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Reading Jack Skillingstead

 

Why does anyone write science fiction? Or read it?

There are probably as many answers to that as there are writers and readers. Some like the wide-lens adventure of zipping around the galaxy, free of gravity and Terran law. Some like all the nifty gadgets, from smart clothing to doomsday machines. Some like the Cassandra role, peering into the future of science and crying, “If we go there, we might end up here—Beware! Beware!” Some like comforting tales of clashes between Good and Evil, in which Good eventually wins and everyone can draw a deep breath, close the book, and say, “Now that was a rattling good yarn!”

Other writers, however, have different motives. Jack Skillingstead, for one. Skillingstead is a terrorist.

Not, of course, that he will say that, if you should happen to ask him why he writes. He blinks his eyes and says slowly–to a New York ear, Jack says everything slowly—“I always wanted to be a writer. Since I was about twelve years old.” He first succeeded in 2003, and has been publishing steadily ever since. If you push on and ask him why he chooses to write science fiction, he says, “The question presumes it was a choice. But actually, I’m just attracted to the weird and strange.”

Well, all right—most SF writers are attracted to the weird and strange. (If they weren’t, they’d be writing about suburban angst or growing up in Iowa or suburban angst in Iowa.) But not all SF writers are terrorists. What Jack does is set up a situation—plausible, interesting, sometimes even conventional—and then throw an emotional and philosophical grenade into the middle of it. When the dust settles, situation, characters, and reader are all shattered.

How, exactly, does he accomplish this?

Most often, it is by peering around the edges of reality, staring unflinchingly at what lurks there, and then making us peer at it, too, with the kind of mixed fascination and horror of witnesses at a train wreck. The scene thus illuminated isn’t what usually passes for reality. It’s what lies below the surface, behind the veil, in the closed trunk of the mental attic.

 

                                                                                 *

 

“I was gradually becoming an Eye again, a thing of the Tank. But no matter what, I was through with pills. I wanted to know if there was anything real left in me.”

—from “Dead Worlds”

 

Skillingstead characters are always looking for the real, even when they would really prefer to be doing something else. (Sometimes, anything else.) They find it in places both expected and unexpected, welcoming and horrific. And when they do find it, or it finds them, the Skillingstead reality is not the sentimental, one-dimensional, comforting reality of inferior fiction. Jack is after truth, and truth is never simple.

 

“I noted the flavor of lemon and the feel of the icy liquid sluicing over my tongue. Sensation without complication.”

—Robert, in “Dead Worlds”

 

Robert doesn’t get to keep his simplistic sensation without complication. His creator knows better. Skillingstead characters know—or must learn—that there are always complications. For Robert, who thinks he wanted to explore distant planets but learns that interstellar exploration is more complicated than he thought. For Kylie (“Life on the Preservation”), who thinks she wants to destroy Seattle but learns that destruction is more complicated than she thought. For John (“Everyone Bleeds Through”), who wants to end his affair with a married woman but learns that love is more layered than he ever imagined. For Brian (“Are You There”), whose job is to solve murders but who learns that not even death is a simple binary state.

 

“We were all bigger than what we appeared.”

—“Everyone Bleeds Through”

 

However, I don’t want to give the impression that these stories merely uncover complicated anguish. They do that, certainly, but they also do much more. After my sister Kate read a selection of Jack’s stories, I asked her for her opinion. She said, succinctly, “Not an easy writer. His specialty is pain. But do not be afraid!”

She was absolutely right. Unlike most terrorists, Jack has a redemptive side.

Nearly seventy years ago, Albert Camus wrote, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.”

 

“She punched through, and the sudden light shift dazzled her.”

—“Life on the Preservation”

 

These are pretty dazzling stories. Not always easy or comfortable; the sudden light shift can be disorienting. But your eyes will get used to it, and you will see things you never expected to see, and you will be very glad you did, in fact, let Jack Skillingstead punch you through.

 

 

—Nancy Kress

December 2008

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