and the three that follow are responsible for my “shaking the ash from your coat” comment above. Three different stories focussing on different cultures or facets of a world, so dark and weird that it’s like a delicious oppressive weight, stories that have the texture of dried papery skin. I felt like I needed a bath after reading them and this is a good thing
The Souls of Dead Soldiers are for Blackbirds, Not Little Boys had me in mind of new weird North Korea, a revered Queen sends her poor, undereducated, under resourced subjects to fight the might of Returned armies and the soldiers who suicide out of despair seek to return to life in the bodies of children.
At first, I thought that the doctor’s words had come back to frighten me, that it was just the lingering hint of a nightmare; but when I touched my right arm, the skin shifted, and phantom fingers pushed up against it. I screamed. It was not, perhaps, the most masculine response, but it felt—I remember it now as clearly as that moment when I first felt it—as if a hand had been trapped beneath my skin.
The Funeral, Ruined, gives the reader insight into the other side of the conflict shown in the preceding story. Linette a veteran of the wars, is coming to terms with the death and return of her lover - what it means to have him die and the be reborn in the skin of another, what it means to her and what it means for death. So much of steampunk/dieselpunk/insertpunk can be conceptual, about gadgetry. The best of the genre uses those trappings, that atmosphere to ask the hard questions that good literature always asks.
In Under the Red Sun we are treated to how Returning can affect and be abused in a familial setting and true to the touchstone of all steampunk, the Victorian age, it features grave robbing and dark dealings.
With John Wayne (As Written by a Non-American) we emerge from fantasy and enter some social commentary, in a cowboy hat and carrying a shotgun from Wallmart. While I enjoyed the story I think my lack of knowledge around the subject matter means I am missing some things here. Likewise with the next story, Octavia E. Butler (a remix). I was left thoroughly having thoroughly enjoyed this story as presented. My suspicions that there was some meta-narrative, some dialogue with the genre going on was confirmed in the acknowledgments. I need to read some of Octavia Butler’s work ( and indeed Peek’s story encourages me to do so) to fully appreciate it but its still an enjoyable read.
theleeharveyoswaldband bookends the collection nicely, we finish up with a story about a one man band, who achieved success when he lost the other band members and was made famous by a bootlegger. It’s played fairly straight until the end where we are wrong footed again.
I like that there are stories here that I might need to do some further reading to get a full appreciation of. I like fiction that stretches me, that takes me into uncharted territory but it’s a good writer that can take you along and entertain you enough so that those deficiencies or gaps in your knowledge don’t hinder enjoyment. Peek has done that here.
I have looked at the cover and title of this book a number of times and asked myself the question, had I not known of Ben would I have picked up the work. Sadly I don’t think I would have and that’s not a criticism of the publisher or Ben. These pieces don’t fall into a nice neat marketable box. The title in that sense I think targets a North American audience (and I can see why this has been done). Australian’s not in the scene (and not aware of Ben’s talent) should read it. Peek is one of those authors that can make something of their own in a genre- similar to Lanagan You’re not reading Steampunk or New Weird, you’re reading Ben Peek’s Steampunk or New Weird.
Having read this collection I am eager both to discover his earlier novel and novella and to read his spin on epic fantasy in his forthcoming trilogy from Tor.
This review was based on an ARC provided by the publisher.
For Australian readers Booktopia have a free shipping sale on at the moment (until tomorrow night). You can pre-order Dead Americans now at nearly 40% off and they will still ship it for free in March. Go here and use the code BIRTHDAY at checkout.