Thursday, July 30, 2009

Currently reading Empires of the Plain: Henry Rawlinson and the Lost Langages of Babylon, by Lesley Adkins, about early decipherment work, but also slipping in reading on some short fiction.

"We Never Talk About My Brother," by Peter Beagle, is from his collection of the same name. I used to assign Beagle's The Last Unicorn as summer reading for entering seventh graders, but the kids never cottoned to the book. It was too self-aware and literary to simply be the kind of fantasy the ordinary fantasy reader might enjoy, and with its protagonist a female (and a unicorn in the title), it was hard to sale to male readers. The parts of the book don't really make a coherent whole as it goes veering about, but it's clever and has some great ideas. Plus, it understands the genre. I've picked up other works by Beagle from the library, but hadn't read anything else until now. "We Never Talk About My Brother" feels like an outline for a longer piece. It has a few vivid moments, but its thinking is terrible rushed and its climax is like something from an X-Men comic (or, worse, an X-Men movie). There's none of that lyricism I associate with The Last Unicorn, but instead the kind of genre shorthand that becomes the default setting for workers in the field. In short, the protagonist discovers (through one awkwardly described event and one even-more-awkwardly describe off-stage event) that his brother can control reality. The limits of this are utterly vague, and the metaphysical ponderings that crop up aren't fully thought through or given sufficient resonance.

Yesterday I read from an old favorite, Zenna Henderson. Her "Ararat" in the collection Pilgrimage is her first story of The People, those aliens who, scattered, crashed in the American Southwest at the end of the 18th century. The story does a nice job giving a glimpse of the features that would make stories of The People interesting: their powers; the close family relationships; information about their planet (the Home) and their terrible journey (the Crossing); their struggles to fit in among Earth humans. Some of the tales of the People would feel repetitive, as a consequence, but when I read them as a teenager, I appreciated their combination of emotion and science fiction. Her non-People stories are also fine, and some of them reveal darker strands in her imagination. "Ararat" involves the arrival of an Outsider teacher among several families of the People situated in Cougar Canyon. The narrator, a nineteen-year-old girl, is slower to put together the pieces than the reader is, though that's part of the story's fun, as she and we learn that Miss Carmody, the Outsider who can't keep a teaching job, is also one of the People, raised in isolation by parent who had, as young children, survived the Crossing.

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