The Malazan Books of the Fallen is one of my all time favourite series of books, but I haven’t read any of Steven Erikson’s other stuff until now. It’s interesting to see what he can do outside of the realm of fantasy and although I wouldn’t call this collection an unqualified success, it definitely has some interesting stuff and plays with some big ideas. As with the Malazan books, the biggest flaw is overambition, which is better than the opposite.
The Devil Delivered
The first story in the collection isn’t quite post-apocalyptic, taking place on the cusp of everything going to hell. Earth is on the point of collapse from a wide range of malaises, but the most striking is a handful of areas where the Ozone layer has been destroyed to such an extent that to spend too long out there is to die horribly. Such an area in North America had been regifted to the Lakota Native Americans, who have forged a new nation. Despite their hardships, a major and controversial company has invested in this fledgling country and it is clear that they hold secrets that the jealous NOAC, an American/Canadian alliance, will seek to take with military force. William Potts is a young man who is researching what is going on in the Lakota Nation, as he wanders the irradiated wasteland on a journey that can only be described as half journalistic, half vision quest.
The Devil Delivered plays with a lot of big ideas, most of which I haven’t even touched upon in my summary. Some of these ideas are fascinating and could comfortably support a short story on it’s own and the combined ideas would make a great novel, but it makes this short story feel too packed with ‘content’ and not enough with story. The Malazan books are occasionally guilty of the same thing, but Erikson did an admirable job of wrapping up most of the seemingly pointless plot strands by the end, but there just isn’t the time for that here. I know they say that you should leave your reader wanting more, but I ended up just slightly dissatisfied with The Devil Delivered, which is a shame because the future it was showing was a genuinely unique one for a variety of reasons. Sometimes authors return to their short fiction and expand them to novels and it’s usually not a great idea; I think this would be an exception.
Right…really not sure what to make of this one. Revolvo takes place in a bizarre unnamed Canadian city where the art establishment is supported by a complex and unwieldy tax-payer funded bureaucracy, taking the need for an audience out of the creation of art. Revolvo follows a small cast of characters who all converge at the end. We have Arthur Revell, a polite man with a strange affliction. There’s Andy, who thinks his pet octopus has it in for him. Next there’s Max, a young man from a wealthy family who seeks to join the higher echelons of the art world. There’s Sool Koobie, a literal Neanderthal with a taste for blood. Finally there is Joey ‘Rip’ Sanger, a pugnacious man who works to keep riff-raff off of the abandoned railways.
Not being Canadian or familiar with it’s art scene, I suspect that a great deal of Revolvo went over my head. The whole thing is incredibly surreal but quite enjoyable if you just enjoy the bizarre occurrences on your own terms, rather than trying to suss out exactly what Erikson is going on about. A broad message about the elitist and undemocratic nature of the art establishment seems clear, but there’s a lot of stuff which didn’t quite click for me. It’s actually structured rather like a Malazan book but in microcosm, in the way that a series of seemingly separate storylines converge into one massive blow out at the end. The conclusion of this story is a bizarre treat and Revolvo is enjoyable as a curiosity even if, like me, you don’t have a bloody clue what it’s supposed to mean.
Fishin’ With Grandma Matchie
Fishin’ With Grandma Matchie is probably the least ‘Erikson-esque’ story in the collection and possibly the most interesting. In many ways it reminds me of a Neil Gaiman story with a Canadian twist, which is no bad thing. Every summer Jock Junior and his family go to stay in the cabin of his Grandma Matchie. She is a strange, powerful and wise woman, seemingly for more ancient than she could be and takes Jock on a series of adventures, while Satan Himself lurks in the shadows.
The most striking thing about this story is Jock’s narration. It’s childlike, but also littered with slang and misunderstood words. As unreliable narrators go I’m fairly sure that I don’t trust anything that he says and even though Grandma Matchie may be the titular character, this is fundamentally a story about what’s going on in Jock’s head and how he percieves the world, making this a character study first and foremost. Detailed character work has never been Erikson’s main focus, so it’s interesting seeing him make a stab at it here. This is a slightly unfocused story, but that serves the narrative which is strange and brimming with imagination and vivid characters.
Overall, this is an interesting collection with some good stories in it. All three are ambitious and none of them quite hit the mark, making this collection perhaps feel like something of a noble failure, but one with plenty of things to enjoy nonetheless.