After the Sundial by Vera Nazarian
Published by Norilana Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
By her own admission, Vera Nazarian is known primarily as a writer of fantasy. Her first professional sale was to the second volume of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress series, and many of her subsequent sales have been to that series, or to the Darkover anthologies which MZB also produced for a number of years. However, her fantasies are not the whole of her work, and in this volume she collects the various stories which belong more clearly to the science fictional side of the spec-fic literary world.
She begins with her very first published work, the poem "What is Time?" It has a rather sad story behind it, for when she wrote it she was still young and did not yet have much understanding of how the legitimate publishing world worked. Only after she had sent it in and was delighted to have it accepted and her poverty-stricken immigrant parents paid money they could ill afford for a copy of the poetry anthology in which it appeared did she discover that the whole thing was a scam, that there was no real editorial review of the poems published in it and it existed entirely to sucker aspiring poets and their friends and families out of their hard-earned money.
Even with that story of betrayed dreams behind it, there's a certain appropriateness to its inclusion in this volume. Many of the stories in this collection center around questions of time. In some it's deep time, millions and billions of years, stories of the beginning of the universe and the end of civilization. In others its more ordinary time, the sequence of events that make up ordinary human lives. But it's that common theme of the sort which forms the backbone of any good collection, that keeps it from being merely a pile of unrelated stories bound between two covers, and gives a sense of unity and wholeness that is essential.
The first story, "The Ballad of Universal Jack," is a story of creativity and the power of the word to weave the world. Some people may be put off by the sexual elements in the beginning, but they are not merely for titillation. The story is one of the power of creation, and of sex as a profoundly creative act, not merely in the crudely biological sense, but in a metaphysical one that ties in with the ideas of the Logos, the cosmic Word that creates, and through which the memory of a man echoes through the ages.
If the first story is mystical to the point of being esoteric, the second is visceral to the point of being horrific. "Time to Crawl" is about aging, that slow deterioration and debility which inevitably happens to our bodies with the passage of time. But the real horror isn't just the physical weakness with which the protagonist has to contend in order to get to his job on time and plug into the futuristic technology that functions as both Internet and health care system, but the vision of a society in which the only value a human being has is economic, in which the unreformed Scrooges of the world really have won and anybody who can't keep up the productive pace is casually left to die and reduce the surplus population. However, here and there we have hints that not everybody has been corrupted by that heartless attitude, for there is at least one key point in which the protagonist is aided by someone who stands to gain nothing by the act of kindness. Even amidst horror and inhumanity there remains a glimmer of hope, and maybe the light at the end of the tunnel isn't just an oncoming train.
The next story, "Faces at the End of Time," is another story of deep time, of two ancient opposing forces who have been battling so long they no longer really remember why they are battling, and who continue to battle right up to the collapse of the universe and its rebirth in a new Big Bang. The theme of endless opposition of protagonist and Other, to the point neither remembers what they fought for, makes me think of the old Star Trek episode "Let This Be Your Final Battleground," or perhaps the conclusion of Stephen Baxter's Xeelee Sequence, in which the human protagonist and the last surviving Qax, an alien whose species were the first to invade and brutally suppress Earth, are the sole survivors of a rapidly collapsing and dying universe. Yet while both of those stories have as their central theme a profound sense of futility in conflict, Ms. Nazarian instead suffuses her story with a surprising sense of hope, of the possibility that perhaps conflict and difference of opinion can be not only healthy, but even necessary for the existence of a fully realized universe. Maybe her characters become the God and Devil of the new universe, or maybe they simply become Thesis and Antithesis, neither good nor evil but simply embodying the opposing sides of every argument so that all aspects are properly considered.
Most of us take the waste-disposal system of our society for granted, and notice it only when it gives us trouble, at which point we indignantly complain and demand it be fixed, immediately. In almost every society the subject of the waste products our bodies produce is profoundly taboo, to be spoken of only in the doctor's office or its equivalent, and then only in awkward whispers and mumbles. But "Port Custodial Blues" takes us straight into a confrontation with that unseen infrastructure and those unspeakable processes to look at what it means to provide waste management facilities for a space station that serves not only human beings, but hundreds of species of intelligent aliens who trade with humans, aliens whose eliminatory biology is profoundly different from our own.
The first-person protagonist is a Cleanser, a member of a religious or philosophical group which regards sanitation work as holy, as a path of profoundly spiritual service. Yet there is nothing priggish about his voice or attitudes; far from it, he's a cheerfully earthy sort of guy who talks frankly about the bodily processes and astonishing messes he deals with every day as part of his duties. And those duties become even more interesting when three important data chips are stolen and it's believed that they are being smuggled out of the station by being thrown into one of the toilet facilities to be subsequently retrieved from the waste processing system.
