Dangerous Space by Kelley Eskridge
In her new collection, Dangerous Space, science fiction novelist Kelley Eskridge pushes the boundaries of the status quo. She has put together a series of stories that make readers ponder issues of gender, sexuality, and the nature of free choice. Nothing comes easy to the characters in Eskridge’s stories, and, whether they are surprised or shocked by the events she surrounds them with, readers know from the very beginning that reaching resolutions to her often sublimely simple plots is going to require a lot of personal fortitude and courage.
In “Strings,” Eskridge sets her story firmly in a futuristic society that SF fans will recognize. The totalitarianism here is all about control of music; no musician can perform their own songs -- no one can even hum their own songs. The “Stradivarius,” the story’s protagonist, must play the music that is placed before her. What she brings to her performance is not interpretation but skill and the singular sound of the Stradivarius violin which only she is permitted to play. She has no name -- she is known only by her instrument -- and competition is fierce to take her place. The Stradivarius feels the pressure to maintain her high level of performance, but she also feels a desire to set the instrument free, to play it with a wild abandon. Such an act is strictly forbidden, though, and comes with harsh consequence. She meets a piano player who has been censured for improvising only slightly and can only imagine what more could have happened to him.
But the rub is that when you are at such a high level of ability, you naturally want more. The instrument demands more and is obeying those who can not play as well as you, who do not know the music or feel the music as you do, really what a musician should be doing? Eskridge asks the question here about what a true musician is made of, what higher calling that talent answers to. Do we bow to a society that prefers a coward’s music? “Strings” deals primarily with freedom, and I liked that she wrote this type of story with music at its center rather than writing or politics; both of them seemed to be a bit more obvious than the story she chose.
“City Life” is reminiscent of a story by urban fantasist Charles de Lint, “Tallulah.” In both cases a city is personified in the character of a woman who is sharply attached to the city’s wellbeing. Eskridge's twist is that her lady has the capacity to save lives, but in saving them seems to diminish the city’s “soul.” The protagonist is healed by her touch but buildings start to fall soon after, streets are destroyed, and others are killed in sudden accidents. Interestingly, the heroine is named Magdalena, perhaps one of the most controversial female names in history (at least in the Christian part of history). In “City Life,” she wants to save everyone and everything but sadly she can not.
I could really read a lot into the fact that a character named Magdalena saves a doomed man and then gives her life to save the world he occupies. And of course no one but him will ever know of her sacrifice (isn’t that always the way?). That’s what added the punch to the gut for me in this one; yet again, another Magdalena tries to save humanity and is punished for it.
In both “Somewhere Down the Diamondback Road” and “Alien Jane,” there are female characters who are victimized for being strong. They could be almost superhuman on one level but extraordinarily vulnerable on another. In particular, it was Jane’s circumstance that seemed poignant as she explains the horror of her complete inability to feel physical pain:
Pain keeps you safe. It’s how you keep alive, how you stay whole, it’s such a human thing, and I don’t have it. I don’t have it. And you people... you think... no one ever asked if I could -- but I can, I can, I can feel a touch or a kiss, I can feel your arms around me, I can feel my life, and I can feel hopeful, and scared, and I can see my days stretching out in this place while they forget and leave the heat on too long again and again and again, just to see, just to see me not knowing until I smell my own skin burning and realize. And when I look at them they aren’t human anymore, they aren’t the people who bring me ginger ale and smile at me. They’re the people who turn up the dial... and they hate me because I didn’t make them stop, and now they have to know this thing about themselves. They’ll never let me go.
In both stories Eskridge explores what so many SF writers do so well: just what does that word “humane” really mean? If it is inhuman to inflict pain on others, then why are we so damn good at it? And why do we keep doing it, and then punish the victims for the ease in which we fall into the role of torturer?
Finally, there are three stories (one actually a novella) that explore gender identity. In “And Salome Danced,” “Eye of the Storm” and “Dangerous Space,” the main character is named Mars, but Mars’s gender is never revealed. In “Salome” the story centers around a theater production and an actor who auditions effectively for both male and female roles -- without ever identifying his / her true gender. Mars is deeply affected by this person and the ease with which he/she switches, and ponders what this could mean. In fact, Mars’s confusion is so sincere and honest that readers may very well miss the fact that Mars remains an unknown gender throughout the story as well. It gets you thinking about how you read gender into any story and how much of a significant part it plays.
“Storm” is a throwback to old sword and sorcery type tales (heavy on sword action this time around), with Mars as part of a foursome who are competing to become members of an elite guard. Sexuality and sex as a form of friendship come into play here, as does the often confusing notion of sexual excitement. Mars worries about being normal and accepted by a group that has no discomfort about same-sex partners but might feel strained by the idea of combining violence and sex. Wrapped into all this is a story about a kingdom that seems to cross King Arthur with Arabian Nights. It’s very potently written, and the struggles of the main character to be who he/she thinks his/her companions want him/her to be is very heartfelt.
Finally, the title novella is set firmly in a contemporary setting and follows an indie rock band from obscurity to the edge of greatness. Now Mars is a well known sound engineer who signs on with the group and feels a near uncontrollable lust for the lead singer, Duncan Black. The novella is very in depth, pulling readers in not only with the interplay between Black and Mars, but also the story of the band itself.
Eskridge does an excellent job of getting the music part right, the attraction right, and not letting the story fall into any one genre description. Is it romantic? Certainly -- but also dramatic and fairly fantastic in terms of music and madness as Black struggles against a near artistic possession from his craft. At one point he expresses disbelief over his ability:
He smiled; the artist’s private smile, the power and pride when the work is good. “You know what’s amazing?” he asked. “I knew I couldn’t write these songs. I knew it. And then I wrote them anyway.”
Again, though, readers never know if Mars is male or female, and, most interestingly for me, it really doesn’t matter. This story (and the other two) quickly become about far more than a trick on the part of the author. What I wanted to know as I read “Dangerous Space” was if Mars and Duncan Black were going to make it. That’s the story that captivated me and kept me glued to the page, and for writing it while keeping such a big part of the protagonist a mystery, Eskridge deserves a lot of respect.
Dangerous Space is a well written and intriguing collection from a truly fearless author. Check it out, if you are feeling a wee bit brave yourself.
Dangerous Space by Kelley Eskridge