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"In the Quake Zone"

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I realized recently that I had never finished reading last year's Year's Best science fiction and fantasy anthologies, and that the new crop had started arriving, and that I'd better get moving if I wanted any hope of keeping up.

So I picked up Gardner's YBSF (published in 2006, containing stories from 2005), which I'd already half-finished. Read various stories, and then I got to the David Gerrold story, "In the Quake Zone."

It's over 70 pages long, and in Gardner's YBSFs a page is nearly 700 words long. By my calculations, the story is about 48,000 words long (which would make it a novel by Hugo standards); Gerrold says it's 39,000 (at the top end of the novella range); maybe it depends on how you count. It was published in Mike Resnick's anthology Down these Dark Spaceways, six original sf mystery novellas published by the Science Fiction Book Club. (Another of the novellas appeared earlier in Gardner's book, Robert Reed's "Camouflage," which I found very interesting (as always with Reed) but flawed.) I almost skipped the Gerrold story because of its length; that would have been a mistake.

I don't normally spend an entire entry on one story from a Year's Best, but this story is worth a little extra attention--especially because as far as I can tell it didn't receive much attention at the time.

The first quarter of the story (more or less set in 1958) provides the setting and sets up the character: it's our world, except that various places (including LA) experience "timequakes," such that regions and neighborhoods get shifted one way or the other through time. There are tourists who ride these quakes to buy old comic books and other such stuff, to sell for lots of money when/if they get back to their own times. Gerrold's blog entry about the story adds to my feeling that the quake stuff was the original idea for the story, but that at some point he kind of lost track of that idea. For example, in the first quarter of the story, it sounds like everyone knows about the timequakes; US laws are even being rewritten to allow for the preemptive murder of people who would later have gone on to do awful things. But later in the story, in a scene set in 1967, one of the characters says that he thought time travel was an urban legend. (Which is, btw, one of quite a few terminology anachronisms in the story--the term "urban legend" first appeared in print in 1968, and I don't think it was part of widespread popular vocabulary 'til the '80s. This is a pet peeve of mine about stories set in the past: authors often fail to research when words came into use. It's quite possible that I'm wrong about this specific use of "urban legend," but Gerrold plays fast and loose with other era-specific terminology throughout the story. But this is a minor side note.)

The middle half of the story, set in 1967, is why I'm writing this journal entry. The stuff about the time quakes is basically ignored; this is a story about, essentially, a time-traveling P.I. (I'm very much oversimplifying here) who's trying to prevent a series of disappearances of young gay men in West Hollywood in 1967. It's a superb evocation of the milieu (a milieu I was previously unfamiliar with, but I suspect from various extratextual evidence that Gerrold was actually there in real life), and there's a lot of great stuff about being queer in a time before the term had been reclaimed by the gay community, but in a place that was enough of a legal gray zone (due to West Hollywood being unincorporated at the time) for homosexuality to flourish. The protagonist considers himself straight, which also works well. The writing is excellent, the situations and characters compelling and moving and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.

And then, just about at the three-quarters mark, right when I was wondering why this story hadn't made the Hugo ballot, the bottom drops out. The final quarter of the story is a very talky infodumpy piece that provides answers to the central mysteries of the story (one of the answers being something I had already guessed but discarded as unsatisfying) and, for me, loses most, though not all, of the emotional engagement with the characters that I'd built up. The last quarter also walks a very fine political line; there's a point right near the end, for example, when I really would've liked Gerrold to acknowledge the existence of bisexuality, which he had done in passing some pages earlier. Throughout that last quarter, I waffled back and forth between thinking "this doesn't work at all" and thinking "this is brilliant." I think the very end of the story provides a reasonably satisfying resolution, but I'll have to think about it some more.

So I find myself a little frustrated. The middle half of this story is probably my favorite thing in the book so far (and in a book that contains "The Little Goddess" and "Planet of the Amazon Women," among a bunch of other good work, that's saying a lot). And the beginning and ending are certainly tightly tied into the plot and the characters and even the themes; the middle wouldn't stand on its own. But I have to agree with Tangent Online reviewer Marshall Payne that this reads like three different stories (in terms of worldbuilding/setting and narrative style and structure) that don't quite mesh. I'll also go along with Payne's conclusion about the story: "I can’t help but look at it as a brilliant failure on a couple levels. At best, it’s a minor masterpiece with a few noticeable flaws."

I think what I really would've wanted is to sit down with Gerrold before the story was published and say, "Look, the time quakes thing is a fun idea, and the first quarter of this story sets up an interesting world. Yank that whole piece out and use it for another story or series of stories. The middle of this story is what the story's really about; now that you know that, go back and write a new beginning that'll match it better. And then cut about half of the verbiage in the final quarter, and make some tweaks to the sexual politics of that section. Or else think about throwing away a couple of the biggest pieces of that ending and turning them into something more dramatically satisfying."

Then again, Gerrold has been writing highly regarded fiction since before I was born, so it would be rather presumptuous of me to give him writing advice. And the story's really good as it stands; I just wanted it to go a little further in certain directions.

Anyway. I'm pleased to see that "In the Quake Zone" is on the Gaylactic Spectrum Awards short-fiction nominees list for this year; apparently they decided last year to carry over their short-fiction nominees that were published in 2005 rather than giving a short-fiction award last year, so this story's still eligible. I haven't read enough of the rest of the list to have an opinion on whether it should win, but if the award were up to me, this story would be a strong contender. Well worth reading.

Btw, for those who don't know, Gerrold has long been one of the people trying to get GLBT characters on Star Trek. (For more info, see the Wikipedia entries on LGBT characters in the Star Trek universe and "Blood and Fire," and a non-Wikipedia article on "Gay, Lesbian, & Bisexual Star Trek.") In fact, Gerrold just yesterday returned from directing a new version of "Blood and Fire" for the fan video series Star Trek: New Voyages. Not sure when the episode will be complete and available; I imagine it'll be a while yet, since it still needs to be edited and so on.

. . . Going back to the Dozois Year's Best for one final note: there are at least four stories in this Year's Best that feature same-sex relationships. (And a couple of others featuring various kinds of non-monogamous relationships.) That's pretty cool.

(Wrote most of this entry a few days ago, but didn't get around to finishing and posting 'til now.)

2 Comments

Thanks for the fine, considered review, and the mention of my Tangent review. I spent a lot of time on this anthology last summer and never heard any feedback till now. In fact, just last weekend I was on my way to the supermarket, agonizing over much about this crazy biz, and my review of In the Quake Zone came to mind. Who am I to deconstruct *this* writer story? Thanks for your thoughts. And Aliette de Bodard for pointing out your post to me. Marshall Payne


Since I paid a flat fee per story (well, per novella) for my two SFBC anthologies, DOWN THESE DARK SPACEWAYS and ALIEN CRIMES, I never worried about the wordage; I just told the invitees that I wanted novella length. But your review made me curious, so I just ran a count on David's "In the Quake Zone", and it comes out at 38,979 words -- near the outer limits of the definition, but clearly a novella.

I'm desolate that SFBC just cleaned house and fired its long-standing editors. Ellen Asher and I had plans for a third 6-novella original anthology of sf/mysteries, but the word I'm getting is that original anthologies are a thing of the past at the book club.

-- Mike Resnick


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