Review: Trees and Other Wonders, by Stephen Case

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Kindle edition, ASIN B00CPS3C3C

(Review first published in ASIM 58, June 2013)

I first encountered Stephen Case’s fiction in the ASIM slushpool, in the guise of a story called ‘The Story of the Ship that Brought Us Here’. ‘Story of the Ship’ was a measured, poetic SF piece shot through with elegant imagery, an almost Golden Age sensibility, and a timeless sense of inevitability; I was sufficiently impressed with it that I chose it for the issue I was editing at the time (issue 51). ‘Trees and Other Wonders’ is Case’s first collection, available through Amazon’s Kindle Store: it contains ‘The Story of the Ship …’ and eleven other stories, most of which have been published previously in various magazines. The following are my comments on each of the stories:

‘The Stone Oaks’ occurs in the grounds of a nunnery, and is viewed through the eyes of the apprentice tasked with preparing the titular trees for winter. It’s a well-paced and immersive story, tantalising in its subtle exploration of a solidly imagined world. I wasn’t wholly won over by the main speculative aspect of the story, but the voice was striking and assured and the ending appropriately poignant.

‘My Bicycle, 4500 AD’ is an off-centre piece of tenspeeds, time-travellers, and conflict with the undead. While the change of pace and perspective is in some respects useful, I was less convinced by the tone of this piece than I was of many of the other stories here.

‘The Story of the Ship that Brought Us Here’—discussed above. Obviously, I liked it (and still do).

‘Barstone’ is the story of a parkland hill that used to be a man. It’s a quiet and slowly unfolding piece, but Case does ‘quiet and slowly unfolding’ very well. One of the collection’s highlights.

‘What I Wrote for Andronicus’, set in Valhalla, poses the question: what if even Yggdrasil, the tree antecedent to the Gods themselves, is not eternal? This is beautifully written; it left me wanting more.

‘Bonus Track 1: A SHOT IN THE BACK OF THE HEAD’ is a story that centres around the output from a machine that predicts the method of one’s death. (The author reveals, in an afterword to the collection, that this was a submission to an anthology on exactly this theme, but was not used in the anthology; its appearance in Trees And Other Wonders is its first outing.) ‘Shot’ is a quietly unsettling and quite insidious exploration of this idea, involving a US serviceman fighting in an unpopular desert war.

‘The Silver Khan’ lives in a stone palace which takes to the air by day, rising from its ornamental-garden foundations with the dawn. But the garden’s many larger-than-life statues hold a secret, and that secret will bring down the palace. Told from the perspective of an envoy to the palace, it’s a subtle story with some wonderful worldbuilding.

Set on a deep-space hospital ship, ‘Starlight, Her Sepulchre’ is a mil-sf story with sinister overtones and a clever escape route.

‘Read this quickly, for you will only have a moment …’ is a short piece (appropriately, given its title), but one that nonetheless takes considerably longer than a moment to read. To my mind it’s one of the collection’s least successful pieces—second person imperative is a very difficult trick to pull off—and I found the naming convention used quite distracting and offputting.

‘The Glorious Revolution’, probably the collection’s longest story, is in some respects kin to ‘The Story of the Ship that Brought Us Here’ and ‘The Silver Khan’, in its focus on the interruption of dynasty by one in the position of privileged outsider. (Actually, ‘Read This Quickly …’ arguably fits this description also.) As with several of the stories here, ‘Revolution’ has a sense of poetry and portentousness about it; there were aspects to it which reminded me of Asimov’s ‘Psychohistory’ conceit, the driver of the Foundation series, both in theme and simplicity of language. In other respects, there’s more the sense of the fairy tale, the oft-told tale, the tale from an earlier era.

‘Bonus Track 2: LIGHT AND NOISE AND PAIN’ is a second ‘Machine of Death’ story; while the background, the characterisation and the dilemma all convinced, the resolution didn’t, for me.

In ‘Driving East’, the sun gets caught in a stand of tall trees, and time stalls. The narrator, anxious to be finding an apparently-nonexistent road east, must stop and help.

The stories are followed by an ‘Afterword’ in which Case offers details on the origins of the various stories.

My favourites among the stories would probably be ‘Barstone’, ‘Bonus Track 1’, ‘The Silver Khan’ and ‘Starlight, Her Sepulchre’. Happily, these are stories with a sufficient variety in theme, treatment and tone to suggest that Case should be able to explore further new territory in stories yet to come, and this would be something worth looking forward to.

My thoughts on the overall collection? There’s a richness of the imagination here, a calmly-measured pace, a solidity. Case’s stories might move too slowly for some: if action is your thing, this is probably not a collection which will work well for you. The confrontations in Case’s work tend to be muted, the tensions less than razor-sharp. But there’s a vivid quality to his writing, and an underlying ability to evoke wonderment at the worlds or tableaux pictured within these pages. There are echoes, too, of a Golden-Age-anything-is-possible kind of sensibility to many of these stories, an aspect I first discerned when I found ‘The Story of the Ship …’

Or let me try again:

Case has produced a collection in which almost every story reads like a fable, the moral of which is a secret the reader may hope to discover before the end. There’s an easy acceptance of the fantastical, a hint of the impossible. I think that’s it. Yes.

 

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(Review by Simon Petrie, 2013)




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