Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Book Report: Near+Far, Cat Rambo (Part I)

I don't actually remember the first time I heard or read about Cat Rambo or one of her stories. I do remember the first time I saw her name and I was like: "Cat Rambo? Who the hell goes by 'Cat Rambo'?" Well, Cat does. 

Cat Rambo's name has floated across books and anthologies and zines I've read for the last five years or so. Editor of Fantasy Magazine, fiction in Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, Hyperpulp, Asimov's, and a shitload of anthologies. Her name is synonymous with speculative short fiction over the past decade and seems to have exploded in the last couple of years. She had nineteen short stories come out in 2011. NINETEEN! 

I got to meet her up at Clarion West in 2011. She lectured on online presence and industry stuffs, giving her time in and out of the classroom. She's a great supporter and resource, one of the many writers up in Seattle who make moving up there a temptation. 

A few months back she asked me to review her upcoming short story collection Near+Far (2012, Hydra House), which is what you're reading now. There're so many stories in this collection I'm going to break this review into two parts, the Near and Far collections, which follows the book's layout. Both collections have their own table of contents and restart the page numbering. I read my version as a PDF, but apparently the printed copy is bound in a style calletête-bêche, like how the old Ace Doubles used to do it. But you know, done classy. I think it not only works, but it's just the sort of thing print publishers need to do if they want people to go out and buy the print copies of their books. It worked on me and I've already read the book. The covers were done by Sean Counley and the interior artwork was done by Mark Tripp.

Cat also did a line of jewelry based on the book's artwork:

Near+Far jewelry
Nancy Kress sporting snazzy Near+Far jewelry 
This book is great opportunity to examine Rambo's work in detail. It's a retrospective with stories that go back to 2007, so you can see what she's been doing over the years. As I said before, I was familiar with her and her fiction, but I'd never read her stories back to back and wasn't able to see just what she was doing with her work. 

She starts off the Near collection with a strong story, "The Mermaids Singing, Each to Each". It's a beautiful, lyrical story of a formerly female protagonist who's gone and had its gender removed after years of sexual abuse by its now deceased uncle. But that's all back story. The real story is of it and two others navigating waters filled with man-eating mermaids (done with a nice bit of worldbuilding) while the trio prowl the seas looking for garbage, the modern booty. But the real-real story is whether or not the protag can forgive the semi-autonomous boat it inherited from its uncle which it holds partially responsible for its abuse. "Mermaids" encapsulates what Cat Rambo is really writing about: relationships.

Her stories are quiet meditations on relationships. Now, "quiet" in a review is usually code for boring or nothing happens. This is not the case. There's murderous mermaids, superheroes, asphyxiations, dark shamans, quasi-animal burnings. There's plenty of action and things ahappenin'. No, what I mean by quiet is that many of her stories are about, at their core, relationships, usually between two people, they just don't say so up front. 

This is not an easy thing to do, to have these subtle but effective explorations of relationships (brother-sister, victim-perpetrator, husband-wife, rival friends, boyfriend-girlfriend) all while the world is ending, cybernetic cats are prowling, supervillians are attacking, and immortality is at your fingertips in some crazy fruit. Usually there's some new element that's introduced which causes the relationships to stress and/or react. In many of her stories the element is a new-fangled product with spec-like qualities, such as with "Vocobox(TM)" (a voicebox for cats) and "RealFur" (living clothing) and "Therapy Buddha" (a talking buddhist psychology doll; actually the product isn't very spec-ish, it's the worldbuidling in this one.). The new element doesn't cause discord in the relationships, it just pulls the lid back, exposing them. For example, "Close Your Eyes" is a haunting tale of a sister who cares for her dying brother. She drives him around, supports him financially, lives with him. She's put her entire life on hold while he withers away. And for all her sacrifice she is rewarded with bitter resentment and passive-aggressive sarcasm on page one, a relationship that I think is all too real and common. The new element is the brother's interest in shamanism, which he explores in classes at the hospital he goes to for treatments of his undisclosed illness, but the discord was there years before the story started.

The emphasis on relationships lends the Near collection an intimacy and immediacy that feels contemporaneous. For the most part, these are people who are living modern lives right around the corner from us. Besides the cybernetic superheroes. 

One of the things that I wasn't so thrilled about at first were the stories' endings. That's because many of them end on natural notes, meaning that while plots are not resolved the character's arcs were. Such is the case with "Memories of Moments, Bright as Falling Stars", where the story just ends. What about the bad guys? Will the protag survive? You can't just end a story right there like that!?!? But she did. And once I reread it I found that it ended there because the protag's story had concluded. This is a strong collection because even if there are pieces that don't work for you (wasn't a big fan of "10 New Metaphors for Cyberspace", a borderline poetry piece that went over my head) there're many others that will. It's a collection filled with a variety of stories that are able to get at and portray the human experience in wondrous environments.

(That was Part I of the review. Part II is here.)

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