Ticonderoga Publications (2008)
Reviewed by Alexandra Pierce (this review was first published in February 2009)
When I see ‘best of’ anthologies from a writer who is still alive and producing work, I get a bit suspicious. Are they expecting to produce nothing worthwhile over the rest of their life? Does this mark some significant milestone? Is it a chance to clear out stories that have not yet seen the light of day? Is it a money-making ploy?
So far as I can tell, none of these questions would be answered in the affirmative for Magic Dirt (except possibly the last, although I doubt it). It marks fifteen years of Williams’ writing, and one reason I can see for producing it at this juncture is that, at 348 pages, should we wait until Williams is dead (or not writing, which is probably the same thing), it would have to be one mammoth tome – or missing some awesome stories. There are eighteen stories in this collection, and each comes with an introduction or afterword, with a short reflection from Williams on the writing of it. As the introduction from John Harwood indicates, Williams’ stories cover a gamut of genres, with a number that refuse to be typified. (As an aside, don’t read the introduction unless you want some of the stories spoiled.) If, like me, you haven’t had the opportunity to follow Sean Williams’ career over the last fifteen years, this is the easy way of catching up.
Choosing a story to launch a collection must be an exceedingly difficult task. Choose poorly, and you risk losing your reader before they’ve started; choose well, and it’s always possible that the only way is down. “A Map of the Mines of Barnath” runs the latter risk. It is a breath-taking story, well-deserving of the Jorge Luis Borges comparison drawn by Harwood. What starts as a ‘must find my brother’ story becomes something much greater as Cavell (whose first name we never learn) travels through the mines of Barnath, and discovers increasingly weird stuff the further down he goes – the depths, the inhabitants, the beginnings of the truth. This story captures one of Williams’ gifts: contrasting the epic with the personal, without losing the significance of either.
Having started with what was already a favourite, I was a little concerned that it marked the high-water mark. Fortunately, “Ghosts of the Fall” – which is completely different in concern and location – is also an enthralling story. Post-apocalyptic Adelaide is the scenario; the narrator is Hogarth, one of the few remaining inhabitants. The story isn’t that original: how do survivors cope, how do they regard the things they have lost, what measures must be taken to ensure survival? What makes the story worth reading is Williams’ descriptions, and his sympathetic attitude to a boy growing up in a very weird, fairly depressing, environment.
“The Soap Bubble” is unlike either of the stories preceding it. Written in both conventional prose and as a dramatic script, although it was published in 1993 it is altogether too much like Big Brother for my liking. How do you keep boredom at bay on a five-year trip into space? I don’t think I would suggest filming and scripting interactions, but that’s what Alek Maas (Morale Officer; Star Trek meets Communist Russia?) does. A number of meta-issues are discussed here: how to sequence events, how to edit, life imitating art. Plus, it’s an immensely enjoyable mini-space opera in itself – which, of course, is the point.
The eponymous “Magic Dirt” is a short, poignant description of what happens when random household items are planted. Williams describes it as having dream logic, in his introduction, which sums it up perfectly. It’s a whimsical little piece; lots of ink could be spilt in discussing why it gave its name to the collection, but that would probably spoil the mood.
Written with Shane Dix, “Night of the Dolls” is a slightly creepy look at what it means to be human. It’s connected to Williams’ Geodesica: Descent, which I have not read and probably contributed to the fact that the background to the story doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. On the other hand, this lack of understanding contributes to the creepiness, and doesn’t detract from what I saw as the fundamental discussion: what does it mean to be human? To experience being human? For Isaac Deangelis and his friends, for whom only being human, confined to one body, is apparently a novelty, it brings something of an existential crisis.
They (those nebulous experts) say that facing your fears helps to overcome them. I wonder whether writing “Atrax” helped Williams and co-writer Simon Brown overcome their arachnophobia, or if it just gave them nightmares. Being in a space shuttle, alone, except for a spider? No thanks. The progression of the story was almost inevitable – the climax was no surprise – but the getting there.. I admit to howling with laughter, at the same time that I was fervently grateful it wasn’t me.
“The End of the World begins at Home” ties economic theory and particle physics theory together in an interesting parcel focussed on one marital relationship. How important are global issues in the face of personal meltdowns, anyway? Peter is perhaps the least likeable character, for me, in this collection; arrogant and moping, he’s just not attractive.
For yet another change in topic and style, “The Seventh Letter” deals with an executive who suddenly suffers a stroke. When he wakes up, there are no obvious physical effects, bar one: there are some words that he just can’t parse. They simply don’t register in his lexicon anymore. Aside from introducing an intriguing ailment and most awesomely named society, “The Seventh Letter” is concerned with words, and language. How much of who we are is determined by language? What happens if just a small amount is taken away? There are recognised coping mechanisms if language completely disappears, after all. This is another of my favourite stories.
