Saturday, November 23, 2013

Review of Stars Seen through Stone by Lucius Shepard

One of the most consistent writers of short fiction alive, Lucius Shepard is also perhaps one of sci-fi’s least appreciated.  Regularly published, nominated, and awarded for his work since 1984, readers who never delve into the shorter length works of the genre are missing not only an entire sub-universe, but a plethora of brilliant ideas and writers—including Shepard. Stars Seen through Stone (2007) is one of the writer’s later novellas, but still effects all the nuance of his talent.

Stars Seen through Stone opens with a man contemplating life on the steps of the town library.  A record producer named Vernon, he goes on to recall events leading up to that point.  Things begin quotidian; a pre-naturally talented young blues musician sends a promising demo.  But when brought to the studio to record, trouble starts.  An emotionally immature fat kid who expects the world but is unwilling to put in the effort, Jason Stanky is not the most likeable guy.  But his music is, and Vernon attempts to reconcile his disgust to get a record deal that will earn them both a little cash.  But it’s in relating the town’s history to Stanky one day that things begin to take a turn for the weird.  Escalating alongside the potential for the young man’s success, the town of Black William finds itself on the map in ways no reader can predict.  

A look at the creative process through the lens of history, Stars Seen through Stone is an unsettling story that examines the disparity between the heights of pure artistic originality and the lows of mental squalor and despair so many people who achieve those heights must experience in order to be original.  The history of the fictional yet very realist town of Black William providing a sub-text to the story, into the self-destructive side of creativity Shepard adds the cyclical nature of its movement in time, splicing in side stories from secondary characters in complementary fashion.  

A writer like Robert Louis Stevenson or Christopher Priest—not in style, rather in the manner in which he is able to lay down words like railroad tracks which cement ideas in place, Shepard is fully competent.  See the following quote:

Over the next six years I released a string of minor successes and acquired an industry-wide reputation of having an eye for talent. It had been my immersion in the music business that triggered the events leading to my divorce and, while Andrea was happy for me, I think it galled her that I had exceeded her low expectations. After a cooling-off period, we had become contentious friends and whenever we met for drinks or lunch, she would offer deprecating comments about the social value of my enterprise, and about my girlfriend, Mia, who was nine years younger than I, heavily tattooed, and—in Andrea’s words—dressed “like a color-blind dominatrix.”
These lines and others nail into place the reader’s confidence in Shepard, as well as the image desired.
In the end, Stars Seen through Stone is quality urban fantasy from one of the genre’s most skilled writers.  Examining creativity, inspiration, and the historical cycles underpinning it all, the characters who manifest these ideas are both memorable and mimetic.  It’s impossible for one’s toes not to curl reading of Joe Stanky, nor does it require any leap of the imagination to empathize with Vernon’s virtues and vices.  Likewise, anyone interested in small town rock and roll, and the lo-fi studios, bars, and label contacts which back it, will be interested.  A very solid story which starts realist and slowly builds to fantasy of town proportions, it’s difficult not to like this novella.

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