Ken Scholes' fiction has drawn exalted praise from veteran voices like Orson Scott Card, Harry Turtledove and Dean Wesley Smith as well as younger writers like Mary Robinette Kowal. Considering the widespread accolades, it seems appropriate to take a critical look at Scholes' first short-story collection, a decade in the making: Long Walks, Last Flights and other Strange Journeys (December 2008).
When noted craftsman and short-form practitioner James Van Pelt expresses difficulty in choosing a favorite of the collection's seventeen entries in the Introduction, it is not a case of hyperbole. The variety on display has led at least one reviewer to observe that "the range is remarkable" (Miller).
While that may be the case for subject matter and style, it is less true for the overall effect. Scholes' stories vary widely in tone and setting from the macabre to the poignant, from the mundane to the surreal—
Two of Scholes' most successful short-form ploys are allusion and connotation, which he ably utilizes to create the illusion of full, complex worlds in short spaces. Allusion is most prominent in his choices of historical or mythical characters; consider, for instance, what the reader already brings to a story featuring Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and JFK ("The Man With Great Despair Behind His Eyes"), Adolf Hitler, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Chaplin, and Charles de Gaulle ("Summer in Paris, Light from the Sky"), William Hope Hodgson and Harry Houdini ("Into the Blank Where Life Is Hurled"), Santa Claus ("The Santaman Cycle" and "The Doom of Love In Small Spaces") or Abel and Cain ("East of Eden and Just a Bit South"). We should note also the implicit allusion of invoking known archetypes and backdrops: the world of superheroes ("Action Team-Ups Number Thirty Seven"), corporate America ("Soon We Shall All Be Saunders"), frontier life in the Wild West ("A Good Hair Day In Anarchy"), Hell after life ("So Sang the Girl Who Had No Name," "Into the Blank Where Life Is Hurled") and Dungeons and Dragons ("Last Flight of the Goddess").
The collection's Afterword, containing notes on the story compositions and authorial intent, is useful perhaps as much for what it implies as for what it states. One detects a certain unresolved dichotomy between the author as a technique-focused, disciplined wordsmith ("It was a writing exercise," ; "I love a good challenge story," ) and one whose regard for his own work, as a reader, allows for visceral responses ("I weep and watch the goosebumps rise every time I read it," ).
A case can be made that Scholes' fiction has gained in sophistication and risk-taking over time, so the current discussion will present the stories chronologically, rather than in their order in Long Walks.
In "So Sang the Girl Who Had No Name" (2001), Jeb Donner meets an interesting girl at a bar in Hell, but after asking who she is receives only the response, "When I know, I'll tell you" (113). After a near-fatal accident, they end up traveling together and develop a bond. She sings a special song that brings "small parts" of Heaven into Hell, which Jeb learns "doesn't have to be what it's been for you." (120). This is a sly, elegant tale that dramatizes the inherent contradiction in consciousness possessing free will whilst continuing to exist in an afterlife. The "namelessness" of the girl, a messenger angel, is an apt metonymy for the un-nameable divine itself. The responsibility that comes with freedom of choice, even in the grimmest possible circumstances, presents an intriguing moral dilemma, successfully dramatized by the religious context. Unfortunately, the physical entanglement between Jeb and the girl dilutes the central conceit, and it is never made very clear what Jeb has done to earn his realization that his mind, following Milton's sentiment from Paradise Lost, "can make a Heaven of Hell" (111).
Romantic liaisons are notably absent in "Edward Bear and the Very Long Walk" (2001), a putative SF transliteration of A. A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh stories. Edward, whose story demands that he behave as a Very Brave Bear, does indeed go on a Very Long walk (after feeling a Tremendous Fear, and having other Capitalized sense-impressions), on a mission to press the Green Button at the top of the mountain, to release a vaccine for the planet's colonists. The story's backdrop is successfully developed and the delicate tone is consistent throughout, but the journey seems one-dimensional and more bathetic than compelling. Ironically, the SF context tends to deconstruct the significance of the plot, rather than adding sentiment; lack of familiarity with the source material may render the tale more artifice than story.
If the lack of internal character conflict is responsible for the foregone effect of the previous story, the opposite is true of "Fearsome Jones' Discarded Love Collection" (2004). The impoverished titular Fearsome finds a discarded baby which turns out be inhuman and telepathic. After its rescue and care, Fearsome must deal with the appearance of a party with a vested interest in its repossession, an experience that leads him to re-evaluate his own estrangement from his wife and son. Scholes' character-voices, especially that of Jones, are remarkably strong, and his depiction of urban disenfranchisement is unsentimental and touching. The ending may appear pat, but on reflection is perfectly consistent with Fearsome's whimsical nature and the long-held evasion of his own suffering through his deliberate collecting of others'; once that strategy has been relinquished, no other choice is possible. This is perhaps Scholes' strongest pre-Writers-of-the-Future-win story.
