Filler content with escapology

A review of a collection by David Sakmyster that originally appeared in Black Static #60:-

David Sakmyster’s 2014 collection ESCAPE PLANS (WordFire Press pb, 248pp, $14.99) contains nineteen “dark tales of fantasy and suspense”, all of them previously published, and each accompanied by a cheery note from the author detailing its genesis and addressing the themes that concern him. There are echoes of the early Ballard’s crowded cityscapes in opening piece ‘Ladders’ with its search for free space, the story told from the viewpoint of a man who has made a career out of retrieving those who exist on ladders. It is a bittersweet dystopian tale, the backdrop not at all convincing (but then it’s not meant to be) and with the real thrust of the drama having to do with the need to find a niche in the world, no matter how hopeless or simply awful that world feels.

There’s a deal with the devil feel to ‘Five Star Review’, with its depiction of an unusual and sinister eating establishment, where people can possibly be cured of cancer, but dependent on what they are prepared to offer in exchange. Kendricks’ feeling of helplessness at the plight of his wife is well realised, and the atmosphere prevalent in the aptly named Stage Four restaurant is deliriously unsettling, with hints of something terrible taking place in the background. An unhappy marriage and a somewhat intrusive GPS device that seems to know more than it should are the main elements of ‘Roadside Assistance’, with the suggestion that all that is taking place is simply a guilt driven hallucination inside the mind of cuckolded Monty, the story deftly interweaving the personal and the technological, slowly revealing the true state of affairs. One of my favourite stories, ‘The Wrong Basement’ has a couple finding their basement displaced by another, one that contains a mint collection of highly valuable comics. I loved the comic collector backdrop and the interplay between husband and wife, as they are torn between profiting from the find and doing the right thing. Although there is an element of sadness in how it all pans out, the end revelation brought a smile to my face.

‘The Red Envelope’ picks up on a Taiwanese custom and has a westerner married to a ghost, but his failure to provide her with children has dire consequences. It’s a silly idea when looked at in the abstract, but Sakmyster’s amiable prose makes it work, the story leading in to a rueful end. ‘Bait’ which previously appeared in Black Static #7, concerns a killer disposing of bodies at sea, only they are transformed into zombies. It is one of the weaker tales, not explaining why Mr. White acts as he does to any satisfaction, but still engaging for the account of diving, the imagery, and the casual camaraderie between boat bums Jack and Trent. I liked it without being blown away, and so damn with faint praise. There’s a frantic energy to ‘Past Tense’, a tale of quantum physics in which reality changes in every paragraph, the joy of the story residing in its madcap execution and the probabilities that Sakmyster throws at the page. Along similar lines, ‘Guardians’ is told from the galactic equivalent of search and rescue workers who come to wonder if in fact the catastrophes whose damage they work to mitigate are a tool of evolution. The idea is interesting, but as played out here failed to convince, with everything on a scale that seemed both too fast and too small. Overall then, a good idea but with poor execution.

‘Plastromancer’ is a tale of divination, with Xian Li telling the future from reading the plastrons of an ancient sea turtle. Despite the author’s best efforts to meld personal and political, the story doesn’t really go anywhere and there is little to appeal beyond the novelty of the method of divination used. The ‘Blackout Man’ has the power to erase people simply by crossing out documents in which they are mentioned. In this story he meets a woman who still has memories of her husband and wishes to be erased so that she can join him in whatever place the Blackout Man sent him to. There’s an almost X-Files feel to this one, with the government having the power to alter reality in what could very well be the ultimate conspiracy theory, but Sakmyster gives it a very human dimension, making us care about his characters and empathise with their very different plights. ‘Combers’ take a look at the motivations of volunteers engaged in the search for the body of a missing boy. It’s a piece that is mainly driven by dialogue, with a sense that the real action is taking place just out of sight, in what is left unspoken rather than what is actually said, with well-drawn characters and a desperately sad and physically dreary backdrop to the action.

A psychiatric doctor becomes infected with his patient’s belief that aliens are freezing time and altering reality in ‘Time Frame’, the story engaging but with little new to offer on a familiar theme, a vein of speculative ore that Philip K. Dick, for one, virtually mined out. Flash fiction ‘Hotline’ has somebody who mans a helpline finding her life endangered by a caller who has cast a spell to have her life totally erased. It’s a clever piece, one that grabs the interest, albeit the eventual payoff becomes predictable before we reach the end. We’re back with the theme of divination in ‘Internal Affairs’ as a soldier who believes he can tell his future through examining entrails is caught gutting victims on the battlefield. There’s an interesting clash here between the character’s avowed intentions and the methods that he uses, with attendant questions of end justifying means, the story carrying the reader along to the inevitable tongue in cheek ending with its wreak of poetic justice. ‘Turning Time’ deals with the Madagascan rite of turning the dead, the idea a fascinating one, although the twist in the tail doesn’t seem entirely plausible, gratifying as it was.

In ‘Casualty Notification Officer’ we get a ghost story of sorts, as the officer charged with delivering news of a service man’s death comes to realise that it is he himself who has been killed, the story eloquently setting out the plight of the protagonist, but with little new to offer in the telling, and most canny readers will guess what is happening long before the end. There’s a lovely black humour permeating the words of ‘For Sale’, ostensibly an estate agent’s description of a haunted house, the story just perfect in delivery and with delightful touches of detail along the way. Perhaps the most emotive story in the collection, ‘Restoration’ takes us to a world where death has been conquered and people are coerced into accepting immortality regardless of their personal wishes. Only there is a fly in the ointment – reincarnation is a fact, and with nobody dying or being born, the system becomes clogged up with terrible consequences. Played out over thousands of years through the relationship of administrators Martin and Camilla, it’s a story that is both heart-warming and sad, asking the truly important questions about the nature of life in the cosmos, what the purpose of pain, suffering and death is. Of course it only works if you accept reincarnation, and if you don’t then the picture is one of an idyllic society that eventually fails under the burden of its own senescence.

Finally we have ‘The Smithsonian Objective’, which comes as something of an anti-climax as an Indiana Jones wannabe with the ability to see into the future helps a lady archaeologist discover something about the origins of life on Earth that other parties wish to remain a secret. Again, as with one or two other tales, I couldn’t quite believe in what I was reading, with scenes rushing by too fast for credibility and no real sense that what was taking place was necessary given Xavier’s foreknowledge. It was a mildly entertaining skit at best, possibly because it ties into a series of novels by the author dealing with the same themes and characters, and so really isn’t anything more than an adjunct to that longer work.

On this showing, Sakmyster is an ideas man and always an interesting writer, better than most when he hits the nail on the head. Overall though this is a collection that, while it entertains also feels uneven, perhaps because it gathers so many disparate genres and themes under the same umbrella, and where the workmanlike writing, plotting, and characterisation in some of the stories don’t quite measure up to the quality of the concepts they contain. Ultimately there’s more to enjoy than not and it will reward the reader, but with a bit more consistency this could have been an outstanding collection.

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