Well, a few days ago I finished tearing through Patricia Anthony’s Happy Policeman. I wanted to post a review then, but the Internet was pretty much ruined on campus and didn’t start up again till yesterday.
Reflecting on my feelings about the book, I am left once again wondering why she is one of those authors I feel like we don’t remember in SF, and I think this fact in itself indicates something problematic in SF circles. Authors who have impressed me less (or at least less consistently — Harlan Ellison and Norman Spinrad, among others) are far better-remembered, and I think there are perhaps a few reasons for this.
One, doubtless, is that Anthony was a writer of unhappy stories. Her novels (and short stories) are dominated by dark themes, dark moods, cold and painful realizations about humanity.
Another reason I think she isn’t as celebrated as some authors is that her focus isn’t on blowing your mind with new SFnal ideas: her work is driven by character, yes, but also very deeply informed by the content of the collective modern (and particularly, but not exclusively, American) mythology of aliens, alien abduction, and so on. My favorite of her novels so far is still Brother Termite, which pretty much features Greys. They’re called something else, but they’re basically the Greys of the Roswell, New Mexico alien crash mythology, familiar to pretty much everyone in the modern world. (Which, if you’d described it to me that way before I read it, I would, at least now, probably avoid — it sounds like something I’d hate, but I loved it. Imagine that.) There is a familiarity to the alien mythos with which Anthony works which, I must admit actually put me off before I’d picked up any of her books: maybe for some SF people, alarm bells went off and they dismissed the work as “derivative” without reading much?
Because, yes — Anthony didn’t try to come up with a whole new, baffling, cool alien species. She was derivative, to some degree — but then, we don’t complain when authors do this with Lovecraft Mythos, do we? Probably more to the point, she didn’t write epic space battles, or sensawunda-inducing adventures into transcendence. Her stories are obviously SFnal, but I think for a lot of SF readers, they may not, er, “feel” or “function” like SF novels. It’s understandable, therefore, when you read comments by her, in interviews, where she says that being billed as an SF author “ruined her career” (as she says in this one) — not just because it pigeonholed her work, and made marketing harder, though that’s part of it: for example, her last published novel, Flanders, could probably have gotten a much bigger audience if it hadn’t been Ace trying to figure out how to sell it to SF fandom. Not just because of that, but because, in some sense, I don’t think Anthony was writing in a way familiar to SF fandom; she speaks the language of SF with a fascinating, but definitely somehow foreign, literary accent. And, sadly, I fear not all of us might be willing to listen carefully to what she has to say because of the accent.
In fact, the novels I’ve read all seemed to work more like conventionally non-SFnal novels, with SFnal threads woven into their fabric: Conscience of the Beagle is a police procedural (or mystery) but is set on some religious-colony planet out there somewhere; Brother Termite is a political thriller/romance in Washington, featuring the Greys; and Happy Policeman is a small-town Texas murder investigation — another police procedural — but it happens to take place in an alien-sequestered Texan town where people are cut off from a world they believe was consumed by a nuclear war six years ago.
Which, if it sounds familiar to you… well, it’s a popular trope. Stephen King as visited the town-cut-off-from-the-world concept recently, in his recent novel Under the Dome. (Which is also on my currently-reading list, after I found a copy for, er, very cheap in Rome, but I feel a little less interested in finishing it, after reading the Anthony. Will King really do so much more with the setting and concept and characters and relationships that almost 1000 pages more are required to tell the story? Because, yeah, the themes that have emerged so far are pretty familiar, one-fifth of the way in.) I’ve seen a few short SF stories in magazines exploring a similar concept (and always similar themes, of course) at even shorter lengths, but never have they explored as much as Anthony.