"Into the Blank Where Life Is Hurled" (2005) sees William Hope Hodgson booking passage aboard the Titanic with Houdini in search of the mythical Ear in this further visitation of the afterlife. While hopeful, the ending of this Writers-of-the-Future-winning story is less explicitly redemptive than that of "So Sang the Girl Who Had No Name," and the story on the whole is more demanding and rewarding. There is, on some level, a connection to the imagery of "The Man With Great Despair Behind His Eyes," as captured through Houdini:
Neither man spoke of what they had encountered, but Houdini showed it in his eyes. They had been bright and dauntless before. Now, loss swam in them from time to time (63).
This "fluid" imagery alerts us to a similar process of internalization as that of Meriwether Lewis. "The Man With Great Despair Behind His Eyes" (2005), stylistically distinguished, provides evidence for the claim that, despite accruing skill, Scholes' work should not be separated into early apprentice-level entries and journeyman ones. "His prose simply bleeds with voice," notes Patrick Swenson (11). Serving as the collection's opening, this is an eloquent example. Meriwether Lewis is tasked by President Thomas Jefferson to locate the Man-from-the-River, believed to possess knowledge of a remarkable "parchment" of currency. The narrative is redolent with liquid imagery that perfectly captures Lewis' internal instability and proneness to suicidal depression. Once he has located the reclusive stranger, a tribal rite involves him falling into "the deepest" of metaphorical rivers and swimming the "dream-waters"; even the Man-from-the-River's "long white hair flowed over his head and cascaded to the floor, like spilled milk," all the way to one of story's final images:
A river wound its way west throwing back moonlight and starshine, calling him towards some rendezvous he could not name (31).
Meriwether's struggle against the "gripping melancholy" of depression drives more internal ambivalence than usually found in a Scholes story, and the narrative examines it with compassion and insight.
The longest piece in the collection, "Last Flight of the Goddess" (2006), also seems to be one of Scholes' most heartfelt and well-intended—
In reference to "Of Metal Men and Scarlet Thread and Dancing With the Sunrise" (2006) Van Pelt writes: it "shows that Ken can blend fantasy, steampunk and political intrigue like nobody's business" (13). That is a fair description: many fantastic characters and ideas are thrown at the reader—
Phil Saunders is the personification of corporate mediocrity and "Soon We Shall All Be Saunders" (2006) shows him becoming contagious as well; a relentless epidemic of transformation makes everyone around the first-person narrator become Saunders. This sharp satirical gem, with its ironic ending, may be seen as conceptually preceding the more formally serious "Summer In Paris, Light From The Sky." Both share the notion that an alteration in character wrought by circumstance (the Saunders-virus here, a different contextual reality in the latter) represents a complete redefinition of self. Let us skip chronology for a moment to look at "Summer In Paris, Light From The Sky" (2007) in more detail. Reliance on the reader's prior knowledge of Adolf Hitler and, to a lesser degree, other historical figures such as Charles Chaplin, unfortunately accounts for most of the potency of this Nebula-recommended story. While the individual scenes and binding motifs are finely wrought, and the overarching political dimensions are engaging, it nevertheless remains a straightforward disquisition on circumstance and responsibility. Perhaps the weakest element is the story's unconventional linkage to history as we know it:
In a whisky fog, Hitler dreamed of another life, another time. A dark time, a time when a caricature of himself strutted about in uniform, barking out orders and gazing with pride upon a broken cross. And other men in uniform, men who saw the light from the sky spreading about behind Adolf like a halo, raised their hands to him and cried "Heil" (204).
The history stream in which Adolf Hitler protects an oppressed Jewish populace is sufficiently removed from our own to make his actions psychologically plausible. But it is such a divergent timeline, so different from what we know, that the character ceases to be Hitler at all. How can Scholes' Hitler, a "human rights activist," be the "monster everyone could recognize" (263)? The answer is that, on the story's own terms, he can't. There is no absolute Hitler or Hitler-ness, so the very notion of Hitler as a framing point of reference is undone. This unravels the story’s philosophical premise. When Scholes opines "I think this is the best story I've ever written" (263) there’s healthy room for disagreement. Its message may ring true, but in so doing makes the story ring false.
