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Gunning for the Buddha
Michael Jasper
Prime Books, 283 pages

Gunning for the Buddha
Michael Jasper
Michael J. Jasper grew up in the small town of Dyersville, Iowa, but he now lives with his wife Elizabeth in Raleigh, NC. He's tried bartending, teaching junior high, painting houses, being a secret shopper, working construction, and many more jobs; he prefers fiction writing. He has published stories in Asimov's, Strange Horizons, Gothic.Net, and The Raleigh News & Observer, among other venues.

Michael Jasper Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sherwood Smith

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Like the protagonist in his title story, Michael Jasper lands running. Gunning for the Buddha is a very strong collection from a new writer who hasn't built up a body of work from which to cherry-pick the best stories. Ranging from science fiction to fantasy to horror, the stories offer a pleasing variety that I think will establish Jasper as a guy to keep an eye on.

"We killed the Buddha for the first time just outside Berlin."
"Gunning for the Buddha" -- Our first person narrator is a woman driving a powerful, sky blue '75 Pontiac Firebird that revs up to a certain speed, jetting over bridges for preference, and blasts through the limits of time and space. She's on a mission, along with three other lost souls, to save the world from the chaos resulting from the teachings of religious prophets of peace. Fast as she drives, she cannot outdrive her own anger and desperation, even when her plan begins to unravel with violent speed.

The story races at headlong pace, shifting around in time just as the characters do. I think the impact thumps just short of the maximum buttkickage by the fact that a crucial decision -- that is, why this quest in the first place -- takes place off-stage, which gives the second crucial decision less energy than might have otherwise been. But the story's got velocity.

"Goddamn Redneck Surfer Zombies" -- with a title like that, how could a story miss? Well, actually, it could easily have been one of those one-joke groaners. Jasper shows here how finding just the right voice makes a story work. Big Al is the first person narrator, an old geezer in Long Beach on the east coast, a small tourist place that was at first ruined when zombies suddenly appeared from the local cemetery and started walking around, stinking like spoiled tuna, with parts dropping off. Yes, that will kill off any tourist trade. The story weaves back and forth in time as we find out what happened at first, and what Big Al and his pals who hang out fishing and drinking cold ones did about it. The concept of surfer zombies is funny, but the joke could so easily have become tired. Jasper takes a funny concept and makes a good story out of it.

"Visions of Suburban Bliss" -- Richard Toliver, a black man, was proud to have moved himself and his family into an upscale white bread suburban track in North Carolina. He reflects on this as he does his long commute home on a hot summer's day. And as increasingly surreal things happen, it's the only thought that keeps him steady. Yes, his whole life seems wrapped up in the artificial niceness of the suburban good life... It's weird, just how easily suburban bliss can turn seriously weird.

"A Feast at the Manor" -- Rob Heying and his wife Melinda are overweight. They go to a fat farm, an unusual one that charges a lot of money but promises results. The place seems odd and just gets odder, and Rob likes Melinda just fine as she is, but she really hates herself, and insisted on their trying it out. Her insistence, and his resistance, at first keep them from communicating as things get increasingly strange and then creepy. I really liked this story; Jasper handles the subjects of food, friendship, attraction, and marriage with grace, compassion, and a touch of humor, leading us unexpected places.

"Unplugged" -- this is one of my favorite stories. It's a short, taut piece, about Internet junkies, here called cowboys, who are trying to "dry out" before they fry their systems. We have another first person narrator, Mickey, who has been here before at Rubin's non-tech "health facility," on the edge of a huge freeway in a grim near-future. He talks to Jonathan, the new arrival; they both know their health is in trouble, but the urge to plug in, any way possible, is nearly overwhelming. What Mickey keeps trying to hold onto is the thought of his exasperated girlfriend Lia, who has obviously been disappointed one too many times. But temptation is very, very severe... The details are sharp and unsentimental: we see the ex-cowboys jerking and twitching, hear their mumbled, brain-fried conversations, but the view is compassionate, not scornful, and the inward battle is viscerally real.

"Working the Game" -- first person again, the setting a very grim near-future, wherein workers are kept outside a Wall, working pretty much all the time in order to earn enough credit to get inside. The protagonist is taking care of his sick girlfriend; we will see this element again, the desperate person trying to work the system and take care of a helpless dependent. Jasper evokes with unsparing realism the constant watchful anxiety that the single caretaker with little or no resources feels.

"Explosions"-- "Working the Game" and "Explosions" have a certain element in common: overworked primary caretaker, one of a sick girlfriend and the other a single mom, who work extra to try to beat the system and get a better living, but are forced to use hard earned money for criminally overpriced medical care. In this second story, however, we get a new element into the mix: the introduction of aliens. Japser's Wannoshay are intriguing, avoiding so many frequently-seen alien tropes. The protagonist is a working mom at a beer brewery. Jasper veers between the inexplicable and realistic human reactions to the inexplicable in a tight, involving story.

