Oct 10, 2010

Leviathan Wept and Other Stories - Daniel Abraham

I first heard Abraham's name when Hunter's Run - his collaboration with George Martin and Gardner Dozois - came out. Since then he has been a constant presence in the blogosphere, and always mentioned with great admiration. So I decided to try his short fiction first, before jumping to The Long Price Quartet.

Leviathan Wept and Other Stories is a very diverse collection. There is fantasy there, as well as post-cyberpunk, ghost stories, horror and just plain old comedy. The Speculative element is all but missing at times, but that steals nothing from the quality of the writing. And the quality of writing is very, very high. Abraham delves into disturbing topics with energy and determination, and doesn't shy away from uncomfortable truths. His style of writing is rich enough to allow the diversity of genres and themes, and the ideas around which the stories evolve, are - more often than not - rather original.

The Cambist and Lord Iron is a Victorian tale of a noble playing a bad joke on a money-changer, only to find himself in need of his services again and again, when he has to determine the value of more and more abstract concepts. There is no obvious supernatural element to the story, apart from some hints of the world being an alternative reality, but the focus of the tale itself is somehow outlandish enough to make it feel like fantasy.

Flat Diane is a story of subtle horror and implied brutality, in which a father cuts his daughter's image from paper and sends it across the world to reconnect with distant relatives. Too late he realizes that he has sent away a part of his little girl's soul. And as she grows up, she is forever changed by the experiences "Flat Diane" has. This is perhaps the most horrific story in Leviathan Wept, and the fact that nothing actually happens for the reader to "see", that it is all "off-screen" and implied, makes it even more so.

The Best Monkey is the other story in the collection bordering on horror, or at least that's how it felt to me, since altered humanity always chills me. In this particular case, the plot revolves around the perception of beauty, and what happens when that perception is changed.

The Support Technician Tango is perhaps my favorite in Leviathan Wept - a comedy about a malicious self-help book that wrecks havoc in the lives of all the employees of a law firm. It is witty, elegant and smart, and flows with such ease, that it's pure delight to read.

Then comes A Hunter In Arin-Qin, a fantasy story that shares absolutely nothing with the previous four. Its protagonist is a mother tracking the demon who kidnapped her daughter. There is something of Gene Wolfe in this tale of unlikely revenge, both in structure, and in the atmosphere of mystery, of things left unsaid.

The titular story, Leiathan Wept, was a bit of a disappointment to me. It deals with analogies in a world where connections between people have maybe turned humanity into bigger organisms in which individual humans are only cells. And those organisms might be at war with each other. But what if there is only one, and it is just sick? Even though the idea is very interesting, and the story is well written, I found the development unsatisfying. The concept was intriguing, but remained vague, undeveloped, as if Abraham wasn't entirely sure what he wanted to do with it.

Exclusion is the story with the most interesting idea in the collection. It deals with a future society where technology has advanced to the stage where humans have their own AI systems integrated into their bodies, and those systems allow them to "exclude" other people from their existence. The Ignore function in a very extreme and literal sense, because contact with the excluded is impossible. You don't see them, they don't see you. You can't perceive them in any way, and neither can they perceive you. But what happens to a person's will and courage, when they can simply erase any problem with a thought? Unfortunately, the obvious happens - people prefer to run away from, and "ignore" the problematic relationships, instead of dealing with them. The story had great premise, and I sort of expected more than this simple moral from it.

As Sweet is another Wolfean tale - a poetic piece musing on the nature of love and passion, mixing different centuries but always getting back to Romeo and Juliet's (and more importantly - Rosaline's) Verona and the contemporary life of a literature teacher entering her middle years.

The Curandero and the Swede is a story about the importance of stories, and the way their meaning can change, and by changing - change us. It is the third tale reminiscent of Gene Wolfe's writing, and it deals with dusty roads, and Indian spirits, and Mexican witch-doctors, and all the right stuff that stories should be made of.

All in all, Leviathan Wept and Other Stories is a great collection. There are overarching themes in all stories, like that of sexuality. It is always there, sometimes obvious, others - just implied, but ever present. Many of the stories deal with IT and its evolution, and there is always some dry wit, no matter the seriousness of the plot.

Two things disappointed me a little. The first was the repetition of structure. Too many of the stories are structured in short passages that switch between some present and the slowly developing past that led to it. True, it is a tried and proven frame for a short story, but when you read it so many times in a collection by the same author, it becomes tiring. The second thing is that many of the stories revolve around a single idea, and when that is exhausted, they don't seem to have much to say. Examples of this are Leviathan Wept, Exclusion, and to a lesser extent The Cambist and Lord Iron, although the trend is recognizable in other places as well.

Still, it couldn't have escaped your notice that in three instances I actually compared Daniel Abraham to Gene Wolfe. People who know me should be aware that there is no higher praise I could give an author, and Abraham more than deserves this praise. He has a rich and diverse style of writing, great ideas, and that indefinable energy that compels the reader to continue reading, no matter what. Leviathan Wept is a brilliant book, and I hope we see more collections of his short works soon. Meanwhile, I will soon be jumping into his longer ones.


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