With “Evermore,” we are once again in space, but still dealing with the issue of identity. What makes someone who they are? If you have someone’s memories, are you that person? Once again taking the idea of deep-space exploration as the premise, Williams here posits virtual personalities as the explorers. What’s the difference between the virtuals and their originals? These are not easy questions, obviously, and the talent lies in asking them wrapped up in an appealing storyline, as here.
Stepping into horror, “The Butterfly Merchant” is something of an homage to Edgar Allen Poe. It begins innocuously enough – how bad can it be, focussed on a man who breeds butterflies for a living? The answer, of course, is that it can be very bad. Williams is very nasty to Polain, the merchant.
Adelaide has a starring role in “Reluctant Misty and the House on Burden Street.” It follows the horror theme, although in a very different setting from the previous one. Here, it’s a house doing the haunting of a street in Adelaide, and Beth is fascinated despite herself. An interesting story, although it doesn’t have the same depth as some of the others.
Still keeping the horror light flickering is “The Girl-Thing,” which Williams describes as one of his most determinedly mainstream stories – it’s primarily a detective story, although with the introduction he provides the reader just knows that something uncommon is coming at the end. Once again what makes this story interesting is the characters – their interactions and internal musings – as well as the gradual revelation of the unsuspected.
There’s not much more clichéd than the zombie when it comes to horror stories, and Williams dishes up two such stories – but they are so different from one another, and from zombie clichés, that they hardly seem worth classifying together. “Entre les Beaux Morts en Vie (Among the Beautiful Living Dead)” has a society fundamentally changed and challenged by a technology that enables effective immortality – but it kills them. Harking back to “Night of the Dolls,” there’s an exploration of what it means to be human; the issue of ambition’s price and what it means to take the extremely long-term view are also central. On the other hand, “Passing the Bone” is intensely personal; an hereditary curse needs to be explained, and a dead man needs to drive from Coober Pedy to Sydney, fast.
Leaping back into science fiction with a thud, “A View before Dying,” again with the focus on deep-space exploration. In this instance, glorified repairmen arrive on an exploration probe, only to find that things are most definitely not as they should be: there’s a dead body, for starters, as well as an alien craft outside and various bits of sabotage. As one outcome of First Contact, this is a somewhat depressing story; as an exploration of human response to crises, it’s quite uplifting.
The most mainstream of all the stories, “Team Sharon” is also, on reflection, the most creepy. On the surface, it’s sort of poignant and almost sweet – one man, one unrequited love. However, when there are other men involved, and you think about it from the woman’s point of view… it becomes really quite horrific.
Also horrific is the penultimate story, “White Christmas.” Once more considering the idea of First Contact, this time Williams takes the ‘not with a bang but with a whimper’ line. Not-snow, falling in the outback of South Australia, possibly connected with a comet, is certainly not a glamorous view of alien life or contact. Revolving around one man, Williams’ personal/global juxtapositioning once again illuminates the things that matter.
The final story in this anthology is my absolute favourite. Co-written with Simon Brown, “The Masque of Agamemnon” combines two of my loves – Greek mythology and space opera. A ship named Mycenae, populated with the heroes of the Iliad cycle; a planet-side guest forced to take the name Paris… it’s simply an exquisite story. Knowledge of the myths is not compulsory to enjoy it, although it certainly helps.
One of the things I like about Williams’ writing as a whole is that in many stories, it’s very obvious that he’s an Australian, and an Adelaide boy to boot (heaps good!). No one but a South Aussie would name a Moon Transit Clipper the Whyalla. This inclusion of Australian places and sensibilities is effortless; there’s no sense that he made a conscious decision to include them. Instead, it’s just obvious: if London or New York can feature in a story, why not Adelaide?
I have two complaints about this anthology; they’re a bit petty, but they did bug me. One is that there are no dates attached to individual stories – neither when it was first written, nor when it was published – to provide additional context. The publication information is available in the acknowledgements at the back of the book, but I had hoped to see them in the introductions or afterwords. The second complaint is a few typos, the most screaming of which is the introduction, called “Ludic Dreaming” in the contents and on its own page – but “Lucid Dreaming” in the acknowledgements, reassuring me that this wasn’t some pun that I didn’t get. Petty it may be, but it did distract me.
Overall, this is an enthralling collection. It could be read in one sitting, if you’ve got the time – you won’t get bored; or you could dip in and out – if you’ve got the willpower. Many anthologies run the risk of stories blurring together. Magic Dirt does not have that problem.
Now we can all settle in for the next fifteen years.