by William Sanders
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In the beginning of William Sanders’s novel J, he is writing the stories of three women. Jay, a once-successful science fiction author whose work has begun to get rejected. Mad Jack, a survivor in a post-apocalyptic United States, and Ann, a scientist who has found herself in and out of insane asylums. It isn’t clear how these women relate to each other, although there is a vague implication that Mad Jack and Ann may be characters in one of Jay’s books. Eventually, Sanders reveals that supposition to be wrong in every way.
The story lines begin to blur when Jack suddenly appears in the asylum just in time to stop an orderly from attacking Ann and the two women find themselves on the run across dimensions. As Jay later comments, it is “one of the standard gimmicks in science fiction…a cliché.” Nevertheless, Sanders handles his material well, showing knowledge of the cliché and how it has been used in order to use it in different ways. In the process, he builds several believable and interesting worlds for his characters to inhabit.
At the same time, the cliché aspect works against him. Revelations to the characters are seen by readers who are familiar with the genre, even if the exact way things fit together are not obvious. Sanders is content to let the reader draw his own conclusions, some of which will be right and some wrong, and only slowly introduce his evidence about what may be happening.
All three of the main characters are likable in their own way, as well as sympathetic. They have a variety of problems, ranging from mental illness to alcoholism, but all three show the potential to be much more than their current situations allow them. By showing them through each others eyes, Sanders is able to increase the empathy the reader feels for the three women even while demonstrating their faults and their rationales for those faults.
Sanders hints at the question of what makes an individual the person they are, and J could have explored the question in more depth. His characters are pulled from their natural habitats and thrust into the worlds of the other characters, trying to make sense of a radically different world with the sensibilities and abilities which they acquired in their native worlds.
As with Sanders’s earlier novels, such as Journey to Fusang or The Ballad of Billy Badass and the Rose of Turkmenistan, J portrays realistic people in an unreal, by realistic set of circumstances. While J may not highlight Sanders’s sense of humor as clearly as some of his other writing, it still manages to show through.
In the end, Sanders provides the reader with an explanation of what happened, but not why it happened, along with tantalizing hints of yet more dimensions. Sanders’s ultimate revelation has a feeling of deus ex machina, yet he pulls it off with such grace that the reader feels it is the natural outcome of the story. Nevertheless, J has an unfinished feel to it, as if Sanders’s is planning on writing a sequel to it. Fortunately, in this case a sequel would be as welcome as something new from Sanders’s pen.
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