Thursday, June 16, 2011

Alien Contact Anthology -- Story #7

This is week seven in which I reveal the seventh story in my forthcoming Alien Contact anthology (Night Shade Books, November). Nineteen stories (through the next nineteen weeks) remain. If you are new to all of this, you may want to start with my rather loose introduction to the anthology, which was posted seven weeks ago, on April 25.

Recycling Strategies for the Inner City
by Pat Murphy

This story originally appeared in a substantially different, and much shorter, form as "Scavenger," in the April 1989 issue of Omni. However, the version included in Alien Contact was originally published in Pat Murphy's collection Points of Departure, from Bantam Spectra, 1990 -- with wonderful cover art by Mark Harrison. This story is approximately 3,600 words in length.

This past March 12-13, I participated in FOGcon, a new convention (this was its first year) in the San Francisco Bay Area. Pat Murphy was one of the Guests of Honor, along with Jeff and Ann VanderMeer. Pat and I go back aways, and though we only live about 50 miles or so from one another, we probably haven't seen each other for at least a handful of years. The exigencies of life, I guess....

So we chatted for a wee bit late Saturday afternoon, in between panels, and made arrangements to meet for breakfast the following day. My wife Diane and I met Pat in the hotel lobby on Sunday morning and then we walked a short distance to a little joint called the New Village Café on Polk Street. Pat and I did our best to catch up on recent happenings. A very chatty breakfast, with good food and even better friends.

Just prior to that weekend, I had pulled together the entire contents of the Alien Contact anthology, and concluded that I still had room for one more short story. When I mentioned this possibility to Pat, she suggested her story "Exploding, Like Fireworks." This story was originally published in 1997 in a rather obscure, and rare, anthology entitled Future Histories: Award-winning Science Fiction Writers Predict Twenty Tomorrows for Communications, edited by Stephen McClelland. The anthology was sponsored by Nokia Corporation and included both original essays and short stories; the book was given away as a business gift and was not available for sale to the public. A few days after the con I received an email from Pat that included a file of the story. "Exploding" was a great story, with a strong female protagonist, but I was looking for something else, something different, and a bit shorter in length, too. Exactly three days later -- and without any prompting from me -- Pat emailed me again, reminding me of the story "Recycling Strategies" in Points of Departure. There's a whole story about this book -- and the "Spectra Special Editions," of which it was a part -- and I'll get to this in a bit, but bottom line: I had completely forgotten about this story, even though I had read Points of Departure, but that had probably been at least twenty years ago.

So I read the story again. Now, you have to understand that I had just spent the previous weekend at a Holiday Inn on Van Ness in San Francisco. I don't think we got more than an hour or two of sleep, and even that minimal amount was spread out over the entire night. I swear every ten or so minutes a police siren wailed down the street; people were out on the street all night long, too, loud and rowdy; music blared constantly from passing cars. And then I read this story, which nailed the city's ambiance such that I was reliving all those sounds once again. "Recycling Strategies for the Inner City" was the last story I acquired for the anthology.

I asked Pat to share some thoughts on the story with readers:
Early in this story, my protagonist notes that most people "don't really want to see what's around them." Many of my stories deal with people who see the world more clearly than most. They notice things that others ignore, find things that others overlook.

Seeing the world clearly may sound like a good thing – but it's a blessing and a curse. Is it clarity of vision or simply madness? In my world, the distinction can be blurry.

So this is a story about perception and madness and alien contact. But it's also a story about a woman who adopts an abandoned pet.

I'm very fond of this little story. I like it when my stories end happily. And I think this is a very happy ending.

The protagonist in this story is a "bag lady," who lives in a welfare hotel in San Francisco. Each day she searches the city, shopping bag in hand, for treasures: bottle caps, buttons, aluminum cans, broken umbrellas, wire, and other goodies. But this day, she finds a very special treasure:
I see the metal claw lying in the gutter among the broken bottles and litter, and I recognize it immediately: a piece of an alien spaceship. Before I pick it up, I glance in both directions to make sure no one is watching.... I add the claw to the treasures in my pink plastic shopping bag, and I hurry to the hotel where I live.


The government does not want people to know about the alien spaceships. They deny all reports of UFOs and flying saucers. The government is good at hiding the things people would rather not see: the old men and women in the lobby, the hookers on the corners, the aliens who visit our world.

But I know about the aliens....

As we get deeper into the story, the claw takes on a life of its own and, as Pat stated above, the bag lady [we never learn her name] adopts it as she once did "a scrawny black alley cat [she] found hiding under a dumptster...." Soon, we question the bag lady's reality in this story: How much of what we read is in the mind of the bag lady? What is real? What is delusion (or imagination)? Especially after we learn that while she was out treasure hunting one day, her social worker visited the hotel, and had the desk clerk open her room. When the bag lady returns, the social worker says to her: "You know, we really must clean up all that trash beside your bed." What does, or doesn't, the social worker really see?

I'll leave you with this final thought near the end of the story:
Suppose, just suppose, that someone somewhere built a spaceship.... A spaceship that could rebuild itself from pieces. That someone went away and left the spaceship behind—died maybe, because otherwise why would anyone leave behind such a wonderful spaceship? And the spaceship waited for a while, and then came looking for its creator, its master. Maybe it couldn't find its original master—but it found someone else. Someone who wanted to travel. The claw is purring in my hand....

Points of Departure was part of the Spectra Special Editions (and Spectra Signature Special Editions) series of books published by Bantam between 1988 and 1993. The series was a cross between the old Ace Science Fiction Specials and Pocket's Timescape books. I have 41 different Spectra Specials in my library, which I assume is the complete series. Back in the day, I was a book collector and I actually used to write letters to publishers. (Of course, in the late '80s, one had to write a letter since email wasn't an option.) One of those letters was to Lou Aronica, then Vice-President and Publisher of Bantam's mass market division and, I understand, a driving force behind the Spectra Special Editions. Up to the point of my letter to Lou, all of the books in this series were reprints: Ian McDonald's Desolation Road, Michael Bishop's No Enemy But Time, Mike McQuay's Memories [a truly awesome, overlooked novel], Dan Simmons's Phases of Gravity, to name but a few. In my letter I spoke very highly of the quality of the series, but I also expressed my hopes that the series would eventually include original titles as well as reprints. I have Lou's response in front of me, dated February 28, 1990, on Bantam Books letterhead stationary. He thanked me for my letter, and my support of the series, stating that "This program is one that is very close to my heart...." He goes on to state a number of original forthcoming titles, including Elizabeth Hand's "stunning first novel," Winterlong, Pat Cadigan's second novel, Synners, and "another major first novel," Sheltered Lives by Charles Oberndorf. As a thank you and appreciation for my support of the series, Lou also included a copy of the bound galley and cover flat for Pat Murphy's story collection, Points of Departure. Ahh, kismet. Who would have guessed, twenty-one years later....

[Continue to Story #8]

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