I lost track of A.A. Attanasio at the end of the last century. I had encountered him through his first novel, Radix, soon after it came out in the early ’80s. I followed up with many of his other books. Then I moved overseas, and hadn’t quite gotten the hang of browsing via Amazon yet. I seem also to have been reading out of order, because I remember enjoying the first part of the Dominions of Irth series, while later finding the Arthor books slow going (plus, they had a confusing abundance of titles and configurations). In any case, I’m sorry it happened, because Attanasio’s work is both intellectually stimulating and philosphically intriguing.
By chance, I did pick up two relatively recent anthologies, Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy and The Mammoth Book of Extreme Fantasy, that contain Attanasio short stories. One of those stories, ‘Demons Hide their Faces’, is the title work in this collection.
Attanasio’s writing is hard to characterize. ‘Transcendent’ is perhaps the best descriptor I’ve seen used. Many of his characters are striving towards an evanescent and intangible ideal. But that’s the background. In the foreground, the stories are gritty and dark, or fun and adventurous. A bit like Samuel R. Delany, but with less sex. Attanasio writes about levels of reality teetering at the edge of comprehension, but also about gnomes. It may be, to steal a phrase from another writer, that he’s just much further evolved than the rest of us. In any case, his work is generally just fun to read. If you let it, it makes you think. Plus, Attanasio does a hell of a job with titles in this collection (‘Investigations of the Fractal Blood Soul’!).
Ink from the New Moon – ‘Set 500 years ago on an alternate Earth, where the Chinese have already discovered and settled the New World, these intimate pages from a journal survey a man’s soul on his journey across the USA … the United Sandalwood Autocracy.’
A sort of Tocquevillian view of an alternate history, though from a much more personal point of view. I enjoyed the narrator’s observations, and while I’m not a big fan of alternate history, I found this to be effective and interesting in its imagination of how things might have turned out. While the bulk of the story was engaging, the ending of the story was, so to speak, conclusory and abbreviated, and something of a letdown.
Death’s Head Moon – ‘This story has no paragraph breaks. It’s a run-on, a headlong rush of history that begins on a notorious battlefield in World War One and ends at the very threshold of the war that would define one of America’s most distinctive heroes: the tough yet moral detective. A few notes at the end of this story touch on the noir tradition of crime fiction that inspired this garrulous yarn.’
The lack of paragraph breaks is something of an affectation here; the story could easily have been broken up in the standard way, and would have lost nothing by it. At the same time, it’s surprisingly readable despite the formatting. On its face, this is a pretty good story about a soldier back from war, trying to find a place to fit in. Mostly it works fairly well – I was surprised at how effectively the cerebral Attanasio conveys a plain-spoken grunt What it’s really about, though, as the lead-in says, is the development of noir fiction and its archetypes. Now, I know virtually nothing about that genre, and so missed all sorts of subtext. From reading the author’s note, I see what Attanasio was aiming for, and seems to have done very neatly. Whether he’s correct in his contentions, I can’t say, but on its face, it’s a decent story. There are a number of quotations from Nietzche, though the translation is not always perfect.
Demons Hide their Faces – ‘What if demons were real – and their passion was … reading?’
This is the one story in the collection that I had read before. It’s an effective exploration of one conception of evil, involving demons, ancient texts, and archaeology. The central idea is fascinating, but it gets submerged in the protagonist’s travails. At the end, it’s not clear what the message is. In short, a good story that could have been better.
Telefunken Remix – ‘My fictional opinion on ‘intelligent design.’ What if ‘intelligence’ is mapped into spacetime from a higher dimension? Then, suppose our planet, solar system or galaxy got off-line – and now the Designers have returned. What purpose might we serve? And for those who have known only anarchy, would we even recognize purpose?”
This is a complex concept that requires an ongoing glossary for its initial pages. It works, but the same work could have been done within the story itself. In some ways, this story is the opposite of ‘Demons Hide their Faces’. While the beginning is slow, as we grope for a deeper understanding of the structure and meaning of the universe, the ending is surprisingly powerful.
Investigations of the Fractal Blood Soul – ‘Vampires.’
That bare, one word description hints at the humor that pervades this story. I’m not a fan of opacity for its own sake, or as an authorial signpost saying ‘look how smart I am’. Attanasio doesn’t often do that, but his writing is sophisticated, intellectual – often at the very verge of being too intellectual. At the start of this story, I thought he’d gone floating off into the ether and it would be a long story to read. But he continually brings his flowing, ethereal prose crashing back down to earth, in a way that’s surprisingly successful, and often downright funny. There’s a moment when the protagonist’s sidekick literally cries ‘What’s happening?’, which I took as a little ironic meta-joke, because there is a lot happening, and a lot of it’s unclear. In truth, I never really did understand how the ‘fractal blood soul’ was supposed to work; some of the mechanics are a little rough. But I told part of the story to my mathematician wife, and I think we’re agreed that any story that can pull off a combination of vampires, zombies, and a comparison of types of infinities has something going for it.
Fractal Freaks – ‘Monsters from a higher dimension invade Earth disguised as … contemporary art?’
A surprising sequel to the previous story, featuring two of the same characters, and expanding on the concept. The tone, though, is quite different. In this case, I thought the concept was clever and fun, but the characters were distant. All in all, it just didn’t work as well for me. Good, but not exceptional.
Maps for the Spiders – ‘An artificial intelligence imagines being human – and realizes that imagination is more about failure than solutions. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be imaginary; it would be true!’
An intriguing story, with interesting concepts, but a touch too intellectual for my taste. It verges on the poetic, but doesn’t quite get there.
Where Roger Zelazny was a poetic prose writer whose actual poetry was poor, I often feel that Attanasio is a poet whose prose is at times a little too abstract. If he were a painter, his work would be too ‘modern’ for my taste – too far divorced from any reality that attracts me. As a writer, though, he’s much more approachable. When I started many of the stories in this collection, I thought ‘It’s too ethereal; he won’t pull it off.’ But he usually did, and he always came close. Attanasio has a knack for telling a solid, well-realized story even while spending much of his energy on fluid, complex images and concepts.
If you’re looking for fluffy action adventure, this is not the place for you. But if you want something a little deeper, something that will make you think about the nature of being and reality without being pretentious about it, I recommend this collection – and Attanasio in general, for that matter.