Maybe there’s something wrong about that kind of reading, of course — the comparing page counts and being leery of similar themes and settings. King’s work is, obviously, on some level an allegory for the whole clampdown on rights and freedoms in the USA after 9-11. Anthony’s not writing about that at all, given that her book was published in the 90s — so they’re doing different things, and the issue of length may be unfair. (Though lots of people have complained that King’s books are unreasonably long and in dreadful need of a good edit — that said, I’ve read Under the Dome did get cut quite a bit.) Maybe I should just give the King book some time, and come back to it. Or maybe I should just give it a pass and try something else by King instead. (Or something by someone else altogether?)
Anthony’s book, by the way, is about — or in fact it might be fairer to say it’s more about — relationships, something I can honestly say is true of the other books by Anthony that I’ve read. Happy Policeman is about the difficulty of marriage and love; the difficulties of friendship, and family, and enmity; the difficulties of community, of responsibility, of justice within a community, and of faith. Oh, and adultery. It’s definitely about adultery in all these contexts. I say that remembering how damned bored I got trying to read some John Updike novel which was about adultery, and I wonder… does the SF mode just make it more tolerable to me? Or was I just being impatient with the Updike? (Well, I was bored, so impatient makes sense.)
Mind you, don’t tons and tons of SF novels do this? We’ve long been comfortable with the idea of SF as a mode, applicable to a wide variety of genres, and after all, fans of Asimov’s Foundation and Robot books are happy to point out the mystery-tale structures we see in those books, and in a lot of SF. Space opera can have a lot in common with road-trip or picaresque novels, and the latter is pretty much the blueprint for a lot of cyberpunk.
So what’s the deal with Anthony’s being largely forgotten in the last ten or twelve years? Is it that the SFnal elements are too familiar? That doesn’t seem to have prevented Patricia Anthony from getting tons of great reviews and interviews back when she was active in SF. It certainly didn’t stop her from publishing a whole series of novels in a row, and a pile of short stories too.
Like Conscience of the Beagle, I’d say Happy Policeman still hasn’t forced aside Brother Termite as my favorite of Patricia Anthony’s novels. I thought it was a strong book, though maybe not a success for me. (In the same way some people praise books by Aldiss that they consider failures.) Yet it’s very well written, of course, and there are lines of prose that hit you like a punch in the gut, they’re so perfect. It is definitely a crafted book. But there were moments where I felt like Anthony cheated: a few major events in the storyline happen while the main character is isolated — and though the first time I was willing to just accept it, the second time it felt like a cheat.
But not a lazy cheat, somehow. I could never characterize her writing as lazy, ever. And, to be honest, she is one of the few authors who has ever made me laugh aloud; the dark, sardonic humor that shows up here and here in her writing is worth the price of admission alone, for me.
It’s a weird thing, reading a book that you can recognize is wonderfully crafted, and yet somehow subtly disappoints you, in a way you’re not sure you could finger or explain even if you had to. This is the kind of thing where, I think, sometimes you need to step back and ask yourself why you’re disappointed. (The way I finally managed to do with Adam Roberts’ writing.) I must note, whatever disappointment I feel is very much tempered: it’s more the disappointment you feel when a character you love dies — that doesn’t happen in Happy Policeman, but that’s the feeling I got from some of the storytelling decisions Anthony made. That said, the novel still works beautifully… if that makes sense.
I mean that the narrative pulled me along, drew me in, and wowed me, even with my mild frustrations in full view. I left the novel with a renewed sense of curiosity and annoyance at why it is Anthony is so poorly-remembered, though having seeing this recent, slightly cryptic posting by Gavin Grant on the Small Beer Press website — and Kelly Link’s mentioning her desire to read something new by Anthony — has me hopeful that maybe something good will be happening to reverse that situation somewhat.
Those who have read Anthony probably are envious, knowing I have so many other books by her left to read for the first time. (And all of them on hand except Cold Allies — which I haven’t picked up because I have a copy somewhere in Canada, maybe, still.) For those who haven’t read Anthony yet, I think you should definitely go and find what you can of her work. Many of the earlier novels are relatively short, and quick reads, and, well, I still think Brother Termite is the best of the bunch. (Though those who’ve read it often recommend the more fantastical WWI novel Flanders.)