Pictures From An Expedition
by Alexander C. Irvine
Review by Cathy Green
Night Shade Books Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 159780049x
Date: 15 August, 2006 List Price $14.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
The collection leads off with "The Lorelei," a story about art, muses and the desire for fame, fortune and artistic perfection, in which a young man comes to New York City determined to make his fortune as an artist and instead winds up stealing Albert Pinkham Ryder's muse. Unfortunately, instead of the muse inspiring him to create his own works, he becomes a forger of Ryder's paintings. Starting the collection off on such a high note sets the bar pretty high for the rest of the collection, which fortunately lives up to the promise of the first story. "Green River Chantey" is a ghost story involving the corpse of Floyd Collins and a clever solution to a family's ghost's demand for reparations. In "The Fall At Shanghai" a biblical character present in Shanghai before its fall to the Japanese reflects on his long and bloody life. "For Now It's Eight O'clock" may be the creepiest story in the collection, turning Wee Willie Winkie into an abductor of children and introducing his even scarier father Big Bill Winkie. "Clownfish," the one new story in the collection, introduces George Lamont, a man in mid-life reflecting on his life and his satisfaction therewith, who becomes convinced the fish in his office aquarium are spying on him and talking to him. It has a nicely wry tone:
A lawnmower blenny that made a habit of hanging around the aerator drew his particular suspicion. Another possible suspect was the blue-striped clownfish, but it was almost trite to imagine that a clownfish was harassing him. Perhaps the banana eel that lived inside the sunken pirate ship was the culprit. If you were willing to grant the possibility that a fish was talking to you, it did no good to pretend rationality by making a hierarchy of suspects.The story is a well-written meditation on regrets, daydreams and might-have-beens. "Gus Dreams of Biting the Mailman" was nominated for a World Fantasy Award, and deservedly so. In it Mitch Packard, bakery employee, seems to live a life in which he is an agent of coincidence or possibly causality. When he reads the paper, inevitably at some point during the day the conversation, with no prompting from Mitch, will lead to a subject requiring Mitch to provide the information he read in the paper. Mitch's "superpower" interacts with his co-worker's theories involving fiction and reality (a variant of "I'm in someone's story") in such a way that aliens come to the bakery applying for jobs and time machines start appearing on the front porch.
One of the longest stories in the collection, "Pictures From An Expedition" is a look at the corrosive effects of celebrity and media expose. A mission to Mars launches from the International Space Station. The astronauts are continually filmed and are in near constant communication with earth - not just NASA but the media and pretty much anyone with internet access. Meanwhile, the Vegas oddsmakers are taking bets on whether the astronauts will get to Mars safely, land successfully, complete the mission successfully, survive the mission and come back safely. The public can also bet on who in the gender balanced crew can hook up with whom. The crew dynamic shifts with the changing odds and with the focus of the media coverage. In the end, despite a tremendously successful mission, none of the crew really gets a happily ever after.
"Reformation", "The Uterus Garden", and "Peter Skilling" are stories that are a product of our times and to some degree, the policies of the current administration, and have a fairly bleak view of the nearish future. In "Reformation", after the death of his parents, a young Muslim computer hacker attempts to bring the true word of God to the world through the mathematics of the Sufis and the Brethren of Purity by programming the appropriate prayers onto the net. "The Uterus Garden" is set in a future where the majority of women in North America and Western Europe are infertile and families can adopt babies from Africa and get them "caucasianized" via gene therapy. It's also a world where white babies are so valuable that poor fertile young women can find themselves kidnapped, drugged and turned into baby farms. In "Peter Skilling" Irvine uses some of the policies of the War on Terror and the War on Drugs and takes them to their logical extremes at the end of the 21st century. This is probably the least sophisticated and least successful story of the collection, due to Irvine dropping a pretty big anvil on the readers' heads. Fortunately, it's the only misstep in the entire collection.
Completing the collection are "Volunteers" and "Shepherded by Galatea." "Volunteers" is a close second to "For Now It's Eight O'clock" for the distinction of creepiest story. An colony on a new planet collectively goes insane when the majority of residents revert to living life as if in an idealized version of the 1950's, even going so far as to get plastic surgery to look like movie and television stars of the era. A group of colonists who have not succumbed to the mania flee the planet for a hopefully saner life on a new world, but complications ensue because the AI/alien lifeform that pilots and runs the colony ship with the help of the human pilot had an unhealthy relationship with the original pilot of the colony ship and is now looking to replicate the relationship with his son. Last, but not least, "Shepherded by Galatea" concludes the collection. It's a fairly traditional space opera; a fun adventure story of an asteroid miner, his ship and the search for the motherlode.
If you are already a fan of Alexander Irvine's, you are going to want Pictures From An Expedition to round out and complete your collection. If you haven't already read anything by Irvine, perhaps because you were unwilling to commit to reading an entire novel by an unfamiliar author, then this collection of his short fiction is a great place to start. There's definitely something for everyone. Highly recommended.