Friday, May 5, 2017

Review of Stargazer's Embassy by Eleanor Lerman

In 2015, Eleanor Lerman’s career in writing took what some might frame as an abrupt left turn: aliens.  Known primarily for her poetry, Lerman had only one novel and two collections of short stories to her name, none of which breached known reality (at least for non-conspiracy thinkers).  With The Radiomen, however, Lerman told the story of an everyday woman who as a child had a strange encounter with an alien through her uncle’s shortwave radio, then developed the scene into a story revolving around religion and self-awareness.  The premise apparently ripe, in 2017 she returns to novel-length fiction about equivocal extra-terrestrials in the human context with Stargazer’s Embassy (Mayapple Press).

Julia is a single, middle-aged cleaning lady living in New York City who seems content with life.  Her mother’s train riding off the track most of the time (she tattooed Julia’s wrist as a child with a strange pattern of stars), her passing leaves Julia with some sense of peace.  But things may just be repressed.  Meeting an older professor of psychology one evening, Julia starts up an unexpected relationship.  And things progress normally, that is, until John reveals that a major portion of his research revolves around experiencers—people who have encountered or been abducted by an alien race dubbed ‘the grays.’  Julia is willing to accept this part of his work, but the tattoo on her wrist won’t.  The star pattern something commonly observed by experiencers, Julia is forced to delve into her mother’s past as well as the rabbit’s hole of her own soul.

Stargazer’s Embassy, like The Radiomen, is a novel which presents itself very simply; Lerman’s syntax is straight-forward, no teasing, hinting, or over-statement.  But from the beginning it’s quite clear an undercurrent of something unearthly flows beneath the surface narrative.  Interestingly, it’s not the aliens which occupy this subterranean flow, rather their meaning and purpose to Julia’s story.  Building subtle momentum, I kept asking myself: how is Lerman going to resolve this?  How do the grays fit into Julia’s life and the world beyond?  At one point I even worried: is it all just eye candy—another trope of sf paraded mysteriously for entertainment only?  But my fears were misplaced.  Lerman draws the strands of narrative together upon the conclusion into a something that has meaning for the characters, and the reader.

I can’t help but point out that, in the face of much contemporary science fiction which is doing it’s darndest to portray “strong women”, “women with agency”, and “revision how women are portrayed in fiction”, Julia is very traditional (for lack of a better word).  Along with her job as home cleaner, she is generally a passive woman who comes to be cook, laundry-woman, cleaner, and lover for a man almost twice her age—not precisely the symbol many contemporary feminists are aiming at.  More importantly, however, Julia can be indecisive, imposed upon, dishonest with herself, juggled by fate and choice, and is naturally all the more realistic for it.  Never a slave or automaton, however, she retains her autonomy despite that she is not kicking ass or enforcing profound opinion on others.  Instead, her autonomy is kept through pondering questions and situations, making good and bad decisions, and dealing with family and personal problems in partially inept and not always optimal fashion—just as we do.  In a genre with a very vocal portion intent on portraying ‘powerful women’ or even eliminating gender altogether, Julia comes across as a refreshing character precisely for Lerman not defining her by her role in society, rather the facets which comprise her individual character and the highs and lows it traverses living this thing called life.  

In the end, Stargazer’s Embassy is an intriguing story for the manner in which Lerman strings out the suspense surrounding the meaning and purpose of the aliens in the context of Julia’s life. Walking a very taught tightrope between realism and science fiction, the reader is kept guessing, right up until the end, as to the reality of her experiences.  A strong, emotional story of a woman trying to come to terms with her past and present in the face of uncertainty, Lerman effects a languid but operative writing style; there are details, but the reader must be patient to learn the entire scene. As such, Stargazer’s Embassy is similar to The Radiomen in terms of premise, style, main character, etc..  Quality is also on that list, making the novel equally as recommended. 

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