The space station on which the story takes place is a vividly realized environment, so much so that it makes me think of another vividly portrayed fictional space station, Babylon 5. In fact, as I read Ms. Nazarian's story, I found it oddly easy to imagine that somewhere else on the station Captain Sheridan was making inspiring speeches, Londo was holding forth about his latest grievance, Garibaldi was keeping order, and Bester was skulking around in search of independent telepaths to crack down on. By the time I was done I was so nostalgic that I really wished I had the time to sit down and rewatch the entire Babylon 5 series from beginning to end. Yeah, that theme of time again, weirdly shifted through a very personal prism.
If "Port Custodial Blues" makes us rethink our attitudes about the waste management infrastructure and the people who keep our restrooms clean, "The Ice" is a story that will make us think about our attitudes toward women and size. Most of us have simply absorbed by osmosis our society's attitude that fat people are lazy, sloppy, and self-indulgent. We've forgotten that fat is in its most fundamental sense a store of energy. Many species of animal, such as bears and groundhogs, put on a heavy layer of fat in the fall that will carry them through their winter hibernation. And when a spaceship faces the far more profound cold of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, it is just such a store of energy which may make it possible for them all to survive. Don't worry, this is not a gruesome story of cannibalism, but a profoundly mystical one about time and energy and the ability of a person who can see the future to step outside of time and to share in a wondrous and uplifting way that will leave the reader happily surprised.
"Mount Dragon" is one of those stories that look like fantasy when we begin reading them, until we realize that we are looking at a situation in which the understanding of a technological artifact has been lost over generations of time. But some technologies are so well built that they can remain functional over those generations, awaiting the person who will rediscover the secret of their true function and once again awaken them.
The next story, "Salmon in the Drainpipe," is perhaps the most topical of the stories in this volume, particularly in view of the ongoing disaster of the oil spill from the Deep Horizon drilling rig blowout. Yet we still have the profound sense of consequences reaching out into time, far into the future, to a world where the last chance to see so many wondrous species has passed forever by us.
"Scent of the Stars" is another poem, suggesting that even if personal immortality in the conventional sense is not possible, something of ourselves will still survive as the atoms and molecules that currently make up our bodies move on to become parts of other things in the endless recycling of matter and energy through the universe. We may never be able to reach the stars personally, but we are each a bit of star-stuff.
The capstone of this collection is the long novella "The Clock King and the Queen of the Hourglass." It has a feel reminiscent of Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories, or Michael Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time stories, of deep time and a world that's running down, such that its inhabitants must perforce make the best of what's still around. In the far future, the Earth has lost most of her resources, such that the vast Pacific Ocean has shrunken to a slimy little lake more reminiscent of the Dead Sea. On its edge stands a city dedicated to the purification of its waters to be sent up the slope of the great basin to the other surviving human redoubt, the Edge City.
The humans of this far future Earth are quite unlike ourselves, nearly sexless and with passions oddly muted. But from time to time the people of the Basin City sift through their treasure of ancient DNA to create a woman of the ancient sort, the Queen of the Hourglass, vital and passionate. Her purpose is to be sent to the Edge City where she will mate with the Clock King, a man of our own time who has been held in suspended animation for untold ages in a clockwork device. From their mating will come a child who will revitalize the dying race of future humans, at least for a time.
But this time may be the last, for the store of ancient human DNA is slowly running out. Liaei is a strange child, curious in ways that frustrate her caretakers to the point of distraction. And then she discovers that her time with the Clock King must of necessity be harshly limited, for if he remains out of his clockwork prison for too long, his body will begin to undergo quantum decay and he will be lost forever to future generations.
It's a story suffused with a sense of profound grief not only for what once was, but for what will soon no longer be. Loss and regret run through it, even in the parts that resonate with the intense sexual energy of two human beings out of their time, and running out of time.
On the whole, it's quite an admirable collection that deserves not just one reading, but many. Even the stories that I'd read years ago, when they first came out, proved to have new depths and new revelations as I re-read them for reviewing.
Table of Contents
- Introduction by Vera Nazarian
- "What is Time?"
- "The Ballad of Universal Jack"
- "Time to Crawl"
- "Faces at the End of Time"
- "Port Custodial Blues"
- "The Ice"
- "Mount Dragon"
- "Salmon in the Drainpipe"
- "Scent of the Stars"
- "The Clock King and the Queen of the Hourglass"
Review posted August 29, 2010.
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