25 April 2007

Locus Reviews Ellen Klages

by Faren Miller from Locus Magazine, April 2007

Portable Childhoods, Ellen Klages (Tachyon 978-1-892391-45-2, $14.95, 210pp, tp) April 2007. Cover photo by Ellen Klages.

Novels are all very well, but what about collections? Getting back to them generally means playing catch-up with small-press trade paperbacks  — and reading some of the best short fiction I'll manage to see all year. My first review isn't late, but Ellen Klages' Portable Childhoods did leave me with a powerful need to catch up with her first novel, The Green Glass Sea!

In his introduction, Neil Gaiman notes the way she straddles genres, "sometimes walking the line one way, sometimes the other"; indeed, she's equally at home with fantasy, SF and realism, those supposedly separate forms that merge in the minds and lives of children. Many of the stories here (14 in all, plus one transcript of a playlet and a long poem) deal with childhood, whether as a state of mind, a state of vulnerability, or a "portable" object that can hold anything from old memories to magic.

Klages' afterword says, "They are not children's stories." She isn't referring to the few where kids don't show up at all (like the short, noirish "Möbius, Stripped of a Muse" and the longer, less devious version of temporal paradox in "Time Gypsy"), or those whose significant objects have nothing to do with lost toys (ranging from comedy in the brief transcript "Clip Art" to the horror of "Triangle", as the implications of an artifact from the Nazi era become all too clear). More likely, she's reminding us that childhood itself isn't really childish  — not the frivolous stuff of afternoon TV or Kid-Lit but the natural domain of wonder and terror, those essential elements of SF, fantasy and horror.

A passage in the opener, "Basement Magic", both explains its title and shows her approach to fantasy. When a dumpy, bespectacled young girl wishes "for the magic to be real," the result has "no sparkles, no gold. This is basement magic, deep and cool. Power that has seeped and puddled, gathered slowly, beneath the notice of queens, like the dreams of small awkward girls." It can exert a devastating force, though the wielder be no greater than a mouse. And it shows up in mundane places most adults would ignore.

In the short-short "Intelligent Design", God himself is a little boy sitting by while his grandmother (who "created dust out of nothing and the universe out of dust") is busy baking, creating ecosystems and their inhabitants. He'd rather make stars, a process that resembles shooting a BB gun: "Ratatatatatatat! He peppered one corner of the sky...." Though the results are "okay," collaboration with Grandma turns out to be even better. A different kind of godlike hubris might apply to the inventors of the atom bomb, but the small daughter of "The Green Glass Sea" (here in its original story form) sees only delight in the gleaming desert testing ground her father helped create  — while we cringe at what neither she nor her parents know, in a time when even the grown-ups seem dangerously innocent.

Science, fantasy and the mundane come together in "A Taste of Summer", after a young girl's first tentative step toward independence (defying a ban on crossing the road) brings her to a Creamery where she meets a boyish female chemist who can happily rattle on about the flavors of Froot Loops in scientific terms but also pursues an unusual "hobby," capturing essences through unscientific means. Those methods are magical, yet this tale finds an equal magic in summer  — and the courage to cross a road.

As a whole, Portable Childhoods moves so fluidly between genre and non-genre, such distinctions seem to vanish. By the time I reached the title work, an extended series of vignettes from a mother's life with her young daughter, it didn't seem at all out of place  — not just because it lacks the pretentious air of a rare venture into mainstream, "literary" fiction. The mother (herself a writer) doesn't gloss over the messier parts of birth or the everyday annoyances of life with an occasional brat, yet she's keenly aware of its wonders. That feeling comes to a head in story's the final section, with potent lines like these: "Twilight always seems thicker and richer than ordinary light, magic somehow. And the child is dancing in it."

Read more! This is one of over forty reviews from the April 2007 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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