Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Review - The Wizard of Macatawa and Other Stories by Tom Doyle

Stories Included
The Wizard of Macatawa
A Sense of Closure
Hooking Up
Art's Appreciation
Crossing Borders
The Floating Otherworld
Noise Man
The Garuda Bird
Sea and Stars
Consensus Building
While Ireland Holds These Graves
Full review: The Wizard of Macatawa and Other Stories is a collection of short fiction by Tom Doyle, showcasing a broad range of his published works. With twelve stories, this volume offers an array of excellent stories with a little bit of fantasy, a lot of science fiction, and in many cases, huge dollops of creepiness. This volume features a reconstituted Ireland, an out of time L. Frank Baum, vicious advertising executives of the future, upside down aliens, Indian mythology brought to life via technology, the dystopian hellscape of high school made manifest, and so many more stories, all deftly and skillfully written and laden with sex, death, darkness, and just a touch of hope. Each story is introduced by a brief account by Doyle, outlining the background of the story, often describing what motivated him to write the story, and the circumstances under which it was written. These little individualized introductions serve to enhance each story, giving some insight into the process of their creation that serves to deepen the ensuing text.

The title story in the volume, The Wizard of Macatawa is set in the same lakeside town in Michigan where L. Frank Baum allegedly wrote The Wizard of Oz, and weaves Baum and his creation into Doyle's story to create a fantastic tale featuring a relatively unlikable but very relatable protagonist named Tip. Tip is every unhappy, terrible kid you have ever met, determined to cause as much malicious mischief as she can get away with simply because she's bored and looking for something to do. A chance discovery she and her brother make while out rowing on the lake sends the story in not quite an entirely different direction, as Tip's innate orneriness keeps the rather unusual events that transpire from taking over. There are twists and turns, as unusual people show up looking to claim the object Tip and her brother found, as well as some time travel in which Baum and a variety of characters from Oz show up and make things even more interesting. There is melancholy in the story, as seeing the future does not always mean that one finds good news ahead, but there is also defiance and hope, which elevates this story above the norm. This story won the WSFA Small Press Award in 2008, and in my opinion, the win was well-deserved.

Death is an endlessly fascinating subject for writers, but in A Sense of Closure the deaths that are central to the story are only notable because they are so rare. Doyle imagines a future in which the "Methuselah Project" made death obsolete, at least for the "Youngers", who were born after the project was completed and could be genetically altered to take advantage of it. Michael is one of the last coroners still working, as there is so little need for his services. He spends his time waiting for the call that one of the few remaining "Olders" has "closed", to use the euphemism popular in this imagined future. After a couple of cases that seem more interesting than the norm, Michael does some investigating and uncovers just a bit more than he expected. The story contemplates whether immortality might be as much of a curse as it is a boon, and also poses some interesting questions about who gets to decide the big issues in life - if someone gives a gift, are they then ethically permitted to take it away again. The story is full of questions, and like most truly good stories, leaves the resolution ambiguous.

With nearly inscrutable aliens, death, and sex, Inversions is a fascinating little story whose only real weakness is that it is so short. The story follows a pair of human envoys as they try to negotiate with the alien "Floaters", a species that looks a little bit like two squids sewn together and floating upside down in the air. The humans have been trying to convince the Floaters to attend an upcoming all-species conference and defend their rights on the interstellar stage. For their part, the Floaters seem entirely indifferent to off-world happenings, and entirely obsessed with making sure their guests maintain "proper orientation" - that is, making sure their guests present themselves upside down. A tragic misorientation leads to sex and death and then more death, and finally, to the somewhat chaotic and violent resolution of the story. The only real weakness of the story is that it is quite short, and given the strong world-building that underlies it, I would have liked to be able to explore more of the fictional future Doyle crafted for it.

Set in the high school of the future, Hooking Up is a dystopian nightmare that imagines what might happen when information technology becomes an omnipresent factor in our lives. John is a troubled teen with a string of petty offenses to his name, so his parents send him to a special school intended to whip him into shape. As soon as he arrives, John is drawn into the virtual reality that surrounds the school and his senses are assaulted by the various avatars and other virtual effects that his classmates throw at him. His efforts to participate in class only draw more derision, and even the mandatory school "dance party" is a computer generated nightmare for the teen. John is essentially at his wit's end when the two apparent burnout cases in the class come to his rescue, opening new vistas for him and arming him with new tools to survive, and possibly fight back. The story is a study in the nature of teen rebellion and oppressive control that parents and the government resort to in response, illustrating that even some of those who are the architects of a dystopia might not realize it, and may even be counted among its victims.