"Wantaviewer" -- The Wannoshay are back in this emotional roller-coaster of a story. The protagonist here is Alissa Trang, who wants to be a famous camera blogger on the Netstream -- but doesn't quite want it badly enough to kick a dangerous drug habit. The drug here is Blur, which speeds one up both physically and mentally, but with a proportionate cost to the system. She goes to a bad part of Winnipeg to make her connection, and accidentally encounters the aliens, who are still new to humanity, still frightening, still largely unwanted. Everyone seems to be expecting some kind of interstellar war, and while waiting for the fewmets to hit the fan, take out their apprehensions on the Wannoshay still trying to comprehend this bewildering world they are refugees on. The choices here are realistic, the consequences logical, and the story heartbreaking.

"Mud and Salt" -- the third Wannoshay story. Each story stands independent of the others, but the whole is adding up to an absorbing tale. Here, we've got three long-time buddies, Skin and his pals Matt and Georgie, out hunting the aliens for the reward. By now the aliens are confined to concentration camps 'for their own good.' An escape means danger. Georgie is a gun nut, Matt badly needs the cash. So does Skin, though he's somewhat ambivalent about this way to get it. The alien has been seen near the abandoned Omaha Indian Reservation, which becomes a hunting ground for a hunt that those who long ago hunted here might never have conceived. Jasper is great with the sensory details in this story, the cold and dirt and excitement of guns and buddy talk; when the action happens things speed up to disaster very rapidly. Several sharp turns, including to the emotions, make the story a satisfying read.

"Crossing the Camp" -- Father Joshua, a dedicated priest with a moral dilemma, is the human protagonist in this last of the four Wannoshay stories. He works in a concentration camp where the Wannoshay are housed, his job to teach their young. He uses Bible verses to teach them literacy. But seeing how, one by one, the people are being destroyed by our world -- so unnecessary -- is grinding him down, and a young priest, Father Jaime, is sent to replace him. I thought the writing was powerful, the men and aliens sympathetic as they wrestle with their own emotions, and examine grim moral dilemmas while trying to do good work. A fine story that, at least to me, could have sparked into brilliance if Jasper had not sidestepped what seems to me to be the center of a priest's life: faith.

"Black Angel" -- here's a story with all kinds of nifty elements: angels, demonics, a fight, a cemetery. In fact, the elements come so quickly that there is sometimes little room for motivation: the story begins with a frame, following which we discover that Tom is betting that he can talk Mercy into going with him to the cemetery so he can tell her the story of the Black Angel, a winged figure that dominates the place. He has been seeing her for a couple of days, during which time he meets a mysterious figure who offers him silver if he can get someone into the cemetery. Mercy's own story, Tom's motives for dating her, for listening to the mysterious stranger, all could have had more air time; in fact, I felt that this story was actually a book compressed way down. Still, the action is full of pizzazz, making a fast, engaging read.

"The Disillusionist" -- "I rode west, followed hard by spirits." It's that 'hard' that hooks itself tightly into my skull, yanking me into this story. The writing is so strong, the imagery so powerful; this particular juxtaposition of the weird and the transcendent brought Tim Powers to mind -- which turns out to be not so far off the mark, I discovered when reading the afterward. An unnamed loner is deputized to go after and bring down a mysterious man who is going from town to town leaving dead and dying in his wake. It seems this weird figure sets up to give an entertainment, promises to strip away lies and leave people only with the truth. The protagonist considers the grim truths of his own life until this moment, which includes standing by at a massacre of Indians who tried to surrender, but perseveres, eventually facing this weird figure. About three quarters of the way along I realized I was picking up hints about the identity of the deputy, which caused my interest in an already creepy, thoughtful, sensorily complex story to zing. My favorite of the collection.

"Coal Ash and Sparrows" -- Jasper does more of his structural magic with this strange tale of a boy, a book, and the girl who discovers that book. What happens to each as time slides along, what the book means, makes for a fascinating story, impossible to predict.

"An Outrider's Tale" -- a new look at a very old fairy tale. Most of it is narrated in the past tense over a campsite, but Jasper makes it work, because the story telling is not simply a frame; the strange narrator must then take that tale and use it. This last aspect was what brought it all together to a transcendent close. Best use of that tale I've seen in a while.

"Natural Order" -- the structure echoes the opening story: a car full of oddballs careering about the countryside, shifting in and out of time and space while on their mission. The protagonist is a chain-smoking guy named Zed, his companions an elderly black woman and a young teen; they add a dog. Zed worries about the dog as they head away from an on-coming hurricane, toward LA where there is going to be an earthquake. The Bosses who sent them on their missions, who granted each a specific ability, do not guarantee safety. The balance of the world is the context, the question: is it right to preserve lives? A fast-paced story that leaves the reader asking questions brings this excellent collection to a close.

Copyright © 2005 Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith is a writer by vocation and reader by avocation. Her webpage is at www.sff.net/people/sherwood/.


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