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An Agent of Utopia: Stories
by Andy Duncan

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

I received an e-book ARC from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. An Agent of Utopia, Andy Duncan's third story collection, will be published on November 6, 2018. It is a good mix, predominately fantasy, but also horror, alternate history, one that is marginally science fiction, plus one mainstream story. Unfortunately, only three stories were not part of his previous collections, but both of them are currently out of print and fetch high prices on ebay and other online sellers. That still leaves fourteen stories from those collections I'd like to read, plus his bilbiography includes ten others not yet collected. I'll give a brief synopsis of each story, then conclude with some general comments.

UPDATE: This collection is a finalist for a 2019 Locus Award.

"An Agent of Utopia" begins the collection, appearing here for the first time. It can be considered both a fantasy as well as alternate history. The year is 1535. Thomas More is incarcerated in the Tower of London, awaiting his execution. The title character is an intelligence operative from the island nation of Utopia, which More wrote about in his famous philosophical story. That agent might also be a time traveller, since he seems to know what happened to More's head after his execution, but plans to retrieve it from the pike on which it is placed. More had wanted his daughter to be presented with his body for burial, and the agent wants to return the head to her as well. [EDIT: This story is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula and 2019 Locus for Best Novelette.]

The other new story is "Real Indians," which both Amazon, and another bibilographic site I checked, identify as Joe Diabo's Farewell. It's 1926. Joe is a Native American, working the 'high-steel' of New York skyscraper construction. His foreman accidentally(?) falls to his death, and the rest of the crew are sent home for the day. That evening Joe attends the premiere of the new Hoot Gibson film, The Flaming Frontier, but not as audience member, instead he has been recruited to dress up in flamboyant Indian costume as part of a diorama in the lobby. Afterwards, he pals around with others who had been made up as Indians, only to find he's the only authentic one, the rest are either Black, Asian, or Mexican. He finds he can identify with them more easily than he can his white bosses. The final scene when he sees his dead foreman floating in the air can be interpreted as a glimpse into the afterlife, making the story a fantasy, or else an hallucination brought on by too much drink and not enough sleep, making it a mainstream, period-piece story.

"Beluthahatchie" was the title story of Duncan's first collection. Originally published in 1997, it was a finalist for a Best Short Story Hugo. John, a Black musician is on a train bound for Hell, but instead of getting off at that stop with all the other passengers, he stays on the train and eventually ends up in the desolate community of Beluthahatchie. He is greeted by the Devil, and given a ride in his Hudson Terraplane, but it doesn't take John long to realize he's just in another version of hell, populated by other poor Blacks, either slaves or share-croppers. He is able to escape the Devil, steal his car, escape the hellhounds, ending up in a remote cabin, where the other residents declare him the new leader of the community.

The fourth story, "The Map to the Homes of the Stars," was also in the first collection. It is mainstream, the primary theme being regret. Tom and Jack are high school friends, both shy, Jack extremely so. They pal around after school, originally on their bikes, later in Tom's '78 Firebird, establishing a recurring route of passing by the homes of all the girls they wish they had the courage to ask out. One day one of the girls calls them out for their stalking, manages to get invited for a ride, and later demands Tom let her drive for a while. Jack panics and excuses himself, walking home alone. That's the last time he saw either of them. Sometimes late at night, he thinks he can hear Tom's Firebird idling, slowly driving up and down his block, inviting him out to join them for a ride.

"The Pottawatomie Giant" was the title story of his second collection. It was nominated for a Nebula, and won the World Fantasy Award. The main character is boxer Jess Willard, whose other nickname was The Great White Hope. He defeated the first Black Heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, by knock-out in the 26th round of a fight in Havana, Cuba in 1915. He didn't retain the crown for long, but during his short reign he was a well known celebrity. The story opens shortly after his win, he's in New York for publicity purposes, and he witnesses one of Harry Houdini's public performances, hanging upside down from a building ledge in a straight-jacket. Later he attends a theatrical performance as well, but declines to appear on stage with Houdini. He lived until 1968, just shy of his 87th birthday. In Duncan's story, he either fantasizes just before his death, or time-travels just after his death, back to that theater where he accepts Houdini's invitation, witnessing first hand one of the magician's illusions.

"Senator Bilbo" is a minor fantasy, with one of the original Bilbo's descendants a racist politician, always ranting against the inclusion of non-hobbits in affairs of the Shire. It's the weakest of the collection.

