Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Review of 1,001 Lightyears Entertainment by David Loeff

Given the current state of market publishing, i.e. its eagerness to flood shelves with mediocre genre in the hope of making a buck, my willingness to take on self-published works has grown in parallel. Having had both good luck and bad (see William Rosencrans’ The Epiphanist for an example of a book that deserves house recognition, and vice versa, Escape the Bone Yard by R.C. Scott for a work whose talent doesn't rise to the ambition), it was with indifference I accepted David Loeff’s request to review his self-published 1,001 Lightyears Entertainment.  Falling somewhere in the middle, the collection will not set the genre afire, however, it remains a respectable entry which will appeal to readers who enjoy classic storytelling, particularly in the vein of 1,001 Arabian Nights.  The following is a review of the twelve (depending how you count) stories in the collection.

Lacking a framing device like Scheherazade, 1,001 Lightyears Entertainment instead opens with two quick, clever parables, “In the Bag” and “Life Changing Encounters”.  The former is the story of a man who tries to reclaim the handbag stolen from him after entering a new city, while the latter is the tale of one man’s encounter with Death on the street early one morning.  “The Dog’s Golden Dish”, a story appearing soon thereafter in the collection, has a very similar, mercurial feel.  It is one man’s hurried account to an expectant king about rises and falls from wealth, oscillating ever faster the closer it gets to the end.

With “A Girl of Gloune”, 1,001 Lightyears Entertainment reveals the first of its interleaved stories.  Telling of a poor girl named Elgelt adopted by her drunken and abusive uncle, she accidentally runs into aliens living nearby and learns about her environment and cross-cultural relations in the process.  Not the last the reader has heard of Elgelt, the final story in the collection, “New Direction”, re-introduces her, and along with revealing what she became in middle-age, also closes out the stories of the characters in the following set of tales:

Nested like matryoshka dolls, “The Beauty with Incredible Feet”, “Hafwen’s Tale”, “The War of Men and Jinn”, and “Hafwen Concludes Her Tale” tell of a variety of people, including the bumbling bachelor Raheem, the woman with strange feet who becomes his wife, the shapeshifter Kashwarh who plays such an integral part in her youth, and how all of them came to be in the situations they are.  Story embedded within story embedded within story, the collection takes on the structure of Arabian Nights.

But the heart of 1,001 Lightyears Entertainment is “Nouredan and Nesjella”.  A story of strong fairy tale proportion, the titular star-struck couple must endure a kingdom of struggle and sacrifice to be together.  From drug problems to illicit love, court intrigue to assassinations, the novella has all the flavor of Arabian Nights, and, based on the conclusion, is perhaps the most classic tale in the collection.

As a whole, 1,001 Lighteyars Entertainment feels like a very personal project.  Perhaps percolating for many years in Loeff’s mind, a love affair with 1,001 Arabian Nights is evident on every page. Caravanserai, arranged marriages, camels, viziers, djinns, princes, damsels in distress, harems, coffee, opium, and other stereotypical elements of Arabia are fully represented.  But more than just objects, Loeff also imbues Middle Eastern culture into the stories. “When the prince found his companions in the morning he greatly desired to tell them of the woman’s flawless beauty, yet he held his mouth closed rather than expose a wife’s faithlessness.” is one example, while ““Me? I no longer matter. They killed me when they killed my husband.” is another which indicates the collection is traditional storytelling from more than one perspective.

All this begs the questions: what is sci-fi about the collection.  The answer: little.  Like Jack Vance’s work, it’s possible to replace the word ‘spaceship’ with ‘sailboat’ and ‘walifloot’ with ‘foreigner’ and not much about the story changes from a transportation or cultural point of view.   There are occasional intrusions of the ‘yet impossible’, e.g. the ansible, a spaceship, aliens, a ray gun, etc., but they are not game changers.  Sinbad did not have a telephone, but he did encounter caravans, foreigners, and weapons, and in the same fashion, the characters of the collection have adventures, the things around them occasionally something more otherworldly or techy than feels natural in the settings described.  The premise of 1,001 Lightyears Entertainment (i.e. tales told in a distant galactic future) thus feels a bit superfluous.  If the reader replaces the sci-fi words with bits of Arabian realia, the collection could easily be titled “More Arabian Nights”.   This is not a slight on Loeff, only a clear statement that readers looking for the latest Charles Stross or Peter Watts novel boiling over with techy ideahood may be disappointed.  Loeff’s collection is classic through and through.

In the end, 1,001 Lightyears Entertainment is a collection that fully possesses the taste and feel of 1,001 Arabian Nights, its sci-fi elements seeming incidental.  Homage, in fact, little is done to enhance the stories for the modern era (there is a dependence on stereotypes).   Focusing on plot throughout by limiting background and character details to what is necessary, Loeff adheres to classic storytelling of the parable and adventure variety.  Simply but smoothly written, there are stories nested within stories, and characters that appear and reappear in the narratives of other characters, loosely binding the stories into a whole, just like Arabian Nights. 

The following is the table of contents of the collection:

“In the Bag”
“Life Changing Encounters”
“A Girl of Gloune”
“The Dog’s Golden Dish”
“The Beauty with Incredible Feet”
“Hafwen’s Tale”
“The War of Men and Jinn”
“Hafwen Concludes her Tale”
“The Collector”
“Nouredan and Nesjella”
“Before the Cock Crows”
“The Bard Who Kept His Head”
“New Directions”

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