Monday, November 5, 2007

Aliens of the Heart by Carolyn Ives Gilman

The second book of the two I picked up on Friday from our Bellingham printer is Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Aliens of the Heart (Conversation Pieces #19). It contains four stories of the US heartland: “The Lost Road,” “Frost Painting,” “Okanoggan Falls,” and “The Conservator.” “The Conservator” is original to the volume; “Frost Painting” first appeared in Bending the Landscape: Fantasy (ed. Nicola Griffith and Stephen Pagel), and “The Lost Road” ad “Okanoggan Falls” first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I think they read rather differently together (which is, to my mind, one of the pleasures that single-author collections have to offer).

"The Lost Road" begins:

It was a dry year. Come June, the corn that should have been knee-high was stunted and papery in the fields; the pasture grass rustled, stiff as broom straw, in the constant wind. The topsoil had turned powdery, and you could see it blowing off the fields in clouds, making the sunsets red.

To Betty Lindstrom it seemed like her whole world was drying up and blowing away. She and Wayne had had to lease out the last 40 acres that spring to a man from the next county who was farming nearly all the land in their township. He’d taken out the fences and cut down the beech-tree windbreaks Betty’s father had planted in the ’30s, and now plowed fields came right up to the edge of the farmhouse yard on every side.

Betty Lindstrom leaves Wayne at the gas station in the derelict town of “Lost Road” as she buys toilet paper, bananas, and milk at the corner store and picks up the mail.

As she started the car, Betty had a strange, reckless idea. What if she just turned east instead of west and drove off out of town? What if she just left Wayne at the gas station and didn’t come back? But deep down she knew she didn’t really want to get away from Wayne. He was a part of her, like arthritis. No point complaining.

They left town about 4:20, driving west. The sun glared into the windshield from a cloudless sky. Red-winged blackbirds flew up from the unmowed ditches as the car passed. Down the roadside, telephone poles marched in an endless procession. Every few miles they passed the remains of old driveways that used to lead to farmhouses. Every year the land was getting emptier. They said farming was a business now, not a way of life.

Betty drives west, but alone with the prairie and the wind, though everything looks familiar, she can’t seem to find the way home through a landscape that memories and visions have saturated with the strangeness of history.

In “Frost Painting,” art critic Galena Pittman falls in love with Thea, an artist attracted to working in ephemeral media, such as frost. When Thea leaves, drawn to the colony of humans seeking mysterious aliens who might or might not exist, Galena pursues her, determined to reclaim her. The work Thea now lives for, she discovers, is far from the her critical understanding of art:

The vegetation on north slopes, south slopes, and valley floor was a pattern of green, teal, and umber. It was as if someone had taken a giant brush and painted the land to form an abstract of overlapping tints. “Isn’t that natural?” Galena said.

“Of course not. This was one of the first landscape paintings the colony did. Here, let me drive so you can watch.”

A little reluctantly, Galena got out and went to the passenger side. Thea said, “Unfocus your eyes just a little,” then started the car slowly forward.

At first Galena saw a complex patchwork of sunny streaks. Then, as her perspective changed, a dark, spear‑shaped wedge began to push its way into the foliage colors. As it touched each band of color, that area went suddenly dark, drab, and uniform. It had almost reached the opposite side when a cascade of rust, sienna, and lemon erupted from the spear tip and turned the landscape bright again.

The car stopped. Galena blinked out at the view, which had been transformed by traveling 300 feet along the road. “How did they do that?” she asked. “By painting the back side of every leaf?”

“I don’t know,” Thea said. “It looks different at every time of day, and every type of weather.”

Galena shook her head. “Landscape painting. I see what you mean. Not painting the landscape, but painting the landscape. How many people did it take?”

“I don’t know,” Thea said again.

As they continued on, Galena looked on every prospect around her with new attention, to find more trompes l’oeil hidden in the leaves.

They arrived at the Flens down a rocky path. At first, it looked like a range of rampart cliffs, formed into organ‑pipe pillars of a thousand dimensions. A swarm of people was at work on the cliff face, some on scaffolding anchored into the rock, some swinging on ropes. Though she tried from several angles, Galena could not tell what the sculpture was going to be.

When she asked, Thea laughed. “The sculpture is not in the rock,” she said. “The medium we are working in is wind. At sunset, the mountain above us cools faster than the valley, and a wind rushes down the slope. The Flens will catch it in a thousand fissures, and part it, till it forms a shape. We will know we have gotten it right when the rock pipes sing. It’s almost done; we are tuning it now.”

“You are making an organ from the mountain,” Galena said, struck by the strangeness of the concept.

“An organ only the wind can play,” Thea answered.

In “Okanoggan Falls” (which Carolyn wrote about in a post here last summer), Susan Abernathy undertakes to humanize Captain Groton, the alien occupation officer charged with removing the residents of Okanoggan Falls, Wisconsin, so that the aliens can mine its silica.

There was a snap as the stem on Captain Groton’s glass broke in two. The wine slopped onto his hand as he tried to catch the pieces. “Pardon me,” he mumbled. “Your vessel is brittle.”

“Never mind the glass,” Susan said, taking it and handing the pieces to Tom. “Did you cut yourself?”

“No, of course—” he stopped in mid-denial, staring at his hand. A thin line of blood bisected the palm.