"The Big Rock Candy Mountain" could be considered an afterlife fantasy, or an alternate dimension fantasy. One man grows tired of the easy life of great food and drink on the mountain, jumps a train to go back to the 'real world,' where he regains his memory, discovering he was, and is again, the King of the Tramps.

"Daddy Mention and the Monday Skull" is set in a southern prison that is next to a swamp. Daddy Mention has been in and out of prison all of his adult life. He makes a bargain with Uncle Monday, a giant alligator from the swamp, who presents him with a magical skull, which he uses to effect his latest escape.

"Zora and the Zombie" is a novelette that originally appeared online at SciFiction, a discontinued portion of the old Sci-Fi Channel's website. It was nominated for both Nebula and Stoker awards. The title character is writer Zora Neale Hurston, visiting Haiti for research, who encounters a woman who may or may not be a zombie. That's the original version, supposedly created through drugs and voodoo magic, not the modern-day iteration which started with George Romero.

"Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse" was nominated for Nebula and Shirley Jackson awards. It's set in Savannah, Georgia, sometime in the early 1930s. A novice priest is called to the O'Connor's home to observe and counsel their six-year-old daughter Mary, who has named her pet chicken Jesus Christ, and has taught it to walk backwards. Mary would grow up to be known as the writer Flannery O'Connor.

"Slow as a Bullet" first appeared in 2011, in the original anthology Eclipse Four, edited by Jonathan Strahan. It is the third story that was not in either of Duncan's previous collections. A dim-witted man foolishly claims he can out-run a bullet, but demands a year's time to figure out how to do it. He experiments with making a gunpowder substitute out of ingredients known to be slow moving, such as molasses and slow-drying paint.

The original publication of "Close Encounters" came in 2012, in Duncan's second collection, but was reprinted later that year in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It won the Nebula for Best Novelette and was finalist for a Locus award. Buck Nelson claims to have seen a flying saucer on his Mountain View, Missouri ranch in 1956, even taking a ride on it several times, visiting the moon, Mars, and Venus. Now it's 1977, long past the time anyone had paid attention to him and his stories. day he is visited by a woman claiming to be from the Associated Press, intent on interviewing those who claimed close encounters, seeing as how there was a lot of interest due to the new Spielberg film about to be released. He things she just wants to mock him, so he slams the door on her, but she persists, and the next day they have a long conversation, with her telling him about some researchers who will be making observations nearby that night. He goes, expecting to see her there, but instead it's just the researchers, whom he clashes with and alienates with his stories of planetary travel. There's a lot more to the story than I'll reveal, including whether or not Nelson had those encounters or simply made it all up. Whether true or not, I'm like Fox Mulder. I want to believe.

Duncan is from the South, born in South Carolina, currently residing and teaching in Maryland. His Bachelor's degree was in journalism from the University of South Carolina, and he worked for a Greensboro newspaper for seven years. His Masters degrees are from the universities of North Carolina and Alabama. The majority of these stories are set in the South, and even those not in first-person read in the listless, languorous tone of the Southern drawl. That is both a positive and a negative. Being from the South myself I can appreciate the stories and the slow pace, but at times I longed for a more varied voice. The numerous times the N-word was used is also a negative. Yes, it was appropriate for the time and settings of the stories, but it doesn't mean I have to like it.

His style had me thinking of him as the South's version of Clifford Simak, and his journalism experience solidified that impression. My overall favorite story was the last one, "Close Encounters," which is the closest to being like vintage Simak. Without a specific ranking, I also recommend "Beluthahatchie," "The Map to the Homes of the Stars," "The Big Rock Candy Mountain," "Zora and the Zombie," and "Slow as a Bullet." To the best of my recollection, this is the first of Duncan's work I've read. It may not have been on my radar except for the fact he followed me on Twitter first, after a comment I made in reply to Sarah Pinsker, a friend of his and fellow Maryland resident. In spite of the minor negative comments, I enjoyed this collection a great deal, and I look forward to more. I'll be checking frequently to see if I can snag the earlier collections at a lower price, or seek them out at the library. Since I follow him on Twitter too, I should get word on future stories.

Thanks to the author, Small Beer Press, and Edelweiss for the opportunity to read this book early.


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Andy Duncan

Nov. 6, 2018

Several stories won or were nominated for various awards. Details in review.

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