Review of “Ghost Seas”, Steven Utley, SF Site, 2010

Original here

I reviewed a slew of books from Australia’s Ticonderoga publications around the early 2010s, for the SF Site. All were at the very least interesting, beautifully produced books. Re-reading this review now, it does convey that I enjoyed the read although I must also confess I didn’t recall much of Ghost Seas until prompted by the review.

ghostseas

 

Ghost Seas

Steve Utley

 

A review by Seamus Sweeney

 

 

 

Steven Utley has been described (by Gardner Dozois) as possibly “the most under-rated science fiction writer alive.” With Bruce Sterling, Howard Waldrop and Lisa Tuttle, he helped form the Turkey City Writer’s Workshop in Austin in the 70s. The prolific contributions between these authors lead to, amongst other things, the first stirrings of steampunk. Utley took something of a hiatus from science fiction as the 70s ended, pursuing other interests, only to resume in the later 80s. Perhaps this hiatus helped secure his status as a self-described “internationally unknown author.” On the one hand, it is richly undeserved — Steven Utley should be as famous (and rich) as anyone else. On the other, there is a certain pleasure in discovering an author unknown to one who induces the literary version of love at first sight.

 

The eponymous opening story of this brilliant collection is a haunting tale of the West Texas sands, a strange triangle between a dementing (but rich) old man, his apparently guileless nephew, and the nephew’s young wife. This story was reminiscent of all those J.G. Ballard stories and novels set in imagined landscapes that powerfully reflect mindscapes. The exotic and the eerie is a mirror of ourselves. For me, reading this entire collection was an exhilarating experience that brought me back to the excitement of discovering Ballard’s short story collections in Dublin Central Library as a young teenager.

 

There is not a weak, forgettable story among these tales. Even more impressive is the range of Utley’s prose — we have outright sci-fi, slipstream, alternate history, “straight” history, outer space, inner space, a dream Texas, a real Texas. All these worlds are created and explored in an utterly absorbing manner. From the hilarious slice of space opera “Upstart” to the alternate historical fragment “Look Away” to the time travel glitch “Michael Bates Michael Bates Michael Bates Michael,” each story describes a world perfectly.

 

Another highlight is the palaeontologist versus creationist murder mystery “The Dinosaur Season.” With humour and sympathy, Utley captures the cultural clash between the scientists and the local law enforcement very well. The long historical story “The Electricity of Heaven,” in which a venal, pompous newspaper editor experiences the last days of Confederate Richmond, was for me the collection’s centrepiece. “The Electricity of Heaven” is a straight historical fiction, and yet one does not notice the distinctions in this collection.

 

Writing an unreservedly enthusiastic review that is both interesting and avoids repetitive use of superlatives is actually quite difficult. So at this point I will bow out and simply encourage those who have not yet encountered these stories to acquire this fine edition from Ticonderoga Press.

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