Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
Centuries Ago and Very Fast
Rebecca Ore
Aqueduct Press, 160 pages

Centuries Ago and Very Fast
Rebecca Ore
Rebecca Ore was born in Louisville, Kentucky. She grew up in South Carolina before moving to New York to attend Columbia University's School of General Studies. Later, she worked for various publishing houses and a weekly newspaper in Patrick County, Virginia, before going back to graduate school. She now lives in Philadelphia.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site: Outlaw School
SF Site: Outlaw School

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

Slash (named for the "/" in such archetypal pairings as "Kirk/Spock") is one of the more curious of contemporary literary phenomena. It consists of writers taking pairs of characters from popular series (Kirk and Spock from Star Trek, Aubrey and Maturin from the Patrick O'Brian novels) and producing further non-canonical stories around the pair. These stories generally involve, or often centre upon, sexual encounters involving the pair.

Other than revealing the peculiar fascination that the mechanics of predominantly male homosexual acts have for a predominantly female authorship, I remain unconvinced by the attractions of slash. They do not, I think, entail stealing; but the use of previously established characters and environments, and the fact that one of the main impetuses behind this literature means that both characters and settings must remain as close as possible to the original, means that they do not seem to be works that are, in their own right, fully creative and individual. They are a form of "paraliterature" that is considered beyond the bounds even of genre fiction. Pornographic pieces that rarely if ever attain the normal standards of professional publication, they reach their (large and appreciative) audience through things like fanzines or web sites. And this means that they generate among aficionados a sense of huddling against the storm of official disapproval or, alternatively, (often inflated) claims for the real literary value of the form.

Centuries Ago and Very Fast is, according to a passionately-argued afterword by the author, a work of slash. She is convinced that slash can achieve the same literary standards of more conventional fictions (as noted above, the limitations of character development and setting make me dubious of this claim though these are, I admit, the same limitations that devolve on any novelisation or work within a strictly delineated series). She propounds the idea that slash "is what women do when they're entertaining themselves" and "a collective dance through the sexual ids" (which makes it a collective as opposed to an individual endeavour, and suggests something rather more innocent than I suspect slash really is). And she suggests that this short, episodic novel demonstrates what can be achieved in slash.

Except that it plainly does not. Because, whatever else it is, Centuries Ago and Very Fast is not slash. The story concerns characters of her own invention, there is no appropriation from other sources here. The setting and set-up are very much her own also, there is no sense that the novel is restricted to anyone else's world. This is not, in other words, a non-canonical continuation of an existing series of works, although that, I would have thought, has to be one of the defining characteristics of slash. This novel conforms to the characteristics of slash in one respect only: an obsessive and detailed fascination with the mechanics of homosexual engagement. And if that is all it takes to qualify as slash, then a novel like Samuel R. Delany's The Mad Man must count as slash also.

Sex, as a goad for human behaviour and a model for social interactions and relationships, is endlessly fascinating because we still have not discovered the limits to its permutations. Fiction about sex and its ramifications, therefore, is always worth paying attention to. The problem with the sex act, however, in all its limited variations, is that it rarely makes for interesting fiction (it may be arousing, but that is a different thing). So the various chapters in which Vel and Thomas discover, for example, the joys of anal sex, actually get to be quite dull. We certainly learn more about their characters when they have their clothes on. And therein lies the source of my frustration with this book; because the dull sexy chapters that seem to have been the prime reason the book was written in the first place, are interspersed with chapters that are vastly more interesting, intriguing, insightful, tender and original.

The situation is unlikely, but because it is not the focus of Rebecca Ore's interest she has not bothered to justify what is going on or try and explain how it came about. So we just have to accept that Vel was born in the stone age and somehow turned out not only to be immortal, but to have the ability to travel at will through time. Either of these alone would take a fair measure of suspension of disbelief, together they seem preposterous. It doesn't help that neither of these abilities seems to have much in the way of consequence. The time travel is used to set up a couple of stories within the novel, and to allow our hero to feed his stone age tribe with store bought food. The immortality has turned him into a knowledgeable collector of antiquities, and has taught him that his lovers will die after a few short years. Somehow it seems a small lesson for millennia of experience.

Nevertheless, this sense of mortality provides for the best moments in the book. In one episode, we see a Yule celebration that Vel has fashioned in the manner of festivities stretching back for centuries, and this very timelessness provides an affecting setting for Vel and Thomas to consider the transience of their relationship. And later, when Thomas lies dying of old age and Vel, in unchanging youth, comes to see him one more time, there is a tenderness that is extraordinarily moving. And yet such moments occupy such a small part of what is already a short book. The story of Vel the ageless and his lover Thomas, a policeman in contemporary Somerset, alternates within itself between accounts of how they get on as people and accounts of how they perform sexually. But these passages also alternate with scenes from earlier in Vel's life, most usually from prehistoric times though there is also one medieval section, one vivid passage that deals with the Molly Houses of 18th century London, and a couple of passages that take Vel to the Stonewall Riots in New York. The 18th century chapter apart, these seem to be extraordinarily lacking in historical detail, even 1960s New York doesn't really come to life. The prehistoric chapters are better, partly because there is less known about the social structure of stone age tribes so more that can be invented. There were fascinating things being hinted at here, the experience of a mammoth hunt, the nature of gender roles, the relationships between tribes. Unfortunately, no sooner are these topics raised than they are forgotten in another bout of sexual activity.

There are passages of beautiful writing in here, scenes of genuine wonder, and a sense of humanity that is palpable. Yet when they emerge it seems to be in despite of the author, whose attentions always are focussed elsewhere. This would have been a much more interesting book if she hadn't chosen to make it about sex.

Copyright © 2009 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.

SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide