Alexander Zelenyj, Experiments at 3 Billion AM. Eibonvale Press, 2009. Pp. 664. ISBN 9780955526824. £18.75.Reviewed by Terry Grimwood
Before I even read one word I was impressed by the sheer beauty of this book. The cover art and presentation is superb, and apparently the version I received is one of a number of variations. I have not been able to find a credit for the artist, which is a shame because they deserve one. It’s not just the picture on the front however, it’s the sheer feel of this enormous volume, a physical presentation that endows it with an air of gravitas, a sense that you have something important in your hands.
So to the meat under the skin. As I said, this is a big book, 658 pages of prose, 40 stories, each one illustrated with a black and white drawing as enigmatic as the titles themselves. The contents page alone makes fascinating reading; the titles, a list of phrases that collectively reads like a poem: “In the City Where Dreams Wander the Sidewalks”, “Pining for the Lost Love of the Moon Creatures” and “Poppy, the Girl of my Dreams and the Alien Invasion I can Detect Like Radar through my Braces” for example. All intriguing, drawing you in, making you wonder what on Earth (or off it) these stories can be about.
Well, as I said earlier, there are 40 of them, none of which overstay their welcome, and some which, inevitably have already faded into the amorphous whole. However, many more remain vivid in my memory. What to choose? I’ll try to be representative of the main settings (settings whose borders are often blurred or overlapped) of the book, four in fact, the Canadian countryside, the city, alien invasion (okay, not a setting but a theme but it is a recurring one) and the world of teenagers.
“Let the Firefly Men Remind You” shows us a group of those self-same teenagers idling their rural summer away making love through the hot, blue-gold days and sitting in campfire idleness through the nights. Then darkness seeps in from the edges in the form of a series of inexplicable incinerations. Here, then, a fine example of how the interrelationships of the characters, their emotions and certainties, unravel as the light of their summer bleeds away.
Moving to the city we have “I Humbly Accept this War Stick”. The narrator is a serial killer, his raison d’être to impress his bloody-handed idol. The ending is unexpected and shocking and shows that Zelenyj is capable of portraying brutality as well as beauty and this is one story that does take us to the darker regions of the human psyche, but without hysteria or justification. The characters just are.
Many of the teenage love and angst stories are set around alien invasion, or the threat of it, again, never overt or even reliable. “Love, Death and the Monsters at the Drive-in” is a classic of this theme. Two lovers are at the drive-in where an alien-invaders film is showing. As the two lovers pledge heart and soul to one another, something happens. It could be a real invasion, or is it something else, something connected to the film and the state of their love-lorn hearts? Subtle, funny and wonderfully written, this was one of my favourites.
And that is one of the joys of this book, the ambiguity, the intense subtlety of Zelenyj’s writing, what I call satisfying ambiguity.
Along the way we have the gossamer-subtle and delicately tragic “Blue Love Maria”, the gorgeously horrible “Black Flies Inside” in which inner darkness becomes manifest in the most nauseating way. “Gladiators in the Sepulchre of Abominations”, re-visited when a man returns to his lonely family home and the terrible secret it holds. There’s childhood paranoia to be unravelled in “Waiting for the New Reign of the Fire Ants”, and we meet “Captain of the Ship of Flowers,” the last survivor of an interplanetary expedition who stumbled on the face of God.
Terry’s choice? The opening tale, “The Potato Thief Beneath Indifferent Stars”. A lonely, ageing farmer finds a strange creature in his potato patch, a meeting that leads to a touching, delicate relationship and the dawning of a new spirit of hope for the old man.
Very quickly the name Ray Bradbury sprang to mind. Bradbury poured with a dash of du Maurier. Think October Country and Don’t Look Now, mingled with the man’s own art and you will have some inkling of what Zelenyj is about. because many of these stories hold that same, lost, whimsical, oddly nostalgic aura that Bradbury evokes. However, excellent as he is, Zelenyj seldom paints his words onto the page with the same delicacy as Bradbury, where Bradbury is fragile, his worked structures held together by the faintest of literary bindings, a style that gives the illusion of compete unselfconsciousness, Zelenyj is gives the opposite impression, the care and labour is obvious. I know this is an unfair criticism because this author is an individual, a craftsman in his own right and not a Bradbury-copier by any means, but the similarity is inevitable.
Having said that, this is a majestic and wonderful collection. As for genre, well, it I suppose most of the stories here are science fiction, but as soon as those two much-maligned words are uttered the label seems cumbersome and inadequate. Slipstream is better, but then what is slipstream but... okay, I’ll stop right there. The plots are spider webs, both in complexity and layering, motivation and resolution. There are aliens, possibly, an invasion may be imminent, or even underway, or perhaps it isn’t and if there are supernatural events in progress they are always a backdrop, the energy and engine of the relationships and emotions of the protagonists. There are no cumbersome explanations, no heavy-weather descriptions of the why and wherefores of the fantastical elements. They happen and they affect and that is enough.
I read this book in one long marathon, not a good idea. The subtle, and as I mentioned earlier, sometimes self-conscious, style can become wearing and cloying, the intensity and emotional power too much. But isn’t that the case with many anthologies, the parts greater than the sum, the stories, jewels to be appreciated one at a time for their true value to be uncovered. So it is with the tales in Experiments at 3 Billion AM, they are masterpieces of subtlety and suggestion, electric with emotional power, brimming with inventiveness, enigmatic, inconclusive and delicately drawn, touching, without being sentimental, evocative and often deeply unsettling and shocking. This then is that rare achievement, great writing and great story telling.