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To Leuchars
Rick Wilber
Wildside Press, 114 pages

To Leuchars
Rick Wilber
Rick Wilber, journalism professor at University of South Florida, hit the publishing scene in 1980 and in the past two decades has appeared in Chrysalis, Analog, Asimov's, Alien Sex, Aboriginal SF, F&SF, Pulphouse, SF Age, and numerous anthologies. His stories, "Hope as an Element of Cold Dark Matter" and "Mounting the Monkeys" were preliminary nominees for the Bram Stoker Award. "Ice Covers the Hole", "Bridging", "Imagine Jimmy" and "Where Garagiola Waits" were all Nebula preliminary nominees. His collection Where Garagiola Waits and Other Baseball Stories from University of Tampa Press was a finalist for The Dave Moore Award for most important baseball book of 1999. Other books include Magazine Feature Writing (St. Martin's Press, 1995), The Writer's Handbooks for Editing and Revision (NTC Publishing, 1996), Modern Media Writing (Wadsworth, forthcoming) and Feature Writing (NTC, forthcoming), The Secret Skater (University of Tampa Press, 1996, under the pen-name Robin Aran), and Subtropical Speculations (Pineapple Press, 1991). Rick Wilber is the administrator of the Isaac Asimov award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Story Writing.

Rick Wilber Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Interview: Rick Wilber

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Trent Walters

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To whom does one guide those who complain about characterization in SF today? Octavia Butler writes as human a character as any contemporary literary giant; any character of a Gwyneth Jones novel has a reality more real and more complex than those found in or out of the genre. Or one could combine those strengths in a recommendation of Rick Wilber's minor masterpiece To Leuchars. (Wildside Press and Alan Rodgers, too, should be commended for a job well done. The book's presentation is beautiful with a cover painting by none other than the multi-talented Joe Haldeman.)

In 1973, Mark Costello published the ingenious The Murphy Stories, a series of interrelated stories -- a collection which hit it off with writers but was strangely unheard of among the general public. To Leuchars, albeit more akin to a cohesive novel than Costello's work, may otherwise draw similar parallels: even if it doesn't draw a crowd, writers will continue to recommend it to other writers.

Wilber's collection is an odd bird in that a novel reader could accept it as a novel or a short story enthusiast can enjoy it as interrelated tales: three short stories, a novelette, and a novella that follow a journalist who got to cover the biggest scoop of the new millennium: who are these aliens whose ships continue to hover above the Earth and what do they want from us?

From "Arribada":

"...[T]en times in the year since they'd arrived those ships had moved, and ten times it hadn't meant a thing. So on this bright Tuesday morning Tommy and I sat, unworried, on small canvas folding chairs tucked into a gap between a pair of sand dunes up past the high-tide line on Egmont Key while we waited for the first of the Kemp's ridleys sea turtles to arrive."
So begins some of the more lush prose of science fiction. Peter Holman, the narrator, and his brother, Tommy, await the arrival of and egg-laying by endangered sea turtles that Tommy has attempted to rescue from extinction. Unlike his patient younger brother who was content to labour long and hard for success, Peter has to pay a price for big ambitions but little drive, dropping out of a career in football for a position as a journalist instead, ferreting out the scandals of other sports teams and local politicians. Only Peter has embroiled himself in a dark scandal of his own; he has fallen for and slept with the woman whom Tommy intended to make his wife -- a scandal which would ultimately drive a wedge between the brothers. As Peter and Tommy await the ridleys, they are about to find out it gets much more complicated...
"The turtles were blind to us, so focused on nature's dictates that we didn't exist for them. Invisible, we walked into the warm surge of the shorebreak, and out to the sandbar, moving through them as we went, shoving them aside every now and then when we couldn't avoid it... We got past the shallow water over the bar and waded into the deeper, far side of it... Tommy turned around to film. I next to him, and before I made the turn I saw out there in the darker blue of the deeper water, something big.

" 'Tommy. There's something out there behind us...'

" 'Barracuda,' he said, not taking his eye away from the eyecup. 'They won't bother you, Petey, don't sweat it.' He paused. 'Damn, Petey, look at them. God, there must be a hundred of them.'

"I felt a bump against the back of my leg..."

Wilber's literary style and eerie foreboding are just a few of the opening novelette's many strengths. Readers should pay attention to the care the author has taken in overlapping meaning and sense from scene to scene: from discussing how to save oneself from the attack of bull sharks to "Catholic guilt is an interesting thing" -- "Catholic" also meaning "universal." Scholars should have a field day with this one.

"Swimming with Gort" presents Tommy's persistent hard luck as he takes up another lover who works for S'hudonni aliens and seems to be everything Tommy needs but who isn't quite what she seems. Now he flounders as the carpet of science is pulled out from under his feet, searching for purpose in a world without purpose.

"With Twoclicks Watching" precipitates much of the character complexity promised in the first story. Peter has had time to study the S'hudonni just as they have studied Peter, in a manner that disgusts him as much as it fascinates the nature watchers of our planet: human reproductive habits. Now that Peter has returned home to his only family, his brother, Peter is ready to end his indenture with the S'hudonni named Twoclicks. But the perforated relationship is shredded once Tommy realizes Peter has accepted the S'hudonni ways -- a final blow which, in addition to pressures put on him by the aliens intimating secrets he cannot explain to his brother, allows Peter to rethink his position with the S'hudonni. This reviewer has been recommending this story to friends for years.

