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Angels and You Dogs
Kathleen Ann Goonan
PS Publishing, 342 pages

Angels and You Dogs
Kathleen Ann Goonan
Kathleen Ann Goonan belongs to a new generation of writers exploring the cutting edge of technology and its potential impact on humans, to considerable literary effect. The first novel of her Nanotech Cycle, Queen City Jazz (1994), was praised by Locus and was designated a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. The story was taken up in her third novel, Mississippi Blues. She has also published the unrelated The Bones of Time, a science fiction novel connecting Hawaii's King Kamehameha and space travel, as well as a number of short stories. Kathleen Ann Goonan lives in Lakeland, Florida.

Kathleen Ann Goonan Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: In War Times
SF Site Review: Crescent City Rhapsody
SF Site Review: Queen City Jazz

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

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I get the impression that Kathleen Ann Goonan would like to live very far away from the rest of us, in a remote cabin somewhere, preferably where it snows a lot. This is not necessarily a place to escape the present, but rather a place where one might encounter, understand, and perhaps even embrace the future.

Such, at least, is the setting and the circumstance that keeps cropping up in these stories. They are full of characters recalling, in isolation, some great catastrophe in which they were complicit; very often they know, also, what is necessary to put things right, but this withdrawal from society is needed before they can take that next step.

"The Day the Dam Broke," for instance, is a pendant to her first novel, Queen City Jazz. The narrator, living in an isolated cabin not far from an abandoned holiday lodge, looks back on what drove her to this exile. In her own words, she "battled the Great Mid-century Plague and... lost"; what she actually means is that she left the safety of Los Angeles to provide medical help in Cincinnati but the distrust of a local doctor sabotages her efforts. Except, of course, that this is one of Goonan's ambiguous nanoplagues, a favourite devastation in these stories, and the motives of all of the actors in the drama are morally unclear. It may be that only in isolation can the moral path begin to become clear.

That certainly is the case in "Memory Dog," another story that begins and ends in icy isolation, another story of morally ambiguous characters recalling their part in a nanoplague. In this instance, the central figure was implicated in the death of his own daughter, and in an act of contrition has had his memory downloaded into a dog. Now only the acceptance of his own guilt can release the nanophages that might save the world and at the same time release his family from their exile.

In "Susannah's Snowbears" our central couple have escaped a totalitarian regime to raise their daughter in an isolated, snow-bound retreat. Here the daughter encounters some ambiguous, possibly alien beings, though the nature of their relationship is never entirely clear. When, as a young adult, she eventually leads an agent of the regime to the cabin, it is the snowbears that appear to save the day and bring about a transformation of the world.

It is not just setting and subject, but also tone and style, that makes these stories feel so similar in affect. It may be that they were actually written very close together, but the copy of the book that I have at least contains no dates of original publication for any of these pieces. Somehow, though, I don't get the feeling that they were written in one white-hot rush. Goonan is not exactly a prolific short story writer, and the 14 pieces gathered here seem to be pretty much her entire output over the 20-odd years of her career so far. The story notes, furthermore, give an impression that some of these stories could have been years in the gestation. So I am left with the conclusion that there is something in the idea of needing isolation to work things out that speaks very strongly and consistently to the author.

If "The Day the Dam Broke" is associated with her first novel, and so presumably dates from very early in her career, then something like "Electric Rains," which first appeared in Jonathan Strahan's Eclipse One, comes from well over a decade later. And yet there is the same airborne nanoplague as the trigger for events. In this instance the setting is urban, or perhaps it would be better to say post-urban; Washington DC has been largely abandoned to feral gangs following a bomb set off by the parents of our young protagonist. Now the grandmother who was taking care of her has died, and the girl must somehow transport her body through the threatening urban wasteland to lay it to rest in Arlington. As the story ends, she has turned her back upon the city and is walking westwards, and we know she is in search of the isolation that so many of Goonan's heroines seek.

In "Sundiver Day" the eponymous heroine already has that solitude, in a Florida swamp, where she plots to bring her dead brother back to life. While in "Solitaire" there's a lonely cabin which seems isolated even though it isn't far from town. Here our young hero meets and befriends a strange youth who may turn out to be an alien. Not all of the stories in this collection play on these riffs, but enough do to make it interesting and noteworthy. Even in the stories that venture into distinctly different areas seem to have a sense of unease in company.

The title story, for instance, "Angels and you Dogs," concerns a gay man who takes in an eccentric young woman as a lodger when his own long-term relationship breaks up. It is a lovely character study in which our protagonist starts to waken from his inward-turning distress, but all the way through it is marked by a distinct doubt and mistrust of other people. "Klein Time," one of the best stories in the collection, concerns two time travellers who are transported into the bodies of two tourists in Prague towards the end of the Soviet Era. Everything in this story serves to disconnect us from the people and the moment. The time travellers are disoriented and out of sympathy with the materialism of the people they inhabit. These people are themselves American tourists in communist Europe, and so disconnected from the culture they are visiting; while they are also going through their own break-up and so are disconnected from each other. It is as though isolation, physical, mental or emotional, is the default state within these stories.

A piece like "Wanting to Talk to You" is almost archetypal in the way presents all of these characteristics. Our protagonist is in a characterless apartment in Tokyo, where she doesn't speak the language, like the food or connect with the people. She has become hermit-like, isolated within a cold city (she mentions the temperature several times), all the while desperate to communicate with someone who is now very distant from her, not only physically but emotionally. Connection, engagement with others, seems to be the hardest task in any of these stories.

The tale that vies with "Klein Time" for the accolade of being the best in the collection is "The Bridge," a mordant story of an old fashioned private eye (complete with bleak, dusty office and whisky bottle forever at hand) in a world with no need for the trade. Then the inevitable beautiful woman walks into his office and hires him for a job, and of course the job turns out to involve much more than at first sight. This is one of Goonan's nano-infused futures (possibly the same one we encountered in "Electric Rains") in which ambiguity is rife. Our hero mistrusts nanotechnology, yet it allows people to connect instantly, to discover all that they might need; he operates in Rosslyn, Virginia, just across the river from what remains of Washington DC, a city blighted by a "nanotech surge," and his case inevitably takes him across the bridge into the haunted remnants of the capital. It is a story, unusual in this collection, that is all about connection; yet connection must be approached warily. Even when she extols its virtues, Goonan seems unsure about connecting with other people.

The quality of these stories leaves us wishing that Goonan was more prolific, had produced much more than this handful of pieces in her career so far. Yet at the same time, this abiding sense of isolation may go some way towards helping us understand why there aren't many more stories to be collected.

Copyright © 2012 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.


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