Utley, Steven. Where or When.

Hornsea, UK: PS Publishing, 2006.

Steve Utley died less than two years ago at a relatively young age, and that was a particular shame. He was diagnosed with cancer and a month later, he was gone. I got to know Steve in the ’70s, when he was one of the founders of ArmadilloCon and the Turkey City Writers Conference, both in Austin, together with Howard Waldrop, Lisa Tuttle, and Bruce Sterling. (It was a great time to be a science fiction fan and/or budding writer in Texas.)

He never really made it to the level of national recognition, but you may have read “Custer’s Last Jump” and “Black as the Pit, from Pole to Pole,” two of the most influential precursors of steampunk. Steve was an Air Force brat (I grew up in the Army) and I remember spending a long lunch across the table from him, comparing experiences in rootlessness.

Anyway. One of his favorite playgrounds within the genre was time travel and this volume includes all fourteen of his stories on that subject — with the exception of his highly regarded “Silurian Tales” cycle, several of which appeared in Dozois’s “Year’s Best” series. Time travel usually comes down to either mental power or machine-assisted methods, and the motivation is ordinarily academic research, tourism, or an attempt to change the past (or to protect it from change). Most authors pick one from Column A and one from Column B, and stick with it all through their work. Steve, though, was an experimentalist and he liked to play the field.

“Now That We Have Each Other” describes time travel as a natural ability but also as a sort of mental drug. Colbert, fat and ugly, lived for traveling through time, but then suddenly lost the ability — until he found Debbie, who could take him along on her own time-hopping. “Time and Hagakure,” one of his most anthologized tales, tells of the efforts of a modern Japanese man traveling psychically back to 1945 to try to convince his fighter-pilot father not to waste his life in a kamikaze attack when the war is already lost. Both his unborn son and his young wife, who will be blinded at Nagasaki, need him more than the Emperor does. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s a very poetic piece. In “To 1966,” travel is restricted to one’s own personal past and your earlier self becomes your helpless host. Colin, a serial rapist, makes socially unacceptable use of his ability, but he has his own warped reasons.

In “Getting Away,” you can inhabit the mind not only of people in the past but of any sort of living creature. Sounds like fun, right? Assuming you can control when it happens. But at least it’s a way for a burned out screenwriter to escape from the unpleasant present. “Predators” follows a similar method, but the traveler this time is a young blind woman. The psychologist studying her worries about her out there alone on the dangerous city streets by herself, but she has experienced the life of a saber-tooth on the savannah and knows she’s far more dangerous than any mugger.

“Spectator Sport” is only three pages and is probably the most light-weight thing in the book. It simply records the conversation of two men betting on opposite sides in an American-Japanese dogfight in 1944, which they can observe via special helmets. Maybe next week they’ll watch a scheduled hand-to-hand duel on Guadalcanal.

“Living It” is the first of three connected stories in which tourists can piggyback on the mental journeys of time travelers with the talent to pick their targets. Each inhabits a host for however long they’re visiting the past, so they’re never personally in danger no matter how violent the milieu. (So war tours are always popular.) This one deals with the fall of Richmond in 1865 from a tourist’s point of view. “The Here and Now” visits the fall of Berlin, May 1945, in which an older traveler is partnered with a highly talented but very annoying younger one (“the Kid”). “Where or When” involves two academics headed for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London but who find themselves in northern Virginia in 1865 instead, caught up in a bloody skirmish. And they find that not all travelers to the past share their altruistic motives. Some really good dialogue in this one.

“The Maw” takes us to the East End of London in the fall of 1888 and the very last bloody exploit of Jack the Ripper, but it’s not clear what the motivation of the ghostly traveler is in wanting to be a witness to this from within his host’s mind. This one didn’t really work for me. “One Kansas Night,” on the other hand, is a very affecting remembrance of what it was like to be a teenager with the perfect girlfriend and know that your Air Force father was about to be transferred. What if you could travel back and try to recapture that one brief period of happiness? One of the things military brats learn early is never to invest too much in personal relationships.

“Staying in Storyville,” original to this volume, concerns a time traveler with an extremely low opinion of the entire past, compared to her own present — decayed, polluted, politically oppressive, but it’s home. But one of the tourists she’s escorting to New Orleans (the “American Atlantis” in her own time) in the Edwardian era is determined to stay there, where he feels more at home. It’s a very nice piece of work.

By far the longest story in the book is “The Glowing Cloud,” the setting for which is the last week before the eruption of Mt. Pelée on Martinique in May 1902, causing the deaths by suffocation of 30,000 people. Medlin, a skilled traveler who can transport his whole body and anything he can carry through time, is an agent assigned to assist Ranke, an equally skilled tracker, in locating and bringing back to their present the old lady who trained them both but who now has apparently gone rogue into the past. But she has very good reasons for fleeing and Medlin isn’t sure he wants to be part of this little posse. He becomes acquainted with an elegant, strong-willed mulatto woman while waiting in the port town of St. Pierre and makes the mistake (for someone in his job) of beginning to care about a “denizen.”

Meanwhile, we watch as the Governor tries to convince everyone to just relax and go home, everything will be fine — even as a tsunami destroys the waterfront, and tremors knock down bridges, and people are killed by the volcano’s ejecta. But Medlin knows that when that red and green cloud of hot gasses comes boiling down the mountain, all the prayers the priests can offer, and all the ammunition the soldiers can carry, won’t make a bit of difference.

While many of Steve’s shorter pieces are more poetry than narrative, concentrating on description and atmosphere more than action, this one is a fully rounded story. This is a completely involving and extremely well done yarn, one of the author’s very best.

You may have trouble locating a copy of this specialty-press book but if you enjoy highly inventive science fiction, you should undertake to make the acquaintance of Mr. Steven Utley. It will be worth the effort. (And remember: Inter-Library Loan is your friend.)

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