A somewhat disturbing story about an artist in a world devoid of art, Art's Appreciation examines the fine line between madness and artistic genius through the eye of an unpleasant and unsettling protagonist. Disaffected and dissatisfied, Art lives in a future world in which advertisements of every possible configuration lay siege to the senses of anyone who dares to step out onto the street, answer their phone, or even answer their own door. Art has defenses - specially programmed computer helpers that filter out the pervasive advertising to make Art into a free man, beholden to none of the corporate pitches that dominate every else's lives. Art is, however, a thief, having stolen his precious bots from the advertising company he works for. Art is also probably insane, and murderously so. One of the elements that makes this story so interesting is that the reader only sees the world through Art's madness and paranoia, so it is possible that some, or even all or the story is just a delusion spun by Art's unhealthy mind. On the other hand, Art does discover that in a world devoid of art, the most radical and rebellious thing one can do is create some, even if doing so is almost accidental. reading the story is a quite disquieting albeit rewarding experience.

With his penchant for creating mentally ill protagonists. Doyle makes many of his stories deeply ambiguous, posing the metatextual question of how reliable the narrator is to the reader. In Crossing Borders, the protagonist is something of a secret agent, but her lack of emotional memory means she flits back and forth between the various heavy hitters on the galactic stage, first cozying up to one side and then to the other. Along the way, she creates art out of the results of her liaisons and her own tortured mind. As in Art's Appreciation, Doyle draws a connection between madness and artistic creativity, and as in that story, the link between the two is deeply unsettling. The story is of intrigue, sex, and betrayal intercut with snippets from the protagonist's former life as Robynne, a wealthy but indifferent college student, and the backstory only serves to make the main story even more disturbing. One skill that Doyle has in spades is the ability to write about the dark underbelly of human existence, and this story is a sterling example of that fact.

In the most surreal story in the volume titled The Floating Otherworld, Doyle draws upon his experiences in Japan to craft a tale about an American coming to grips with essentially the spirit of Japan. Written in the second person, which gives it a visceral sense of immediacy ,the story at times seems almost reminiscent of some of the more ethereal portions of Doyle's American Craftsmen series, as the spirits of the dead from Japan's past killed at the hand of Americans show up in an almost angry reproach of the protagonist's very presence in their country. As with many of the other stories in this volume, the connection between love, sex, and death is featured prominently, as the main character's infatuation with the Japanese night receptionist Kaguya runs from an idle crush to a much more serious relationship against a shifting and increasingly terrifying backdrop. The story is compelling, although sometimes confusing, as it is laden with imagery and symbolism that is sometimes somewhat opaque.

Noise Man is an alternate history story, or more accurately, a secret history story. Set during the years leading up to and during World War II, the main character is Kenneth, a youthful prodigy who has a knack for working with radios, and the ability tell by sound when people lie. When his mother walks out of her abusive marriage to Kenneth's father, Kenneth elects to stay behind. To keep tabs on his father, Kenneth plants a listening device in the radio he made for the man to listen to while working at Bell Labs - which gets Kenneth into some trouble before he is offered a job there and starts working with a young engineer named Mike as his "noise man". While coming up with ways to eavesdrop on the Germans, Kenneth and Mike uncover a signal from outer space, and from there the story veers into secrecy and conspiracy. An appearance by Alan Turing, called in to unravel the code in the alien signal, leads to Britain sending a reply without coordinating with the U.S. Kenneth then essentially invents a whole branch of science fiction in order to cover up the alien contact and prepare the populace for the future revelation that they are not alone in the universe. The story wends through some twists and turns and ends with Kenneth essentially orchestrating the Roswell incident. Like many of the protagonists in Doyle's stories,Kenneth is a little bit mad and clearly obsessive, but he isn't quite as terrifying as some of the others.

