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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Strange Horizons, September 3rd & 10th, 2012

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Strange Horizons, September 3rd & 10th, 2012

“The Grinnell Method” (Part 1 & 2) by Molly Gloss

Reviewed by Louis West

This story is a conundrum to me—it has many intriguing parts but a completely surreal and unsatisfactory ending.

“The Grinnell Method” takes place in the mid-20th century coastal wilderness of the American Northwest. Molly Glass’ description of this southwestern Washington locale is rich with detail and fascinating to read. She also immediately introduces hints about the political events of the time: “hunters and soldiers had made use of the camp,” although it’s not until the third scene that we find clarity--it’s 1943, mid-World War II, when (for you history buffs) soldiers were posted up and down the West coast in anticipation of a possible Japanese invasion.

Barbara Kinney, the protagonist (I would have liked to know her name before part 2), is a dedicated ornithologist. It’s spring. She has returned to her camp at Leadbetter Point to resume her observations of the surrounding wildlife. She uses the Grinnell method of taking notes, a process which ensures that detailed field observations are recorded objectively. It’s also a process she’d learned from her older brother, Tom, a naturalist who died during a disastrous 1933 Arctic expedition. She misses him. In fact, her drive and purpose is best described in the second scene: “Tom had warned her that only the most extraordinary women were advanced or promoted in the scientific disciplines, and she meant to be one of them. Employment opportunities would disappear completely if she were to marry, and therefore she would never marry. Her life as a scientist would be her own; but also, she felt, a tribute to Tom.”

The tension finally ratchets up in the third scene, when a strange and powerful storm strikes. It decimates the shore, killing lots of wildlife without evident cause. Barbara witnesses green lightning among the storm’s fury. In the aftermath, her view from the ocean shore is compelling: “The sky was lurid—utterly black in the west, veined with great streaks of orchid purple and emerald green.” And in the next scene: “The sky in the west was still black, but now rippling every little while with silent green lightning. Dry blue flakes—she was still at a loss what label to give them—lifted and fell on the wind, and gathered at the outer edges of puddles in a stiff rime.”

Disappointingly, the author never ascribes any meaning to her unusual descriptions. Green lightning, for example, is a rare but natural phenomena that can occur when lightning flares through thunder clouds laden with hail, or different mixtures of atmospheric gases. I thought she might draw upon these factual hints to lead the reader towards her conclusion. But she did not.

In the fourth scene, Barbara has a conversation with a girl, Alice, who shares her own observations about the strange deaths of the seashore birds. Alice is well versed in wildlife information and interested in pursuing an avocation as an ornithologist. She wants to know if a new species could ever be named after a woman. I found it delightful that Molly Gloss included this reference to the struggle of women in a male-dominated profession to become recognized as experts in their own right. While Molly addresses women’s equality themes in a number of her novels, I found it disappointing that it never became a component to this story’s conclusion.

By the fifth scene, the dark sky has hardened into “a long, shifting vein of darkness.” Barbara observed bids fly up into it and disappear. She dutifully records this in her journal following proper Grinnell methods. In the sixth scene, she gives Alice a journal of her own to record her factual observations. Alice shares with Barbara that she too has seen birds disappear into the black hole in the sky.

The story begins to turn surreal when, in the seventh scene, Barbara observes a lumber ship run aground in the bay. As the sailors struggle to survive, her mind interprets them as yellow warblers jerking from branch to branch. Then, when the ship catches fire, she sees her brother, Tom, trying to escape the floundering ship. A Coast Guard vessel eventually arrives, but is unable to locate any survivors. Barbara reminisces about old memories of seeing Tom’s ghost, but recognizes that none of it was real. Still, she has documented each incident in her journal, just as if she were observing wildlife.

In the last scene, Barbara sees a black sedan on the beach in danger of being swept away by the high seas. A man with a strange tripod device is crouched on the beach, observing the black gash in the sky. He is preparing to launch a rocket and adds a personal note to the device. Barbara suddenly decides to write one of her own and give it to the man. He includes it and suggests she should step back before he fires the rocket into “the rupture in the roof of their world.” This sudden jerk in the plot took me completely out of the story. No foundation had been laid to suggest this random action on Barbara’s part or how this man with a rocket fits into the plot. It seemed totally random to me.

I never felt closure on any of the ideas or issues raised in this story. What is the source of the gash in the sky? Is Alice perhaps a younger doppelganger of Barbara herself? Has Barbara ever freed herself from her grief over Tom or her need to emulate him in order to succeed in her life? And the Grinnell Method—is it the means by which Barbara contains her emotions, creating the illusion that she’s in control of her world? If so, I would like to see a dramatic conclusion demonstrating that. Instead the end for me just fizzled out like a wet firecracker fuse. No satisfying bang, just teasing sparks.

Louis West critiques for Critters.org plus Spacecrafts. He also does volunteer work for the Massachusetts-based ReaderCon. His education and work experience was in biophysics and medical genetics before migrating to international finance. Yet he retains a strong interest in astronomy and sub-atomic physics. He enjoys hard SF, urban fantasy, supernatural and fantasy, and writes in a bio-punk style, focusing on the personal and social impacts of new technologies.