Did you know? A run of the mill paperback science fiction or fantasy novel will typically get more and longer reviews than a story that wins both the Hugo and Nebula awards. That's why when I can find the time -- and more and more, I have so much on my plate that I can't find the time, alas -- I write reviews of particularly splendid exemplars of short fiction and publish them in the New York Review of Science Fiction.
A little over a month ago, I reviewed three works of fiction and an essay there, and it occurred to me to share them, one at a time, over the next few weeks. Here's the first:
Andy Duncan, of whose work one can predict nothing save that it will be beautifully written, has produced what is, even for him, a genuine oddity in “Close Encounters,” a story which originally appeared in his 2012 collection, The Pottawattomie Giant and Other Stories (PS Publishing), was subsequently reprinted in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and two separate best of the year anthologies, and went on to win the Nebula Award for Best Novelette. It is at one and the same time two distinct stories, one of them very good indeed and the other much better than that.
“Close Encounters” is narrated by Buck Nelson, a crusty Ozarks farmer in his eightieth-odd year. In his youth he wrote a book about his adventures with a space alien named Bob Solomon, who took him to the Moon, Mars, and Venus, and gave him a giant dog named Bo. For years after that, Buck threw an annual for-profit picnic on his farm for UFO enthusiasts. But now he is a bitter old man, dodging the dwindling number of reporters who occasionally seek him out, and mulling over the disappointments of his life. As always when Duncan is playing with Southern rhythms, the prose sparkles. Here’s Buck’s reply, when asked by a stringer for the Associated Press why he stopped the picnics and started running visitors off with a shotgun:
“You can see your own self what happened,” I said. “Woman, I got old. You’ll see what it’s like, when you get there. All the people who believed in me died, and then the ones who humored me died, and now even the ones who feel obliged to sort of tolerate me are starting to go. Bo died, and Teddy, that was my Earth-born dog, he died, and them government boys went to the Moon and said they didn’t see no mining operations or colony domes or big Space Brother dogs, or nothing else old Buck had seen up there. And in place of my story, what story did they come up with? I ask you. Dust and rocks and craters as far as you can see, and when you walk as far as that there’s another sight of dust and rocks and craters, and so on all around till you’re back where you started, and that’s it, boys, wash your hands, that’s the moon done. Excepting for some spots where the dust is so deep a body trying to land would just be swallowed up, sink to the bottom, and at the bottom find what? Praise Jesus, more dust, just what we needed. They didn’t see nothing that anybody would care about going to see. No floating cars, no lakes of diamonds, no topless Moon gals, just dumb dull nothing. Hell, they might as well a been in Arkansas. You at least can cast a line there, catch you a bream. Besides, my lumbago come back,” I said, easing myself down into the rocker, because we was back on my front porch by then. “It always comes back, my doctor says. Doctors plural, I should say. I’m on the third one now. The first two died on me. That’s something, ain’t it? For a man to outlive two of his own doctors?”
Prose that good is its own justification, and Buck presents a strong argument for the superiority of Romance, however tawdry, over mere reality. But straight talker though he seems to be, the old man is hiding something. For most of the first half of “Close Encounters,” the question of whether Buck lied about the Space Brothers in order to get attention and make a little money on the side is left open. But then at mid-point, he opens up to the reader about “. . . the real reason I give up on the picnics, turned sour on the whole flying-saucer industry, and kept close to the willows ever since. It warn’t my damn lumbago or the Mothman or Barney and Betty Hill and their Romper Room boogeymen, or those dull dumb rocks hauled back from the Moon and thrown in my face like coal in a Christmas stocking. It was Bob Solomon, who said he’d come back, stay in touch, continue to shine down his blue-white healing light, because he loved the Earth people, because he loved me, and who done none of them things.” Now Buck is nearing death but still feeling the hurt of having his friend prove faithless.
That’s the first story in “Close Encounters,” and contrary to what you might expect, it is not a piece of critical invention on my part. It was Andy Duncan himself who cut it out of the text and read it at a convention without the least suggestion that there was more.
Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that the story goes on. After his dark apotheosis, at the urging of the importunate stringer, Buck proceeds to drop in on some UFO researchers investigating mysterious recurrent lights, sees the lights, makes a fool of himself, and is thoroughly humiliated to boot. Yet in the process, he proves himself faithful to the dream. Subsequently he puts together bits and pieces of clues that the stringer dropped for him to realize that she is actually Captain Aura Rhanes, a Space Sister from the planet Clarion, come to test and redeem him. Having proved his worth, it is strongly implied, he will have returned to him all that he has lost: his youth, his health, his innocence, the universe of Gernsbackian scientifiction and old school ufology, the love and friendship of Bob Solomon and the other Space Brothers, and even his beloved giant dog.
This is an excellent story and I’m sure the vast majority of its readers enjoyed it immensely. But, as Buck might put it, it’s not a patch on the first story. Which is a moving meditation on old age, death, loss, and how even positive changes can look like a catastrophe to a man who’s in no position to benefit from them. The second half of “Close Encounters” is good enough that I would not want to see it stripped away. But, reader, pause at the midway point to admire just how powerful the first story is.
And as long as you're thinking about Andy Duncan . . .
Andy's classic story "Beluthahatchie" has been reprinted on the Clarkesworld site. You can read it here. He also posted an essay about writing that story over on his blog. You can read that here.
One thing Andy doesn't mention is that at the Clarion West in question, I went over his story with him and (because that was my job) gave him a laundry list of changes to make. So far as I can tell, he made not a single one.
You have to admire that in a writer.
My review of "Close Encounters" is copyright 2014 by Michael Swanwick; it first appeared in the New York Review of Science Fiction. The image above is of Andy Duncan's first collection. It's a terrific book. You should buy it.