Blending Indian mythology with an imagined high-tech future, The Garuda Bird tells two interconnected stories alongside one another, shifting back and forth between them. One story is an account of the high stakes of Indian politics of the future, complete with a powerful dynastic political family, a band of disaffected nationalistic fascists, and a military pilot in love with a woman above his station who uses cutting edge transdimensional technology to engage in nighttime liaisons to win the heart of his love. The other is a piece of Indian myth featuring a royal family, an opportunistic smith, and a soldier in love with the princess of the realm who uses a mechanical bird to fly into her bedchamber and woo her while disguised as the god Vishnu. The deliberate parallels in these stories are a bit heavy-handed, but the story takes a very clever left turn near the end that makes it all come together beautifully.

A story of love, death, and regret, Sea and Stars features a collection of friends on something of a holiday in Brazil, where almost on a lark they decide to participate in an Umbanda ritual. John is whiling away the hours getting tipsy and stoned on the beach with his college friend and fellow lawyer Paul and their mutual friends Miguel, Elena, and Deb. Most of the reason for the vacation seems to be to give Paul and John a break from their stressful lives working at large law firms, they are reconnecting with Miguel in his home country, and Paul has brought his current girlfriend and ex-girlfriend along for the journey. The quirky thing about the story is that even though John is the narrator of the story, the real protagonist of the story is Paul: He is the one who needs a break from law firm life, he is the one with the fiancee and the somewhat congenial ex, he is the one that Miguel plays backgammon with, and so on. When the Umbanda ritual takes place, predictions of Paul's future take center stage, and the critical decision John makes and later regrets relates entirely to Paul. Most of the story other than the Umbanda ritual feels kind of perfunctory, especially the denouement, but the ritual scene is so powerfully presented that it makes up for any deficiencies elsewhere, and the last two paragraphs are such a punch in the gut that the story will linger with you for a while.

In Consensus Building, Doyle returns to the pervasive nature of modern advertising and provides the story with a protagonist almost as ruthless and frightening as Art in Art's Appreciation. Actually, in many ways Irene, the main character in this story, is more terrifying than Art, because she seems to be willing to stop at literally nothing to get to where she wants. The story itself is built up of layers of deception - in the opening scene Irene gets up for work and realizes while she is getting herself ready for the day that her neural implants are trying to advertise products to her in a relatively subtle manner, although not so subtle that she does not notice it. Concerned, she sets up an appointment with the tech support people at her work, but decides to rush things when the events of her day get progressively more disturbing. This leads to the first twist in the story, which seems almost natural, and then the second, which is where the plot gets truly chilling. The story is equal parts entertaining, prophetic, and deeply disturbing.

I have read (and reviewed) While Ireland Holds These Graves before, but it is a story that holds up to repeated reading - especially after one has read Doyle's American Craftsmen books. In the Craftsmen books, Doyle plays with the idea of the magical power provided by a national mythology, imagining the heart of America to be a place where the honored ghosts of the country's war dead reenact the battles from the past continuously. This sort of theme crops up multiple times in Doyle's work, and the only real difference in While Ireland Holds These Graves is that the "ghosts" are technological creations, built out of the literature of the past. The story imagines a future Ireland, in a world in which advances in communication and information technology have homogenized the world into something of a monoculture, recapturing its own mythic and literary past via Personality Reconstructs, or "PRs" made by plumbing the output of Ireland's literary figures. The real question that lurks behind this story is whether a culture can subsist entirely upon nostalgia, because it seems that the those who hunger for "Ireland" in the story don't really hunger for a nation, but rather for the memory of the nation as it once was. The protagonist in the story is one of the architects of this new Ireland, and when he teams with the recreated James Joyce, seeks out the recreated Newly Dead Yeats (as opposed to Young Yeats and Old Yeats), and embarks on a journey that ends, inevitably, in regret. The story delves into the question of what makes national identity, what is lost through cultural assimilation, and what is lost through holding on the the past. It is an excellent story, but disturbing in a way that seems to be Doyle's calling card.

Overall, this is, quite bluntly, an excellent collection of stories that is well worth reading. Every story in The Wizard of Macatawa and Other Stories is at the very least good, and a couple are absolutely brilliant. Most of the stories are brutally insightful, and will almost certainly prove to be intriguing, thought-provoking, and consequently, deeply disturbing. Anyone who is interested in short science fiction and fantasy with a side order of delicious morbidity and terror would be certain to enjoy this set of stories.

2007 WSFA Small Press Award Winner: El Regalo by Peter S. Beagle
2009 WSFA Small Press Award Winner: The Absence of Stars: Part 1 by Greg Siewert

WSFA Small Press Award Winners

2008 WSFA Small Press Award Nominees

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