Mike Dolan, Another Santana Morning. Elastic Press, 2008. Pp. 195. ISBN 9780955318153. £5.99 / $12.99.Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad
This collection stands out a little from the usual fare from small press favourite Elastic Press, by having a more laid-back feel than most. The stories collected here by Mike Dolan veer wildly from fantastic, through trippy, magical, realist, to allegorical, with a generous helping of childlike enthusiasm and innocence. A similar collection to this was first published in 1970, but fell victim to an obscure distributor (who specialised in porno rather than sci-fi) and disappeared rather quickly. The author has apparently not been active in science fiction in the intervening years, but he has come back strongly with this volume. In places the writing feels naive, the content perhaps dated (even in the case of previously unpublished pieces), but this is not entirely a bad thing: there is plenty of 1960s and '70s genre fiction that remains relevant and readable to this day, despite being obviously written in a different time.
Among the most vivid pieces in this volume is the title story of the original collection, 'Santana Morning'. An old man lives a lonely existence in the desert, with his dog and his dreams, when suddenly a young woman appears out of nowhere and moves in with him. This woman is so perfect, so dreamlike, so malleable, like something moulded from his very needs, that the story becomes pure sexual fantasy at this point. When he realises how young she is, on top of all this, he rejects her as an unrealistic dream, sending her away as though she never existed. His loneliness is somehow natural, deserved, inevitable, or at least better than fantasy would have been. It may sound somewhat bleak and moralizing, but this story is full of humanity, of sensitivity for a lonely man's emotions, obsessions and social weaknesses. Stunning stuff.
Another story from the original collection is 'Of a Yellow Summer', the protagonist of which is a tired old man, bereaved, tired and down, who buys a knock-off aerosol called "Summertime" from a huckster dwarf. The powerful vernal scent and colour and light of this unlikely product takes him back to his childhood, where he meets the one girl he ever (briefly) loved... This is a story with a clever, ironic twist on the "changing history" trope: the old man falls while averting the tragedy he has spent his entire dismal life blaming himself for. The story then switches to that of an old woman, who has been alone her whole life, meeting the dwarf and perhaps getting her own chance to relive and change history? As a science fiction story, the time-travel paradox is clumsily side-stepped; as a study of human nostalgia, guilt, and obsession with the past, it is sensitive, moving, and entertaining in equal measure.
A previously unpublished story seems to follow this theme: 'Of Another Yellow Summer' has a dystopian setting, with television news showing nothing but perpetual war, young people being conscripted to fight, and the old forced into "retirement". The protagonists are an old couple whose lifelong home is about to be repossessed because they are too old to keep it—the "Summertime" spray, unlike in the previous story, somehow transports the couple to a cheesy, mom n' pop neighbourhood with pretty lawns and a family that respects them. All this is rather clichéd, and the story is much weaker than the original it harks back to.
The volume opens with another new story, 'The Street of the Storytellers', in which a young would-be raconteur feels unable to compete with the established and experienced tells on the street around him. Wondering which of their stylistic techniques he should emulate in order to win an audience for himself, he finally decides just to be himself, which is the only honest tactic as well as the most effective, since only effortless storytelling is attractive to the listener. As well as being rather blatant allegory for the struggle of the writer to find a voice, I found this a little unconvincing, not to say naive—since it takes a lot of effort to give the impression of artlessness; true artlessness is either incompetent (and not much fun to listen to) or disingenuous. In fact it is only through the deep study of writing styles both past and present that you can choose a voice and be sure that it is your own. That pedantic point aside, as a story this works well, and it opens the volume appropriately.
'Some of My Best Friends Are...' is another story with rather crude allegory: this time it is humans' prejudice against intelligent orangutans that is being contrasted to the racism of American rednecks. The "irony"—that the chauvinist protagonist is himself black (in an splendidly colour-blind future USA)—is also delivered clunkily and as a punchline. The whole business is laid on rather thick, and I'm not sure who it was meant to convince.
One of the original stories, which really feels old-fashioned, is 'Journey by Heliodrome', the story of a travelling salesman who acquires a pedal-powered flying machine and uses it to fly all over the world and have amazing adventures. This piece is rather reminiscent of balloon-journey stories such as Poe's 'Hans Pfaall', and is therefore old-fashioned beyond anything else in this collection. Although this story lacks much by way of drama or climax, it is charming enough in itself.
One recurring theme in this book is a rumination on the nature of the sexes, specifically the different needs and therefore behaviours of men and women. Two stories in which this theory is propounded most explicitly are 'Trudy's Eyes' and 'Strange Lover', both supernatural horror stories of very different flavours: the former is a grim and joyless tale of a young boy trying to deal with the fact that his father is raping his sister; the latter of a woman trapped by a sexual presence seemingly created by her own masturbatory fantasy. Both stories are sexual in different terms—neither is erotic in a titillating way. The theory of the sexes, which is harmless enough in a pre-Mars/Venus context, is broadly speaking that men are always trying to give of themselves, to quest outwards, to spread, to invade others, while women, who contain an emptiness, seek to take others in, to fill themselves, to invite. Although this philosophical musing is less problematic and stereotyping than the crap you get in self-help books from the 1990s onwards, it is still at best pop-psych, describing the cultural fantasies of the Western male rather than exposing any psychological sexual dimorphism. In as much as it helps to drive the relationships between characters, however, this theorizing works as plot device, and perhaps should not be taken too seriously.
One of the most moving and sensitive pieces in this collection is 'Memory', a truly dark and tragic tale a of a little girl waking from unconsciousness after an accident with a little brass dog. She has been out for so long, it seems, that in her confusion and disorientation she might even be dead...
If I have sometimes been critical of the writing or the ideas behind these stories, it is in an attempt to be constructive and to put into context what is actually a very varied and competent collection. The horror is very strong; fantasy is quirky and charming, rarely too clichéd; there are trippy and surreal pieces that are almost prose-poems; even the overt humour is passably successful (which is really saying something, since this reviewer rarely finds "comic" stories to be the least bit amusing).
Some aspects of Dolan's writing need more work (but don't we all!). I hope this author is still writing, and will keep publishing in the small press and the genres that he has been absent from for so long. With this wonderful back-story, I have no doubt that a fresh start and new works will lead to the creation of many more excellent and moving pieces of writing.
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