"Here, I’ll take care of that,” she said. Taking him by the arm, she led him to the bathroom. It was not until she had dabbed the blood off with a tissue that she realized he was not recoiling at her touch as he had before. Inwardly, she smiled at small victories. But when she brought out a bottle of spray disinfectant, he did recoil, demanding suspiciously, “What is it?”

“Disinfectant,” she said. “To prevent infection. It’s alcohol-based.”

“Oh,” he said. “I thought it might be water.”

She spritzed his hand lightly, then applied a bandage. He was looking curiously around. “What is this place?”

It’s a bathroom,” she said. “We use it to—well, clean ourselves, and groom, and so forth. This is the toilet.” She raised the lid, and he drew back, obviously repulsed. She had to laugh. “It’s really very clean. I swear.”

“It has water in it,” he said with disgust.

"But the water’s not dirty, not now.”

“Water is always dirty,” he said. “It teems with bacteria. It transmits a thousand diseases, yet you humans touch it without any caution. You allow your children to play in it. You drink it, even. I suppose you have gotten used to it, living on this world where it contaminates everything. It even falls from the sky. It is impossible to get away from it. You have no choice but to soak in it.”

Struck by the startling image of water as filth, Susan said, “Occupying our world must be very unpleasant for you. What is your planet like?”

"It is very dry,” he said. “Miles and miles of hot, clean sand, like your Sahara. But your population does not live in the habitable spots, so we cannot either.”

“You must drink water sometimes. Your metabolisms are not that different from ours, or you would not be able to eat our food.”

“The trace amounts in foods are enough for us. We do not excrete it like you do.”

“So that’s why you don’t have bathrooms,” she said.

He paused, clearly puzzled. Then it dawned on him what she had left out of her explanation. “You use this room for excretory functions?”

“Yes,” she said. “It’s supposed to be private.”

“But you excrete fluids in public all the time,” he said. “From your noses, your mouths, your skin. How can you keep it private?”

For a moment the vision of humans as oozing bags of bacteria left her unable to answer. Then she said, “That’s why we come here, to clean it all off.”

He looked around. “But there is no facility for cleaning.”

“Sure there is.” She turned on the shower. “See?”

he reacted with horror, so she quickly shut it off. She explained, “You see, we think of water as clean. We bathe in it. How do you bathe?”

“Sand,” he said. “Tubs of dry, heated sand. It is heavenly.”

“It must be.” She could picture it: soft, white sand. Like what lay under the Okanoggan limestone. She looked at him in dawning realization. “Is that why you want…?”

“I cannot say anything about that,” he said. “Please do not ask me.”

Which was all the answer she needed.

In the final story, “The Conservator,” the Conservator attends to a very special document and discovers that the relationship between map and landscape is more complicated than she had thought.

The lights came on, creating a cocoon of artificial brightness under the darkened dome. The two assistant archivists held open the double doors, and the maintenance men maneuvered through with an enormous muslin-wrapped roll on their shoulders. Obeying the Archivist’s precise instructions, they brought it to the center of the room and laid it on the dropcloth. The assistants knelt down to untie the fabric laces that secured the covering.

The Conservator drew close as they began to unroll the document. It had been described to her, but it was more compelling in reality. Her mind sharpened with a cold rush of vitality. She was in the presence of the thing to which she was most devoted: the authentic artifact, the tangible object on whose surface the past was written in cypher.

It was a map of the great river, source to mouth, drawn in uncanny detail. And yet, as it unrolled before her, the Conservator could see it was no ordinary map. Six feet wide and thirty long, it was a layered creation, many-leaved as fillo dough. She drew on latex gloves and knelt to finger its edge. Not only were there layers, but they were of different materials, bonded securely together. The bottom layer was a milky-white cured hide, soft and supple. Then there was a sheet of thin, pliable birchbark taken from the inner layer of the tree, once colored a pinkish beige but now browned with time. Then a layer of parchment followed by one of laid paper—the hand-crafted kind that still showed the ladderlike pattern of the screen on which it was made. Next was a layer of higher-quality wove paper, and one of the sized linen once used for architectural drawings. The topmost layer was a brittle, yellowed paper, disintegrating in snowflake bits that already littered the dropcloth.

“It’s ironic that the most recent layer is in the worst shape,” the Archivist said. She sounded tragic, not ironic.

“Not unusual, though,” the Conservator said. It was wood-pulp paper, a mass manufacturing process introduced in the 1880s that resulted in such a high acid content that the material literally self-destructed. In all the archives of the country, the recent paper was eating itself away even when stored in perfect conditions. Inherent vice, conservators called it. Most of the printed history of the twentieth century would be gone before another hundred years passed. It was inscribed on an evanescent surface.

Copies of Aliens of the Heart can be purchased for $9 from Aqueduct Press. Subscribers to the Conversation Pieces series will be happy to know that their copies of Aliens of the Heart and Of Love and Other Monsters went out in this morning’s mail.


baby221 said...

I tried to order a copy of the book but apparently its "add to cart" link has been a bit bungled; it keeps trying to give me copies of Making Love in Madrid! As soon as it's fixed I'd love a copy ...

Timmi Duchamp said...

So sorry about that! & thanks for letting us know. We've fixed it.