"Suffer the Children" is perhaps twice as eerie today than when it was originally written thirteen years ago before the Columbine and Santee shootings. The S'hudonni have taken up residence in our schools, teaching children the S'hudonni way of language and thinking. Initially unnamed, the main character has been exploding the schools with S'hudonni in them, knowing that he would be caught, but hoping to take down as many as possible before they get to him. When they do catch up, he has a back up plan ready.

This reviewer loves reading other reviewers' opinions on the same work being reviewed -- just to see how others felt and to comment if he stridently disagrees on a point, even though wholly this reviewer might agree. For instance, the Tangent Online reviewer praised Asimov's for printing three novellas in one issue (one of which was "To Leuchars" by Rick Wilber). This prejudice toward the novella is fairly prevalent in the genre, shared by writers and editors alike: e.g., Gardner Dozois, Gordon Van Gelder, and Nancy Kress -- all people whose opinions this reviewer holds with the utmost admiration and regard. With the purpose of a critic in mind -- to sharpen the genre and thereby make the genre stronger -- this reviewer asks, why? Or put another way: who would say that "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" by Harlan Ellison and "Aye and Gomorrah" by Samuel R. Delany (short stories) are less than "Flowers For Algernon" by Daniel Keyes and "The Longest Voyage" by Poul Anderson (novellettes), all of which are less than "Stardance" by Spider & Jeanne Robinson and "The Persistence of Vision" by John Varley (novellas)?

Perhaps this sentiment of novella preference could be equated to how Faulkner scholars fawn over each and every detail concerning Yoknapatawpha County as opposed to how well the stories stand on their own. Though the accumulation of detail builds toward enhanced significance -- much as the stories here in Wilber's To Leuchars succeed in doing -- a story must be able to unpack itself in the best possible manner at whatever length. How can greatness be conferred or made greater by additional words?

The Tangent Online review appears to make two more implications. First, that because the reviewer does not recall certain stories, they may not be worth remembering. Second, that "To Leuchars" is a "routine" novella in which Earth, a S'hodunni colony, finally produces a colony of its own through the beneficence of the superior S'hodunni. Is that routine? Or does routine mean that the reviewer didn't feel the planet was alien enough, or feel that the bad guy was too bad, or feel that the ending was unprepared? What exactly makes a story routine? In all likelihood, this reviewer is probably far less widely read than the Tangent Online reviewer. Moreover, it must be repeated that this reviewer is not wholly in disagreement with Tangent Online; only this reviewer would like to see the relative strengths and weaknesses weighed better than critics currently weigh them, which is not to say that this reviewer might also fail in his duty. Again, the role of the critic should be to sharpen -- not necessarily to glorify or to bring low. Writing is hard, quoth the Howard Waldrop. Writing a good review is no different.

The title story (on Locus's Recommending Reading list of novellas published in 2000) closes the novel with the tale of a poet, under the assumed name of Clifford Lamb, who must become a reluctant saviour to the people of Leuchars. The city of Leuchars divides itself over the treatment of the Anpics, the native life on Caledonia -- a division which widens to subsume other principles such as free speech, a division which neither side wishes to discuss but merely act upon. Both sides try to enlist the famous Earth poet Lamb to their cause, forcing him to choose sides. Here, Tangent Online may have been correct in that the novella is easily resolved, but if true, it is because the resolution proceeds toward peace and not great fireworks. The story should hold many surprises for readers -- at least, this reviewer had not predicted the narrator's course of action.

Despite the strength and power of certain stories like "Arribada" and "With Twoclicks Watching" that allow them to stand alone as two of the better characterized and more artful stories of the past decade, this collection probably does function better as a novel than as a collection of stories. Themes of colonization and futility (not to mention the price of action/inaction and man vs./for god) return, counterpoint, and return again, building upon the previous tales. Metaphors, like the ridley sea turtles in "Arribada" where the colonizers (humans in this case) have decimated the population only to rebuild it, work best when applied to the novel as a whole. In addition, much of the foreshadowing alludes to events that occur further on in the novel. "Swimming with Gort," which may be deemed weak without the novel, necessarily bolsters the character of Tommy as a human being, driven to the havoc he wreaks by the havoc wreaked upon him. Lastly, To Leuchars treads on the path of all good novels by constant revelation of character and plot, augmenting and twisting slightly what the reader knew previously.

The ace up Wilber's sleeve has always been emotion, a card which can and does -- when underplayed -- break the reader's heart and mend it once the final page is turned. To Leuchars sets a new standard for such characterization. Though To Leuchars may not make as much of a noise without the advertising guns of the large presses -- unfortunate, too, in that few will have read it in order to nominate either "Arribada" or To Leuchars for upcoming awards -- word of mouth should be enough to let it outlive ninety-nine percent of the bestsellers. Read it, spread the word and shelf it someplace where you will read it again. You will. I already have.

Copyright © 2001 Trent Walters

Trent Walters co-edits Mythic Circle, is a 1999 graduate of Clarion West, is working on a book of interviews with science fiction writers.


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