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Blue Apes, Phyllis Gotlieb, Tesseract, 1995, 272 pp.
Gotlieb is an extremely painstaking writer, and the stories contained in the collection Blue Apes span about twenty years of her career. Each story has an ornate quality that defies the expectations of genre fiction. Gotlieb is Gotlieb, and while she is certainly aware of genre conventions, those kinds of limitations seem to fall away as the essential purity and uniqueness of each narrative is revealed. Interestingly, the general style in Blue Apes seems less densely packed than Gotlieb's recent novel, Flesh and Gold, and that's likely a good thing for the shorter length of these stories. And Blue Apes demonstrates an astonishing range, proving that Gotlieb's project or inquiry covers all of the questions that humanity raises.
The opening story, "Among You," is a character inquiry, into the nature of human desire and its effect on a young shape-changer, Rain. Rain is stranded on Earth, along with only a few others of his kind, and he makes a living by taking on the forms that people pay him to take. Written in an uneasy, ever-shifting present tense, the story grabs our imagination and our sympathy for Rain.
Meanwhile, "Tauf Aleph" is another tour-de-force of character, a kind of metaphysical satire on the order of something like Lem's Cyberiad. The story begins with a lovely set-up: "Samuel Zohar ben Reuven Begelman lived to a great age in the colony Pardes on Tau Ceti IV and in his last years he sent the same message with his annual request for supplies to Galactic Federation Central: Kindly send one mourner/gravedigger so I can die in peace respectfully. And Sol III replied through GalFed Central with the unvarying answer: Regret cannot find one Jew yours faithfully" (26). GalFed decides to teach a digging robot a few Jewish rituals, and O/G5/842 is duly trained and sent off to Pardes. The results are quite unlike anything GalFed or Zohar might have guessed, and even the indigenous race of Pardes has some interesting encounters with O/G. Gotlieb writes an extremely satisfying story, then writes it past the point where other writers would have left off.
"The Other Eye" is a much shorter work, a first-person narrative of hope and despair. I liked the ending of this story as well, possessing as it does the exact opposite quality of the ending of "Tauf Aleph."
"Mother Lode" is a brilliantly bizarre story, set inside an alien known as Amsuwlle of the race of Amsu. Here is the opening paragraph, demonstrating again Gotlieb's knack for starting a story off skilfully: "The Amsu spent their lives foraging in a zigzag course between the ice rings and the asteroid moons of Epictetus VI, called Apikiki by most of its inhabitants. The local name provokes laughter among some visitors, but the Amsu do not. They are a kilometre in length, and occasionally the young and ignorant ones try to engulf a ship; since they are protected by GalFed, these incidents lead to embarrassing complications" (59). The Amsu can carry several passengers, and the story begins with a Solthree human named Elena Cortez transferring into the body of Amsuwlle. Elena is a kind of troubleshooter for GalFed, and a number of problems definitely develop onboard Amsuwlle. Gotlieb conflates a number of fascinating elements here, most of them found in the witty title. Amsu excrete valuable metals as waste, and take care of passengers like a (somewhat dim) mother. Feminist and environmentalist projects get conscripted, revised, subverted, and eventually written simply as narrative.
A vastly different story from others in Blue Apes, "The Military Hospital" reads like early Zelazny or even Ellison. The military hospital itself is a strange institution, set in an even stranger society. Citizens riot and rampage, and behind walls, the hospitals fix up wounded soldiers and sent them back into combat. DeLazzari is the only human in a hospital full of eerily efficient robots, and he is the Director for the next two weeks. He is not a particularly sympathetic character, but as a portrait of a society and the people it produces, the story works just fine.
"Body English" is a four-page writer's showpiece. Thematically somewhat similar to "Among You," "Body English" is written in a different style. Only dialogue, with no attributions. It is a tribute to Gotlieb's writing that the characters are clear and the story is just as lucid.
"Monkey Wrench" seems to be set up deliberately as a kind of psychological inquiry. GalFed runs a system of "spacelights," small stations that help with navigation and other local matters. A crew from a nearby spacelight is sent to investigate the malfunction of spacelight 599. Cornelius Hendricks is found dead, and his wife, Iris, has completely disappeared. Fortunately for the investigators, Hendricks spent a good deal of time talking to the spacelight's computer, and the story develops as the computer reveals information. Why did Iris marry Cornelius? Why did Bugasz visit 599 more often than necessary? The story is not static at all, and the revelations show an astute grasp of sexual and appearance politics on the part of Gotlieb.
Another long story, "Sunday's Child" tells about a group of humans on a future Earth, an Earth beset by extreme pollution and some aliens in orbit who have revealed nothing about their intentions. While well-written, "Sunday's Child" is my least favourite story in Blue Apes. The premise is both typical and somewhat unworkable, and the narrative pay-off was also quite stereotypical. Not what I was expecting from Gotlieb.
"We Can't Go On Meeting Like This" is another short-short, with a hilarious subversion of the cliché of the title. Adulterous lovers make use of the technology to transfer human consciousness to an animal's body...
"The Newest Profession" is a heartbreaking story, set inside a rather Orwellian institution where women are impregnated with various alien races, for money but not in particularly happy circumstances either. For the record, this story was written in 1982 and Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale in 1985. While the premise is slightly different than Atwood's novel, the tone and intent of Gotlieb's story is virtually the same. Make of that what you will.
The eponymous "Blue Apes" rounds out the collection, and for anyone expecting a story about primates, the title is misleading. The blue apes of the story are more local colour than anything, representing the menace of the indigenous life on the planet of Vervlen. König is a descendant of a group of colonists who decided to leave Vervlen many years ago, and he is on assignment from GalFed to find out the state of the present colonists. He finds a rather bizarre set of societal rules, due to inbreeding and cultural decay. What is König's secret? And what will he do for the colonists of Vervlen?
Blue Apes is an excellent collection, with only one story that did not impress me. Gotlieb is a superb writer of short stories, and her style generally functions with grace and wit in this form.
Last modified: December 14, 1998
Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (email@example.com)
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