Charles Coleman Finlay
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In 2001, Charles Coleman Finlay burst on the science fiction scene with the short story "Footnotes," which hinted at a biological epidemic in January 2019. The story is interesting as an example of how to say much while actually saying very little. Over the next few years, he demonstrated his ability to write in a variety of different styles and about numerous topics. Fourteen of the stories from his first four years as a published author are collected in Wild Things.
In “Wild Thing,” the opening story, from which the collection takes its title, Finlay delves into the realm of Arthurian legend. Fortunately, he decides to take a different slant on the stories than most in his version of the story of Sir Percival, the knight who would eventually find the Grail. Told from the point of view of two of Britain’s little folk, this is a tale of Percival’s youth. As befits a story told from the point of view of the little folk, the story is not told in a straightforward way, yet Howl and Pooka, Finlay’s viewpoint fairies, are given well defined personalities which help carry the story. As a young boy, Percival’s composure is excellent when he faces the Pale Lady in the realm of the faeries.
Finlay turns society around in “Pervert,” a world in which homosexuality is the norm and heterosexuality is a perversion to be hidden. His main character is a hetero who hides his tendencies even while lusting after one of his female co-workers. Finlay looks at his attempts to sublimate his nature as his wedding (to another male) approaches. “Pervert is well done and interesting in our own world where homosexuals no longer need to hide their nature, but are still looked on as abnormal by a large segment of society.Inspiration is often the inspiration for works of fiction, as it is in “Still Life with Action Figure.” In this case, a comic strip artist, Manny Farr, drives up to visit his ailing father. During the drive, Manny tries to figure out future strips, all of which takes a back seat when he gets face to face with his father, ailing from MS, but now painting again after a long absence. Just as inspiration is never straight forward, Manny’s inspiration after talking to his father is not something which ties directly to anything which passed between the two men, giving strength to the story.
"A Game of Chicken" looks at a new technology for making paper and ink and also demonstrates that just because science can do something doesn't mean that it is the correct thing to do. While some works, like Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park, have a anti-scientific tone to them, "A Game of Chicken" suggests the solution may be more in the realm of public relations.
“Lucy, In Her Splendor” is set on a small island in Lake Erie. Lucy van Wyk has been running a strange fever for a week, much to the concern of her husband. Eventually, Finlay reveals some of the characters’ peccadilloes which slowly allows him to reveal the strange truth behind Lucy’s illness. Ultimately, the story is one of vengeance, although the effectiveness of the vengeance is slightly ambiguous, which is what gives the story its strength.
However, "The Frontier Archipelago" presents a very matter of fact view of mining in the asteroid belt with none of the mystique Allen Steele brings to space production. As a life and death matter gets resolved in a manner which portrays life as reasonably cheap, the reader's horror of the situation increases, although the ultimate denouement makes the earlier solution seem less draconian.
“The Seal Hunter” picks up the story begun in “The Frontier Archipelago,” a week later. Continuing to show the difficulties faced by the people living in the asteroid belt, Finlay shows a small, closed environment which is wracked by overpopulation, harsh conditions, and a near inability to provide for itself. Broadnax, the viewpoint character of the earlier story, returns and is showing the rules, and how to break them, to the young girl, Sue-sheila, who doesn’t appreciate what she sees as his condescending and slightly mysterious manner. Taken with “The Frontier Archipelago,” “The Seal Hunter” helps build an intriguing setting, but neither story, either alone or in tandem seem to tell the tale completely.
Tommy Decker, the main character in “The Smackdown Outside Dedham” lives his life solely for WWF (now the WWE). When a large explosion interrupts his enjoyment of “Smackoff! Live from Disneyville-Las Vegas,” his second concern (after he learns that it is a meteorite strike nearby rather than a nuclear attack) is how to get the money to afford tickets when his Smackdown here makes an appearance in nearby Columbus, Ohio. In his quest for money, Tommy goes into the woods to harvest fallen trees for firewood, and in the process acquires a portion of meteorite, the sale of which, he is sure, will ensure his wealth and full access to the world of professional wrestling. Finlay introduces a twist at the end, which is the point of the story. Unfortunately, that twist requires a tone very different from everything which has gone before, which weakens the tale’s impact.
