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

Are You There -- Jack Skillingstead

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Are You There and Other Stories by Jack Skillingstead

Golden Gryphon Press
(October 2009)

“The Avenger of Love”
“Dead Worlds”
“Life on the Preservation”
“Double Occupancy”
“The Chimera Transit”
“Overlay”
“Scatter”
“Bean There”
“Girl in the Empty Apartment”
“Rewind”
“The Apprentice”
“Everyone Bleeds Through”
“Reunion”
“Thank You, Mr. Whiskers”
“The Tree”
“Are You There”
“Transplant”
“Here’s Your Space”
“Cat in the Rain”
“Alone With an Inconvenient Companion”
“What You Are About To See”
“Rescue Mission”
“Two”
“Scrawl Daddy”
“Human Day”
“Strangers on a Bus”

Reviewed by Bob Blough

There are 26 stories in this book; a veritable cornucopia of fine writing.  Not everything is successful but each story proclaims that Jack Skillingstead is a major author in the genre of SF.  This is his first published collection and his first novel appeared this year, as well, so more stories from him are assured.  Of that I am glad, but be aware, his stories are not about easy topics.  He uses science fiction and fantasy to tell stories about hurt and angry people from painful situations and disastrous pasts who ofttimes find hope.  It is this hope that keeps these stories from being simply long paeans of anguish.  Hope, and the beautifully delineated characters Mr. Skillingstead creates.  He has experienced the dark sides of hurt and has come to tell us with a clarity of prose uncommon in newer authors that hope through pain – or especially hope as pain - is ultimately the most human place to live.

In that sense, he reminds me quite a bit of Harlan Ellison, which makes sense as the first story in the collection was originally intended as a collaboration with Mr. Ellison.  Mr. Skillingstead eventually wrote it by himself, dedicating it to his erstwhile collaborator.  It’s called “The Avenger of Love” and concerns a 62 year-old “aging pit bull” that is slowly losing his memories.  Not by Alzheimer’s but by thievery.  

“And he could sense the other holes without knowing exactly what had caused them.  More and more gaps occurring over the last few weeks, undermining his identity.  Killing off what he was to himself.  He squeezed his eyes shut and rode out an intense drilling pain in his head.  When it was over Norman called forth his rage.”

This quote from the first page of the first story sets the tone for what is to come.  “The Avenger of Love” eventually becomes a story about a man dealing with the hate/love relationship he feels for his father.  But this is not mundane literature.  It is a full fledged fantasy as the setting is another plane of existence that is built around the character’s childish ideas of being a hero in the comic books he has read.

Other stories are about coming to grips with forgiveness and regret as well.  “Dead Worlds” is about a man who has given his life to exploring the universe but instead of the glorious adventure that has been explored in past science fiction stories, this time experiencing the universe comes with the baggage that he can no longer perceive reality in a human way when not on specific medication.  It is a science fiction story, a love story, and a character driven story that builds to a hopeful climax.  In “Overlay” the main character is again a 25-35 year old man with a disabled past who has rented out his body to be ridden by a “passenger” (shades of Silverberg).  It is a mystery story - did the “passenger” inhabiting his body kill a boy or not? - and involves coming to grips once again with the (perhaps) inevitable pain caused by our own choices in life.

I don’t want to make this collection sound like such a downer that you won’t want to read it.  It deals with weighty subjects, but the writing is firmly ensconced in the genre and precise enough that you care about the characters.

There is a series of stories – starting with “Bean There” - that concern the arrival of aliens known as “the Harbingers” who have come to earth to bring evolution to the human race. The idea of this evolution is accepted or rejected in various ways by the characters involved. The title story, “Are You There?,” is another murder mystery but this time the focus is on the detective who falls in love with a memory module of the murderer’s mother. In “Rewind” the protagonist has the chance to rewind a terrorist bombing attack with serious implications for his future.

The fantasy is equally as good.  “The Apprentice” concerns a dark witch choosing a new apprentice in today’s world of trailer parks and single mothers.  “Strangers on a Bus” is about the solipsist belief of writing your own reality.

The major fault with an early collection like this is that similar tropes show up in story after story. The weary man still in his prime coming to grips with his own pain – often set in Seattle, etc. So it is best to take these stories in small doses.  It is perhaps this problem that makes “Life on the Preservation” stand out from the crowd.  One of the differences in this story is the protagonist is female and her life is difficult, not due to broken relationships but by the devastation caused in the world by the arrival of aliens.  While destroying most of the rest of earth the aliens have preserved Seattle on a continuing day long loop.  Her story - to enter and destroy that alien experiment/museum piece - is a beautiful piece about coming to maturity and hope and a nifty piece of science fiction.

On it goes. Twenty-six excellent stories; some hinting at the surreal, but all certainly thought-provoking and affecting.  Get this book, read it and know Jack Skillingstead as one of the authors who will undoubtedly form part of the backbone of science fiction’s future.