One of life’s little pleasures, it’s always nice to encounter a writer for the first time and discover a keen sense of style. Mollifying whatever the actual content may be, it leaves a good first impression that goes a long way toward organizing a second encounter. A magical ace seemingly forever up its precisely starched sleeve, Dave Hutchinson’s 2015 collection Sleeps with Angels (2015, NewCon Press) left such an impression on me. I’m off to find his novel Europe in Autumn.
Containing six solid stories, one of which is never before published, Sleeps With Angels is, above all, very well written. Each story carefully crafted, the prose is polished to high shine. Like Ted Chiang, Hutchison is apparently one of those writers with a day job to pay the bills (he’s averaging about one story per year over the past couple of decades), allowing him to take his time, making sure the dross is pared away and what remains, on point. “The Fortunate Isle”, the story leading off the collection, is a mini-police procedural that opens at the scene of a murder and quickly has the reader begging for more given the defined manner of presentation. An elderly man shot through the head sitting in his own armchair, the woman in the house says its her husband before being whisked away to the hospital with her own emergency. When an old Irish mafia feud turns out to be the cause, nobody is surprised. It’s when somebody tries to steal the body, however, that the police are taken aback.
Each story in Sleeps with Angels is followed by a note from Hutchinson (a nice touch to any collection). “Sugar Engines” sees the author admitting he had the title before the story. A “cozy catastrophe” (emphasis on the quotation marks!), a massive nanotech event has wiped out 75% of the world’s population, and renders those who remain… not the same. Magic realist/science fiction/absurdism, this is an impossibly predictable story about a politically fragmented London and bizarre magic at your fingertips. A fun poke at critics, “Dalí’s Clocks” is about a new medicine that enhances the desire to create, and by the same token, emphasizes the inability not to. Made relevant by the dearth of ‘literature’ and ‘criticism’ available on the web today, this one had a sly smile playing at the corner of my mouth. “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi”, the original to the collection, is the story of a man and his friend on a drive to the recently unearthed archeological site of a rich merchant Roman in England. The rain pouring down and tensions running high between the academics onsite, they quickly lose sight of their differences when they truly see what has been uncovered.
Hutchinson has the wonderful talent of dropping you into the middle of something, then laying down backstory all the while making you care about the plot at hand by strategically dropping clues, revealing all at the conclusion. (A real storyteller’s talent, that.) It’s evidenced in the peculiar “All the News, All the Time, From Everywhere.” I’ll be ruining some of Hutchinson’s mode to say, the apocalypse has arrived in the form of elves and the internets are gone. News is back to old fashioned newspaper and the news itself is scried via animal entrails. Not as entirely crazy as it sounds, Hutchinson has fun with the idea, and lands in a Natural Born Killers reality. The best saved for last, “The Incredible Exploding Man” lives up to its title literally, rather than figuratively, interestingly enough. Not a standard comic book story, Hutchinson sends a shout out to Alfred Bester in this well-written tale of an accident at a particle collider. A strong relationship built between two characters, we don’t find out until the end why precisely the story is titled as such, but it fits.
One very intriguing aspect of Sleeps with Angels is how few of the stories are listed in the isfdb. Only two, in fact, appear there. An indication of the distance from genre which half the collection originally appeared, it brings about the strong possibility that the majority of Sleeps with Angels will be unknown to Hutchinsons’ existing readers, let alone those who have never heard of him. Not just a here’s-what-I’ve-published-lately collection, it draws together such disparate sources as Live without a Net (Roc), Requiems for the Departed (Morrigan Books), and what appears the defunct Daybreak magazine. I assume most ensconced in science fiction will not be aware of these works (I am and wasn’t), thus increasing the chances of a very fresh read.
The introduction to Sleeps with Angels may be a bit of a throwaway, but the backing content is not. Hutchinson a wordsmith, the stories slip and slide unpredictably but always with the cutting-edge control of well-crafted prose and a strong hand on the rudder. If its mass had to fall on one side of a fence or another, it would by default be science fiction. But there is certainly much more to the stories than that taxonomy would allot. All in all, a pleasurable first experience that has stoked my confidence that plonking down the money for Europe in Autumn will be far more reward than risk.
Published between 2003 and 2013, with one story original to the collection, the following is the table of contents of Sleeps with Angels:
Introduction (by Dave Hutchinson)
The Fortunate Isles
Sic Transit Gloria Mundi
All The News, All The Time, From Everywhere
The Incredible Exploding Man
Mr. Hutchinson, if perchance you read this, do satisfy my curiosity: are you married to a Pole, have Polish heritage, or have a very close friend who is Polish? The fact every story save one contains one or more authentic Polish names (right down to the diacritical marks) indicates something is going on between you and the land of kielbasa…