Wheatland Press, 2008
In the eight years since he attended Clarion West in the summer of 2000, David D. Levine has published a steady stream of high quality stories. Fifteen of those stories are collected in Space Magic. This is his first short story collection, but judging from the stories' strengths, it won't be his last.
These stories cover a varied spectrum, almost as if Levine were consciously trying out different approaches and genres.
Let's begin with the fantasy: "Zauberschrift" is straightforward tale in European-derived tradition; "Falling Off the Unicorn" (written with Sara Mueller) blends fantastic elements with same sex romance; "Circle of Compassion" borrows Chinese demonology with a plot that hinges on geometry.
"The Ecology of Fairie" is more of a hybrid, focusing on a teen protagonist facing real-world pain due to serious illness in the family drama, but integrating chords of fairie. "Fear of Widths" likewise focuses largely on the pain of losing one's parents, but really works due to Levine's descriptions of the geography of the Plains states. This brief story moves quickly to a poetic ending in which the protagonist's loss of emotional control blends smoothly into a imagistic tumble toward the horizon.
To be honest, I'm not sure if the emotional cartwheel literally happened, or if the protagonist just felt it so sharply, and I'm not sure it matters. The description works equally well either way. The same cannot be said for "Charlie the Purple Giraffe Was Acting Strangely." This metafictional tale starts charmingly, with intentionally excessive imagery. Cartoon characters must caper for the entertainment of others, even as they realize their own fate. However, while the jokes in the middle of the story produce many styles, the ending is not as strong.
These six stories (and "Brotherhood," discussed below) are the non-SF stories in this collection, and I group them that way because they make Levine's strengths—
There's no mystery behind this. Levine is science fiction writer, bred in the bone. He's in love with the extrapolation, the ideas, the technology, and the sense of wonder that defined Golden Age science fiction. It's clear that on a very deep level, he finds more wonder in them than in the fantasy elements he conjures. This can be seen most clearly in "Brotherhood." "Brotherhood" is a ghost story built around labor organizing in the Pennsylvania steel mills during the Great Depression. No one could doubt the sincerity of Levine's sympathy for the workers, but his portraits of them seem derivative, and the prose he uses on them halting. Not so for the descriptions of the steel forging processes themselves, which are beautifully evoked on the story's first page. These were so striking that I hated to go on—
Does this mean Levine cannot or does not deal with the human side of storytelling? By no means. There are times when the emotive side of some stories creak, but what I mean is something subtler: Levine's voice seems to come most intensely alive when he's writing science fiction. It's as if the fantasy stories are written in a second language, while science fiction is his mother tongue.
While that might make sense for the more purely extrapolative stories, what's striking about this collection is that this generalization extends to two areas that are not intrinsically tied to science: plotting and prose. Levine's stories are logical when magic is involved, but can be magical when science is involved. Likewise, Levine's prose can be derivative when dealing with the fantastic, but can be fantastic when evoking the science fictional.
A quick review of the awards Levine has won testifies to this split. "Charlie the Purple Giraffe Was Acting Strangely" was selected for the Hartwell and Cramer anthology, The Year's Best Fantasy #5, but "Nucleon" won the James White Award (2001), "Rewind" placed second in the Writers of the Future contest (2001), "I Hold My Father's Paws" was shortlisted for the Aeon Award (2005), "The Tale of the Golden Eagle" was nominated for numerous awards, and "Tk'Tk'Tk" won the Hugo short story in 2006. All are science fiction.
That's quite a list of honors (and glosses over some of the tally), so let's look at what the eight science fiction stories in Space Magic offer readers. "Wind from a Dying Star" is an extreme extrapolation: the dying sun of the title is Sol, and the story revolves around one cyborg (well, mechanized former human) and numerous children of humanity who make one last bittersweet visit to the mother sun. "Wind" stumbles a little on the emotional level—
"I Hold My Father's Paws" reminded me of Simak's story "Desertion" but takes the transformation from the human to other in very different and unexpected ways. The riff on contemporary elective surgery is fine, and the parallels between species identity and sexual identity cleanly drawn, but the slow pace and the ending's reversal are what make the story shine.
Emotional reversals, especially multiple reversals and those that take decades to work out, run through Levine's finest stories. "Rewind" focuses on a man with surgical implants that allow him to jump backwards in time. He can only jump a few seconds, but it's enough to replay key decisions now that he's already learned from making the wrong choices. This could be a dim power fantasy of a story, but instead, the author shows us his hero learning, and what it costs him.
I had read a number of the stories in Space Magic before seeing them assembled here, but "Love in the Balance" was new to me, and was a wonderfully bizarre surprise. In this story the plot doesn't evoke suspense. Instead, profuse creation including dueling multi-generational ships, Byzantine customs, zeppelin guns, and endless created creatures drive this story. I was not ready for this story to end as soon as it did.
By contrast, though it too revolves around meticulously evoked specialized ships and pained loves re-met after years, "At the Twenty-Fifth Annual Meeting of Uncle Teco's Homebrew Gravitics Club" was precisely the right length. In fact, the precision plotting left me saying "Hey!" The surprises at the story's end were matched only by the leisurely, loving descriptions in the first pages.
This leaves us with "Tk'Tk'Tk" and "The Tale of the Golden Eagle." I have a suggestion to make: "Tk'Tk'Tk" does not deserve its Hugo, but Levine does. Oh, "Tk'Tk'Tk" is a fine science fiction yarn. Walker, the interstellar businessman who is light years from home and trying to make enough sense of an alien culture to make a sale, is well-realized. He stands as a worthy successor to a long line of science fictional travelers. Levine's aliens are convincing, and the details shared about them are economical and targeted; he does not fall into the temptation of describing alien physiology for its own sake. It's a good story.
However good a story "Tk'Tk'Tk" is, however, "The Tale of the Golden Eagle" is a freakin' great one. People talk about the sense of wonder that defined science fiction when they first encountered it. Some grumble about how the genre has gone to pot, but some realize that part of what they were reading was their own youthful joy of existence, reflected in a story. "The Tale of the Golden Eagle" blends both. That is to say, it takes techniques and themes that would be familiar to science fiction readers from decades ago, but it applies them to something new and joyous. Levine finds a way to show that the sense of wonder can be alive in all of us.
Bold, and ambitious, Levine takes a broader narrative perspective, slapping down the rules of the story's universe with confidence in its early lines. Though the characters in "Wind from a Dying Star" cover considerable distance, they're definitely contained in a single story arc. The rest of the stories in Space Magic are fairly conservatively structured; they all focus on that single defining moment stories are supposed to. (Except for "Golden Eagle," which skillfully employs a mode that jumps from story to story.) Levine depends on exposition to carry the story, and he gives us his finest description along the way. What's more, the tone rings true; though the plots share nothing, I was reminded of the purity of construction found in Frank Stockton's "The Lady or the Tiger."
"The Tale of the Golden Eagle" gives us, in its bird ships, the wonder of space. In the glimpses of strange planets, it gives us the alien and familiar wrapped together. In the description of the former spaceship turned robot dancing in the moonlight, it gives us the aesthetics of the mechanical. And in the hero's final choices, "The Tale of the Golden Eagle" gives us the moral clarity of a good fable. Placing this at the end of Space Magic allows the collection to end on its highest point, and as a whole, this collection makes it clear that David D. Levine is a writer to watch.