‘Other Worlds, Better Lives: Selected Long Fiction, 1989-2003': A testament to genius
"Other Worlds, Better Lives:
Selected Long Fiction, 1989-2003"
by Howard Waldrop
Old Earth Books
($45 hardcover, $15 paperback)
The good science-fiction writer, the saying goes, envisions the traffic jam as well as the car.
Howard Waldrop gives you both and much more: the words on the bumper sticker, the song on the car radio, even the taste of the liquid in the flask on the front seat. Like old American jalopies, Waldrop's alternate realities are well-built and well lived in.
"Other Worlds, Better Lives: Selected Long Fiction, 1989-2003" and its companion volume "Things Will Never Be the Same: Selected Short Fiction, 1980-2005" are publisher Old Earth Books' testament to Waldrop's brilliance and stubbornness. His preferred forms are shorter than novel length, so he is continually challenged to find print and online homes for them.
Waldrop marries a boy's high-flying imagination to a post-doc's research appetite and, being a genre writer, never forgets the imperative to entertain his audience. So a reader doesn't have to know composer Richard Wagner's role in the real May 1848 uprising in Dresden to enjoy "A Better World's in Birth!," both a ghost story and an alt-history fantasy in which Wagner is just about worshipped as a beloved revolutionary martyr. (But reading Waldrop's stories, and his pithy afterwords to them, will keep your fingers busy hopping over to Wikipedia.)
He loves pop-culture history, especially TV and movie, as much as he loves the official tyrant-and-war stuff. They blend in the kind of story that only he, to the best of my knowledge, could write: "The Other Real World," the saga of kids from '50s sci-fi movies, a little more grown up, trying to retrieve a towed car against the backdrop of the Cuban missile crisis.
This story is all-but-Joycean in its layering of allusions to songs, TV characters and movies of the '50s and early '60s; at the request of its earlier editor, Waldrop added an 81-item glossary, so whippersnappers wouldn't be confused by references to Acker Bilk, Hayley Mills and Floyd Cramer's "Last Date." Yet, unlike James Joyce's works, a high school freshman could read this one without stumbling.
Born in 1946 in Mississippi, Waldrop has lived much of his life in Texas, and there's a distinctly Southern flavor to some of his stories, none more so than "A Dozen Tough Jobs," his down-home retelling of the 12 labors of Hercules in 1920s Mississippi. (I defy you scholars to name a single one of the original labors, beyond the cleansing of the Aegean stables; check them out at tinyurl.com/herc12 .)
If the folks at the MacArthur Foundation are paying attention, here's a unique American talent who would merit one of your genius grants. He'd be right at home in a pantheon that already includes Octavia E. Butler and John Zorn.