1988 was a vintage year for John Shirley, in which In Darkness Waiting, A Splendid Chaos, and Eclipse Penumbra all saw publication. Any year in which an author has three novles published can only be considered a banner year, but when each novel is a separate piece of work, each in a different “field” of writing, and each receiving critical praise, that’s fine work indeed. Shirley’s been proving to people that he can write well in almost any genre for years in his short stories, but up until now you had to search for these gems in strange and far away places like Stardate and High Times.
Scream/Press has done us all a favor with Heatseeker by gathering together a selection of Shirley’s short work ranging from 1975 to his most recent publication, “Wolves of the Plateau,” from the Mississippi Review. Also included are three original stories: “I Live in Elizabeth,” “Equilibrium,” and “Recurrent Dreams of Nuclear War Lead B.T. Quizenbaum into Moral Dissolution.” Like his novels, the stories range from Cyberpunk to fantasy, from metaphysical horror to humorous SF. Less than a third of Shirley’s total short fiction is included, but the nineteen stories collected are a fine example of Shirley’s muse.
The lead story, “What Cindy Saw,” is a combination of horror, fantasy, and SF like that of A Splendid Chaos. A disorienting view of mental illness (or is that mental sanity?), the story leaves you spellbound in misunderstanding, always wondering if this is actually taking place or only in Cindy’s head. “The Peculiar Happiness of Professor Cort” uses the IAMton particle that provide the magic of A Splendid Chaos. Like the scene in that novel, where the particle reveals telling thoughts of the characters, here it leads Prof. Cort into a study of himself and his life.
For fans of the Eclipse novels, “What It’s Like to Kill a Man” examines the political and ethical problems with capital punishment, the media, and quick steps to power. The ending is noble, though unlikely, but the questions raised are the right ones, and the answer that there isn’t a quick cure to the problem of death row is on target. Another story in that vein, “Recurrent Dreams…” deals with the threat of imminent nuclear war on the personal level. Surrealistic in its imagining of a ground zero happening in New York, the story is one of the few to cope with fear and anxiety from the viewpoint of the dead rather than the survivors.
“I Live in Elizabeth” is the best of the unpublished stories, and one of the best stories in the collection. What happens when you find yourself suddenly “with” another person, seeing through their eyes as if they were your own, feeling what they feel? It’s an intriguing concept, but what makes the story is the relationship between the underage girl and her thirty-year-old boyfriend. These two ideas mesh together in this story like the two lovers and the result is indeed frightening and appealing. “I Live in Elizabeth” is an award-winning story, and should receive publication elsewhere beyond this collection.
For those wondering what Cyberpunk was all about, the collection reprints “Ticket to Heaven,” “Six Kinds of Darkness,” “Sleepwalkers,” and “Under the Generator”–not only did Shirley talk about the movement, he put his writing forward as an example. And, for something completely different, there is “Quill Tripstickler Eludes a Bride,” the best science fictional P.G. Wodehouse pastiche in print.
Following the divisions that are now common-place on the book-spines and labelled on the shelf in the imaginative field, many authors specialize in one field. Except for those few like John Shirley, who know that imagination need never limit you to one type of writing.
[Finished Winter 1988; first published in NOVA Express, v. 2, n. 2)