October 2003

Randy Schaub

fiction

Super Flat Times by Matthew Derby

Matthew Derby has provided us with a collection of brief stories united by a common setting, one which helps enliven both his characters and his prose. In Mr. Derby’s world, we see a bleak future of mass executions, governmental-corporate unity, and pointless wars (wow -- this is actually starting to sound a lot like our bleak present). I hesitate to describe these stories as science fiction -- they are not driven by science, or speculation, or giant robots (although there are a few giant robots). In fact, the future of Super Flat Times is highly improbable, and exists to highlight themes of alienation, loneliness, shoddy parenting, and bigotry that we are long familiar with. The stories are universally unsettling, and often hilarious.

These stories are taken from the dying breaths of people who have been mummified in concrete, and are presented by an archivist and translator of these ‘prayers’. In "The Sound Gun" a platoon of soldiers haul a massive, broken piece of artillery through a jungle, in search of a forgotten enemy (one that resurfaces every once in a while to hurl appliances at the platoon). In another story, a mother loses her child when he climbs the city’s meat tower -- a mammoth ridge of frozen meat from which all food is mined (there are no vegetables in the future). In “The Father Helmet,” we see our young hero, Pembroke, change the past by communicating back in time with his deceased father through the use of a furry, mail-order helmet. Pembroke is a bit of a sociopath who designs deadly roller coasters for the under-stimulated. The strongest stories are towards the end (“The End of Men,” “Gantry’s Last”), where we get to soak and squirm in the jelly-like hopelessness and desperation of Derby’s universe.

Most of the writing is in a tight first-person perspective, and most of the narrators have a hollow, resigned, detached quality to their voice that helps put the reader in a sympathetic frame of mind, and in a way, prepares us for the worst: “It was the area I’d grown up in, although it might be more appropriate to say simply that I grew there, as no aspirant motion is possible." In “The End of Men,” we are finally let on to the central motivation of the world’s ruthless, mechanical bureaucracy -- human civilization is about ready to call it quits, a failure -- scientists observe a group of men in the forest, allowing them even to kill each other, to try and learn if the world would be improved by the absence of mankind. Consider this passage by the narrator, describing the early events of the group’s life in the woods:

We sat for long periods in our paper dungarees and paper hats, asking one another what time it was. No one knew what time it was -- that was the joke. Or one of us would put his hand down his pants, unzip the fly, and stick a finger through the hole, claiming that this was his penis. Then it was two fingers, then the whole hand -- finally the whole contrivance of the pants was abandoned and we simply showed one another our arms whenever we thought we could get a laugh.

It’s damn funny, at least to anyone who’s worked in cramped offices or shared a dorm suite with four other dorks. It’s a great little photo of true human dynamics.

Derby’s style has been compared to that of George Saunders, and not without reason. The brilliant vividness of Derby’s stories comes not from painterly prose -- there is little attention paid by the narrators to the visual minutiae of their surroundings. Rather, the Super Flat Times are brought to life by the incidental details: The clouds of pollution that have grown solid, Capital E "Eating" instructors who use special eating stances to help clients eat “with their whole body,” women who have little button down flaps on their abdomens to allow government harvesters easy access to their eggs. The stories are imaginative and engaging. There are a couple that fall flat, usually shorter pieces, but they still work as part of a whole -- this is a themed collection, after all. It’s difficult to suggest a direction for an author that has obviously set out to create a single, specific portrayal; but I think Mr. Derby might benefit, in his next collection, to not rely so heavily on a single point of view or tense. Although the Super Flat Times are gorgeously depicted, the narrators themselves sort of blur together, all expressing themselves in similar voices and attitudes.

This is Matthew Derby’s first book, and it proves he’s worth reading. I hesitate to cater to the "Let’s label everything" crowd, but Derby’s fiction will appeal to fans of Saunders, Wallace, maybe even Barthelme. The stories are fun, and are not imprisoned by their unpleasant setting so much as flavored by it. This isn’t science fiction, it’s just good.

Super Flat Times by Matthew Derby
Back Bay Books
ISBN: 0316738573
192 Pages