“The Political Officer” is Finlay’s space operatic tribute to the Cold War, with his main title character aboard a spaceship to ensure that the crew remain ideologically faithful. As with many of Finlay's stories, "The Political Officer" has a carefully thought out and interesting setting with plenty of indication of an actual history behind it. Like many of Finlay's best works, it also has an intelligent and riveting story to tell as Maxim Nikomedes tries to fulfill his unknown (to the reader) orders while remaining alive and defending the dignity of the Revolution. Eventually, Finlay adds in elements of a potboiler as an attack is made on Nikomedes' life and that begins to take energy from Nikomedes' primary duties as well. While Finlay does not wrap everything up neatly, in "The Political Officer" it doesn't matter. He provides enough wrap-ups, and enough red herrings, to satisfy the reader. Nothing in the story is quite what it seems from the opening line until the end.
Zombies in a post-apocalyptic world are featured in “Fading Quayle, Dancing Quayle.” As with some of the other stories in Wild Things, the concept appears to be more important than the actual story-telling as Andy Quayle, who doesn’t seem quite right, runs into one of his former students and is pulled along by her into her apparently safer life.
In “After the Gaud Chrysalis,” Finlay turns his attention to epic fantasy, in a quest in which nothing turns out to be quite as it seems, including the characters’ relationships with each other. The three adventurers are looking to find the Gaud Chrysalis of the title, although this is mostly a maguffin upon which Finlay can hang his story. Although Sister Renn, Kuiken and Vertir must try to keep the budding gaud from the hands of the Bet of Desmee, Finlay is more concerned with how they interact and to show off the incredible world he has created. As with “The Seal Hunter,” there appears to be much more story and setting Finlay can tell in this world which features a waterfall at the bottom of a cliff.
In a world in which research topics can be bought on the internet, “The Factwhore Proposition” looks at the life of Dylan, a researcher who has been getting by until a poacher begins to outbid him on several research questions. At the same time as his professional life is falling apart, his social life mirrors it as his girlfriend, Amber, moves out. Finlay’s description of Dylan’s professional collapse, however, makes the character reevaluate his life, even as the identity of the poacher becomes clear to the reader long before Dylan realizes who is taking his jobs.
"We Come Not to Praise Washington" is Finlay's stab at writing an alternate history. He succeeded well enough to earn a nomination for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History. The tale posits a world in which after George Washington's death, a coup changed the course of American history and sent Thomas Jefferson into exile. Finlay's tale deals with Aaron Burr's attempt to have Jefferson recalled by Washington's successor, who, like the Roman emperors of old, took Washington's name as a title.
Included in the limited edition of Wild Things, but not the trade edition, is the new story "Her Life Sentence." This is the most political story included in the collection, detailing a woman's travels through an America in which not only has abortion been criminalized, but suspicion of abortion, including natural miscarriages, is enough to land a woman in prison. Cassie flees her husband following a miscarriage, with the intention of turning herself in, but her plans go awry and she finds herself on the lam. Cassie, and Finlay's other characters, believe in their system of laws and morality, even when they aren't to their own advantage. Despite positing that the law about abortion is acceptable, Finlay's story is very much opposed to the idea that an unborn child's life is more important than the mother's.
Wild Things showcases the early work of a rising star in the science fiction genre. Not all the stories are classics, but they all do include the ideas and indications that Finlay, who demonstrates an ability to write in a variety of different styles about different topics, is an author whose work should be read and who will continue to improve.
|Pervert||The Political Officer|
|Still Life with Action Figure||Fading Quayle, Dancing Quayle|
|A Game of Chicken||After the Gaud Chrysalis|
|Lucy, In Her Splendor||The Factwhore Proposition|
|The Frontier Archipelago||We Come Not to Praise Washington|
|The Seal Hunter||Her Life Sentence (limited edition only)|
|The Smackdown Outside Dedham|
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