Saturday, June 11, 2016 2:22 PM
A near-future Texan dystopia is the setting for this tale of a young soothsaying-witch who travels the badlands in search of her lost family. Rich in detail, from the ways of the isolated bands and freelancers to the characters who accompany her in her search for the truth, this story posits a very believable, if highly unpleasant, future history for the lone star state.
D. L. Young grabs you right away and holds on pretty tight for the duration of this slim novel—but, if it seems too short, note that the title suggests more to come. I read it in one sitting and found the time flew by. And I commend the ending of this book—it leaves one thinking—and for me, that’s the best ending a book can have. It seems excellent fodder for Hollywood so I suggest you read it now, before they make the movie. Good story-telling, good writing—what’s to complain about?
No story can be grand without a grand evil—and Mr. Young has come up with a doozy or two—though I won’t spoil it for you. While modern technology makes any near-future story a case of speculating on where existing tech will be in twenty or so years—and that can be both awe-inspiring and terrifying—I miss the old days, when a Sci-Fi story had a big idea behind it. To be fair, Sci-Fi is well-traveled territory—and big ideas aren’t just lying around like they used to be. Plus, there’s a lot more of it being published (or e-published) these days. While that ensures that the number of so-so Sci-Fi books will expand, we may still hope that the ‘good reads’ will increase, as well. This book is certainly a good read, and its writer a good find.
I’ve read a lot of science fiction—I mean a lot. At sixty, I can fairly say that I’ve obsessed over Sci-Fi for fifty years, for most of that time averaging a book a day—and a good 90% of them being Sci-Fi anthologies or novels. I’m about as familiar with story-telling as a person can be, short of actually being a fiction writer. Inevitably, nowadays, most fiction I read resonates with the echoes of the many stories where a similar idea, plot-point, character-type, etc. was used.
I never read many Westerns—but I made a point of reading “The Virginian” by Owen Wister, because I had read that it was the first book to use Western tropes such as ‘dueling at high noon’, or the ‘pretty schoolmarm’, and other such clichés that we now find re-worked in an appalling genre whose readers (and movie goers) apparently favor iconic sensationalism over originality. But not all Western writers are completely beholden to Mr. Wister. The genre has accumulated many more tropes and clichés from more original contributors. And we must accept the fact that a genre so limited in space, time, and culture can only offer so many scenarios suitable for dramatic storytelling.
I’ve always considered Science Fiction to be quite different in that respect—there are no constraints of time, space, culture—or much anything else—and that is partly the point of Sci-Fi, to begin with. Yet, like Westerns, once the mass market gets involved, there arises an audience for re-workings of the most popular and sensational set pieces—war in space, robot uprisings, alien invasions, time travel, etc. The most insipid aspect of mass market Sci-Fi is its drooling cousin, the comic-book super-hero genre—the only redeeming feature of which is that it makes me less annoyed at the conflation of Sci-Fi and Fantasy—at least Fantasy shares some of the infinite, boundless vision of Sci-Fi, even if it pollutes it with fairy dust.
All of this is a roundabout way of reaching my point—that Sci-Fi, though all about ideas, is now amenable to some mining of the past. It is still nigh onto plagiarism to write an entire ‘collage’ consisting only of the popular ideas of others—but an original work can be excused for borrowing parts and pieces. The annals of Sci-Fi contain some of the most brilliant brain-work of the last century—many of our actual technologies were invented by Science Fiction writers—so if we’re going to start pointing fingers, we’ll have to confess that we all live in somewhat of a ‘plagiarism’. Further, there are aspects of outer space survival, orbital mechanics, etc., that have left the arena of speculation—so repetition in that respect is merely an eye for realistic detail.
‘Inventing worlds’ itself was originated by Frank Herbert, just as inventing societies, cultures and languages was pioneered by Ursula Le Guin (in Sci-Fi—Tolkien, of course, did it earlier with Fantasy). But such breakthroughs are in the nature of opening a door that no one else had hitherto seen—and it is only natural that writers should jump on the band-wagon of greater possibilities—subsequent writers don’t copy them so much as learn from them. And in this respect, Sci-Fi lit has a proud heritage of conceptual plagiarism—much like literature as a whole.
So, while “Soledad” has a few bells and whistles that will seem familiar—and a discernible patina of Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Water Knife”—it is still an original story told in a unique voice. As an old salt in the sea of Sci-Fi, I’ve learned to excuse the familiar elements of the modern Sci-Fi-writer’s toolkit and embrace the newness it is used in service of. Especially when the writing is good.