Unpossible and Other Stories by Daryl Gregory – review

By on November 28, 2011

Unpossible is a short story collection by Daryl Gregory.  The stories are a mix of both fantasy and science fiction, leaning more towards science fiction.  What I found most unusual about the stories was the science that Gregory leans towards most in his writing, psychology.  It’s not that psychology is unfamliar in the sci-fi realm, it’s just odd to find it so central to so many works, regardless of their length.

The first story, “Second Person, Present Tense” is the story of Therese.  Therese was a good Christian girl, raised in a strict religious household.  The problem is that she took an overdose of a drug called Zen.  In smaller doses, the drug simply shuts consciousness off and allows the body to function on autopilot.  When taken at an overdose level, the drug kills the person’s consciousness.  Everything that that person is becomes walled off and inaccessible.  The story starts as Therese is leaving the hospital to return to living with her parents.  They enroll her in a therapy program that’s meant to restore her personality.  As Therese tries to participate, she finds herself wondering if she wants to regain her consciousness at all.

This was one of those stories that just makes a person think.  I found myself wondering about my own sense of self and what I would do if I decided that I completely hated me.  What would I have to change to not be me? The ideas were highly unsettling, as was the story.  It doesn’t really offer up conclusive answers.  In fact, the ending will leave so many questions, not because it isn’t satisfying, but because it requires the reader to analyze and digest it.

“Damascus” actually gave me chills.  This one follows Paula, a divorced mother of a teenaged girl who feels nothing but animosity towards her ex-husband.  Paula and her daughter are at odds with each other, because Paula wants to eradicate any and all reminders of him.  Some neighbors, who live in a yellow house which Paula initially derides for being garish, start bringing them meals and letting Paula’s daughter stay with them.  Gradually, Paula begins to accept the neighbors and, soon, they share their shocking secret.

This story is terrifying.  At first glance, it seems so banal.  The setting could be just about any city in the US.  The neighbors in their yellow house could exist anywhere.  As the reader continues, the story gets more and more disturbing.  This very story could be happening anywhere to almost anyone.  It definitely qualifies and one of the scariest things I have read in a long time.

“Petit Mal #1: Glass” is about a prison being used in a drug trial.  The drug itself mends neural pathways in the minds of psychopaths, allowing them to develop empathy.  The hope, with the trials, is to create a cure and reduce crime rates by treating those afflicted with the drug.  However, the drug is so effective that within days, even the prisoners can tell who is getting the drug and who is being dosed with the placebo, despite the fact that it’s supposed to be a double-blind study.  One of the prisoners in the control group stands up to the doctor running the trial.  Her reaction is intense and, in a way, very satisfying.

This one wasn’t difficult to read.  It wasn’t as unsettling as “Damascus,” but it certainly isn’t an optimistic story, despite the goal of the drug trial in it.  The plot raises some interesting questions about how far is too far when science is concerned, as well as the possibilties of maintaining scientific objectivity.  Some technical terms and jargon do end up in this piece, but that never bogs it down or disrupts the flow of the prose. Instead, it lends credibility to the story and keeps it from feeling like it could just be some bland episode of CSI.

“Message from the Bubblegum Factory” initially presents as a supervillain prison break story.  Instead, as the narrator breaks the fourth wall repeatedly and makes wry commentary on the world in which he lives and which he emphatically states is not, in fact, the world of the reader, the reader gets sucked into one of the more interesting and unusual anti-heroes to be revealed in a long time.  As Mr. King pursues his goal of breaking the supervillains out of the ultra maximum security prison where they are held, he reveals his backstory and his origin.

What makes this story so cool is that Mr. King’s goals are his own.  He is not evil for evil’s sake, he has real motivations and specific reasons for the things that he is doing.  It’s difficult to hate him and even more difficult to see him as truly “bad.”  Which, I think, is probably the writer’s ultimate goal with the story.  Just because a superhero dubs himself a superhero and says that he’s fighting for good, does that mean that he really is?  Does that automatically make all of that particular superhero’s nemeses bad?  What happens to everyone around that superhero?

And, finally, my favorite story of the bunch, “In the Wheels.”  In only a few short pages, Daryl Gregory creates a world where car racing is carried out by magic, with demons in the engines of the cars.  The knowledge is kept by a few individuals who are both feared and revered for what they do.  The races are dangerous, and the costs are high. Failure to control the vehicle and keep the demon contained results in the driver going “zombi”.  Joe and Zeke are teenaged boys who grew up in a religious community that is strictly controlled.  Zeke’s father is a former racer and a drunk, offered little in the way of respect by his community or his son.  Zeke finds a car in the decrepit remains of a city, and he decides that he’s going to race.

I think that I was so drawn to this story because the concept is amazing.  This one felt like it was a small slice of a much bigger whole–there was this sense of so much more story to tell from other perspectives through other characters.  I don’t have any idea if Mr. Gregory intends to write any more in the world that he created for “In the Wheels,” but I sincerely hope that he does, because I definitely want to read more.

Overall, the collection is very good.  There are recurrent themes involving religion, free will, psychology, and good vs. evil throughout the book, but it never feels repetitive.  Points are not hammered home in this anthology; instead, Gregory presents ideas to the reader and then explores them, often in a direction that I didn’t necessarily anticipate, but never in a way that feels scattered or randomized.  There are stories that are connected and some of them are connected to larger works, which are helpfully pointed out in the author’s notes at the end of the book.  I have to say that I really did like the author’s notes being included.  As a writer myself, I enjoy seeing at least a glimpse of how another writer’s mind works.  I like being able to find some of those little commonalities as well as finding new ideas for techniques and avenues for inspiration.

This book does have some stories that have gross content.  There are a few stories that should probably not be read while the reader is consuming food.  There is very little in the way of sexual content, and what there is isn’t graphic.  Readers uncomfortable with questioning religion or unwilling to contemplate it from some startling and different viewpoints or who may be offended by religious content should probably steer clear. There are some dark themes, as well, in these pages. You will find some characters who are abused, others who are oppressed, and still others who are simply deranged.  You will also find that some of your opinions of those characters are going to be challenged very effectively.

I practically inhaled this book.  Once I started reading, I wanted to keep reading until I had finished it, which provoked a little war with myself, because I wanted to savor the stories and think about each one individually before I started thinking about the collection as a whole. I’d highly recommend this collection to readers who want some science fiction and fantasy pieces that are going to provoke some thought.  There is not much optimism in this book, but the selections that it contains are well-written, unusual, and very intriguing to read.

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