Responsibility, this time toward our genetic cousins, appears again in "One Small Step" (2006), which feels wedged in at both ends by Robert Silverberg's classic novelette about human-inspired chimp religion, "The Pope of the Chimps" (1982), and by Mary Robinette Kowal's Hugo-nominated foray into the alienation of an intelligence-enhanced chimp in "Evil Robot Monkey" (2008). Chuckles' dialogue belies a process of religious evolution encompassed by Silverberg's tale, and the underlying cause, only elliptically addressed, is more fully revealed by Kowal's psychological ascriptions. A belief-system evolves also, or perhaps devolves, in "That Old-time Religion" (2007). Reverend J. Junius Beech introduces a "new god" in the form of a grotesque, idolatrous eight-inch statue. Soon "new gods" are all the rage and Sue, wife of first-person protagonist Billy, has her own. Amusing, perhaps, until she becomes pregnant, and Billy himself starts hearing the voices of a new god, one whose warning that "things are gonna get bad [...], they're gonna get real bad" is borne out by the horrific events that soon afflict the small town of Stafford, Mississippi. This is a knock-out punch that swings as much dread as it does a profoundly acute understanding of belief. Scholes has crossed the bridge between the old-time religions and the new ones.
Perhaps one of Scholes' more overtly romantic and allegorically picaresque meditations, "The Doom of Love In Small Spaces" (2008) chronicles Harmony and Drum's office-related meeting and subsequent relationship. Drum is a troll, and Harmony is a stunner that visits his unique Bureaucratic wing in search of a scarce commodity, love. Scholes is firing on all cylinders here, constructing charming and charmingly flawed characters in a narrative that flirts with tone and genre as much as the principals do with one another. The inclusion of elements from the mythic, poetic "The Santaman Cycle" is, against all odds, not distracting, but apposite, and we are treated to a delightfully satisfying climax.
"Hibakusha Dreaming In the Shadowy Land of Death" (2008), shares with "Action Team-Ups Number Thirty Seven" super-beings that wrestle with a non-supernatural situation. In this case, it is identity loss that afflicts "Japanese folklore heroes and gods in group therapy in post-war Tokyo." In an otherwise skilful composition, the protagonist's relationship with the psychotherapist Dr. Hampton is problematic. A recent review (Harrison) of this collection concluded that the role of women in Scholes' fiction is, at best, limited, and this piece disturbingly attests to that. Elsewhere the cleavage-observing male protagonists leave little room for genuinely female roles except as supporting players. That is not intrinsically alarming; I would rather a writer select the point-of-view gender she feels best suits her craft than attempt to preemptively disarm gender-specific criticism. Having said that, Amanda Hampton is relegated to the second plane by her narrative function and it is this dramatic limitation that is technically disappointing. The justification for her decision to sleep with patients is flimsy. The scene of her first encounter with the protagonist is constructed with a veneer of sensibility and realism, but remains curiously inert and uninvolving:
"I've watched you watching me," she said as she touched the match to the stub of the candle.
I didn't know what to say. "I'm sorry."
She turned around, pulling her hair up off her neck. "Unzip me?" (81)
Scholes has demonstrated his talent for building powerful narratives around character transformation, but whenever such changes are made entirely possible (rather than merely catalyzed) by external elements, such as in this story, our suspension of disbelief is strained.
There is no sign that Scholes is intending to give up short stories (see the recent interview "Confessions of a 3am Writer") as so many writers do when they buy real estate in Novel Country. Several uncollected stories appeared in 2008, including "The God-Voices of Settler's Rest" (Intergalactic Medicine Show, July 2008) and "The Night the Stars Sang Out My Name" (Abyss and Apex, Third Quarter 2008), as well as the riveting "Invisible Empire of Ascending Light" (Eclipse 2, edited by Jonathan Strahan, 2008). Three new pieces have already emerged in 2009: the socially inventive tale of "cousins" separated by evolution, "The Second Gift Given" at Clarkesworld (Issue #29), "A Weeping Czar Beholds the Fallen Moon" at Tor.com, and "Grail-Diving in Shangrilla with the World's Last Mime" at Subterranean Press.
Scholes' avowed enjoyment of the form is essentially a guarantee that he will continue to engage it indefinitely. While an assessment of his overall body of work will be years in the making, witnessing his continuing evolution as a fashioner of short-length "fantastika" (Clute) is a fascinating proposition. Scholes' path reflects an increasing willingness to abandon strangeness as a means of arriving back at the quotidian truths of human existence. His choice to push his characters into more challenging emotional terrain with each new venture of the imagination makes him an exciting vehicle of discovery.