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Thumbprints
Pamela Sargent
Golden Gryphon Press, 281 pages

Thumbprints
Pamela Sargent
Pamela Sargent was born in 1948 in Ithaca, New York. She attended the State University of New York at Binghamton. She now lives in Albany, New York.

Pamela Sargent Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Child of Venus
SF Site Review: Climb the Wind

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Chris Przybyszewski

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In her Afterword of Thumbprints (Golden Gryphon Press, 2004), Pamela Sargent talks about the importance of science fiction to rebuild a new world, a post-9/11 world. "There were, after all, a number of anecdotes about science fiction readers who had become physicists working on nuclear weapons, or to cite a more hopeful example, science fiction fans who ended up as engineers, research scientists, even as astronauts. The world could be remade, and your writing might even, in some small way, help to remake it." She goes on to lament the current world of the publishing industry, that -- in her mind -- ignores new voices for other voices that sound like the things that people buy. "If an original writer is successful enough these days, the tendency in the publishing business is to look for more of the same rather than for another original voice."

These are typical sentiments; the grudge many writers have against the socially Darwinian publishing industry is well known. The question is whether Sargent adds anything new in Thumbprints. That is, does she take the role of the "original writer" who can "remake" the world, or is she one who pedantically strolls down lanes others have paved for her. In this case, think latter.

The first story of the book is the critically acclaimed "Gather Blue Roses." It's a short affair of a girl who pulls into herself the pain of those people around her (the Blue Roses are bruises, I think). It's a fabulous idea for a short story, and could raise multiple questions of the evil that men do and to whom they do that evil. Sargent does not follow through on this potential, and the story is over as soon as it begins. The reader walks with the main character as she discovers her ability, as she discovers that her mother has the same ability, and then nothing. There is the father feeling sorry for both, but otherwise, we see little change in the girl's life. This is the beginning of the story. How does the girl handle this new information? Is she bitter? Angry? Accepting? Does she use her ability to help? To hurt? Does she kill herself immediately? Sargent misses a chance here, because she was too busy dealing with the conceit of the story rather than dealing with the character. This is a recurrent issue throughout the collection.

A second example, this one from the middle of the book, is "Amphibians." The story is about a woman who must deal with her father's death while also dealing with resolution in her own life (Sargent mentions that she wrote this story 10 years after her own father's death). While death seems absolute, her father cannot make his trip without his daughter letting him go. Again, this is a good premise. However, Sargent focuses too much on the conceit and the imagery of the story, rather than focus on the characters and their stories. The main imagery of turtles slipping in and out of the water mimics the way the main character slips back and forth on decisions. Incidentally, I know turtles are not amphibians, but that's the name of the story and that's the imagery. Ask Sargent.

As with the first, Sargent is too self-conscious of her imagery and the specific role that imagery must play in her story. By controlling the imagery with too much rigidity, she loses control of the internal consistency of the story. Ironically, while Sargent has an iron and stifling grip on her imagery, she is lazy to the point of frustration with the story's ending, which does nothing to inform the reader of the main character's choices and thus change over the course of the story.

As a final example, the title story of the book details the macabre practices of a sleazy literary agent, one who robs the graves of famous literary personalities. The agent might or might not be involved with the deaths of said literary personalities. When he pulls aboard Shanna Youngerman, a frustrated writer who has been published but who has neither fame or fortune, she begins to asks questions.

Not really. Though Youngerman claims to be a journalist, she shows little curiosity throughout the story. The character has an appalling lack of research skills, acumen, or desire necessary for any good writing. Toward the beginning, a town undertaker takes her to the disturbed grave of his brother, another local author, but one who made it big. Youngerman forgets about this obviously cool story opportunity involving a local celebrity, grave robbers, and living relatives who work in the mortuary biz (I can hear the alternative news weeklies salivating).

A week later, when a local grave digger not only confesses to the crime of unburying the dead, but then turns up dead himself, the best Youngerman can muster is that "no one seemed overly concerned by his fate. I certainly wasn't, being preoccupied as usual with my writing and the last week of a course I was teaching at a local community college." Later in the story, Youngerman realizes that among the multiple contracts she signed to the agent in question, she somehow missed that she signed a burial plan provided by her agent. Either Youngerman intentionally avoids the obvious implications of these things, or she is just stupid.

In either case, why make this person your narrator? The effectiveness of first-person narratives live and die by the obsession in their heads. Moby Dick's Ishmael had a story to tell, as did Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises and Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. These example narrators could not shake whatever issue they were having, and resorted to the telling of stories to find a resolve. The difference between the three above examples and Youngerman is that while the authors of the former wanted to tell a story about a person or a group of people, Sargent wants to tell a story with a complicated plot and little soul. The result is a collection called Thumbprints, which fails to leave a distinguishing mark.

Copyright © 2004 Chris Przybyszewski

Chris learned to read from books of fantasy and science fiction, in that order. And any time he can find a graphic novel that inspires, that's good too.


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