All Those Vanished Engines

Generational change within a genre is hard to parse while it’s happening. Only in retrospect can the passing of the baton from ancestors to progeny be clearly discerned.

Something like this is happening now in science fiction. Because the field was born only in 1926, within the lifetime of many extant octogenarians (First Fandom, an association for fans active before 1938, still boasts some lively members) — it long seemed that certain figures in the field were eternal, with at most a kind of evolutionary “punctuated equilibrium” at work. Jack Williamson, for instance, who sold his first story in 1928, wrote sharp stuff until his death in 2006.

But with the recent passing of such elder statesmen authors as Jack Vance, Frank Robinson, John Christopher, and others, the winding down of the earliest and midcentury cohort is nearly complete. Happily, still with us from their 1950s career starts are such titans as Robert Silverberg, James Gunn, and Brian Aldiss. But naturally, none are as productive as they were during their salad days. Arising in the 1960s, stalwarts such as Gene Wolfe, Ben Bova, Barry Malzberg, and Ursula K. Le Guin continue to amaze. But realistically speaking, writers still active in the twenty-first century who came of age before 1970 are few and far between.

The clade that arose in the 1970s — they had no moniker other than “The Labor Day Group,” a half-derisive term bestowed on them by critic and fellow scribbler Tom Disch for the putative tendency of these writers to congregate, Hugo-Award–hungry, at the World Science Fiction Convention each year around that holiday — contains some busy folks, such as John Varley, John Crowley, Michael Bishop, Ian Watson, and Howard Waldrop.

The last major cohort to self-assemble and firmly define itself is the one I myself belong to: the 1980s crowd. Famously divided into cyberpunks and humanists (although a dozen other strains flourished, such as urban fantasists and slipstreamers), this generation of SF writers has achieved much and now stands, I think I can safely say, as the mature and dominant set of genre writers. I’m referring to folks such as William Gibson, Elizabeth Hand, Charles Stross, Rudy Rucker, Connie Willis, Robert Charles Wilson, Robert Reed, Pat Cadigan, Pat Murphy, Ian McDonald, John Kessel, James Patrick Kelly, Greg Bear. Not surprisingly, mortality has struck even here, with the untimely passing of such figures as John M. Ford, Iain Banks, and Lucius Shepard.

This assertion of establishment alpha-dog status for a certain crowd does not deny the fact that many brilliant writers have arisen in the past two decades since the cyberpunk-humanist explosion. But as I maintained at the outset: posterity is still sitting in suspended judgment on matters of literary worth, lines of affinity, and canonicity so far as these relative newcomers are concerned.

So it’s only the 1980s crowd about whom we can reliably cement a reputation at this point. And one person not mentioned in my prior list is our focus today.

Paul Park appeared in 1987 with both his first novel — Soldiers of Paradise — and his first short story, “Rangriver Fell.” A large, capacious, and idiosyncratic talent was instantly discernible. His cosmopolitan fiction was immaculately written — up to the standards of The New Yorker — say, while still offering all the weirdness and conceptual bravado of pulp. He blithely mixed modes and subgenres and displayed seriousness in his fiction, alloyed with black humor. His two novels about the early years of Christianity, The Gospel of Corax and Three Marys, showed an admirable and ambitious extension of his remit. The quartet under the overarching title of The Princess of Roumania managed to combine Stevensonian blood-and-thunder with metaphysics and a fairytale ambiance.

Never immensely prolific, Park has perhaps garnered a lower profile than his oeuvre deserves. His new novel, All Those Vanished Engines, might be the book to change all that. It’s compact yet rich, and satisfyingly complete on its own unique merits. Its prose is elegantly readable. It’s mysterious in the manner of David Lynch while still featuring a solid, vivid narrative, albeit fragmentary and multivalent. Engines speaks deeply to keen-edged existential issues common to every dreaming human, as well as offering a resonant miniature portrait of America as embodied in one phantasmagorical family.

The book is divided into three parts, with jigsaw pieces from each section being removable for fruitful emplacement elsewhere. Part One, “Bracelets,” features as its first chapter heading the single word “Then.”  Part Two, “Three Visits to a Nursing Home,” offers “Right Now” as its temporal signifier. And Part Three begins with “Soon.” So a rough linear chronology obtains in our text. But only to a degree: time is writhing and in flux here.

Part One focuses our attention on young Paulina Claiborne in the year 1881, living in Virginia near the site of the famous Civil War Battle of the Crater, when Yankee troops burst from a tunnel with incredible steampunk siege engines. Not exactly the Battle of the Crater recorded in our history books? Precisely so. This is an alternate timeline, and Paulina is the hostage-held daughter of the Yankee Empress. Her exploits resonate with those of a similar heroine in Park’s Roumanian quartet. Nor is this the only tentacle to extend from fiction to reality. “Paulina Claiborne” is the actual pen name adopted by Paul Park a few years ago for a work of franchise fiction, a work we will encounter in Part Two. And also, our Paulina is an aspiring writer. We get sections of her SF tale set in the far-off century where humans are waging war against what appear to be Wells’s classic Martians. (“Battle of the Crater” indeed!) She imagines a young man named Matthew, who lives in Massachusetts — a fellow who might be writing Paulina’s story!  Keep that name, Matthew, in mind.

Part Two is narrated by “Paul Park,” a Massachusetts-based fiction writer and professor. (Readers might detect similar autobiographical strategies in Terry Bisson’s splendid Any Day Now, which could be profitably paired with the Park.) We are brought subtly into his laterally skewed life, meeting his newly deceased mother, Clara Claiborne Park — or meeting memories of her — and encountering his failing father and his autistic sister, all lovingly and sharply delineated. Additionally, a host of friends and students and a lover or two bop in and out of frame. Park is in something of a malaise, angsting about his achievements and the state of his family and the world. He dreams of resurrecting an abandoned military base, whose experimental sonic devices — Ballardian to a degree — haunt him with “all the sounds of those vanished engines.” Did I mention yet that Clara’s nonfiction books about her family gave son Paul the roman-à-clef name of Matthew?

Part Three is a future of pandemics and decay, subtly limned — “I have to stop and show my identification and vaccination cards at only one state inspection booth . . . ” — where an elderly Paul Park tries to shore up fragments against the ruins of his life. And then, in extremis, a strange grace descends.

The patterns and resonances among these multiple strands are brilliantly deployed, especially the iconic use of bracelets, serving throughout Engines as both manacles and tokens of love and magic. A long passage opening Chapter 2 of Part Two forms the heart of the book: “Memory cannot be separated from ordinary thinking, which is constructed in layers rather than sequences. In the same way, history cannot be separated from the present.”

Park’s book, a milestone achievement for him, his generation, and the genre, slots neatly into a small yet significant lineage in fantastic fiction, one that, I propose, began with the lucid confusions of identity found in the works of Jorge Luis Borges. Then, as the Argentine master’s influence spread outward to English-speaking lands, we got seminal works from the 1960s, such as Brian Aldiss’s Report on Probability A and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, where the doppelgängers proliferate and multiple versions and levels of reality tangle. Later, Michael Moorcock’s avatar-rich multiverse comes into play. In fact, the Park-Claiborne clan comes to resemble Moorcock’s exuberant von Bek/Begg dynasty, whose iterations fill Sporting Club Square. A major landmark in this category of metafictional braiding is Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus — really just the most famous of Wolfe’s many exploits in this mode — and, tellingly enough, an encomium from Wolfe distinguishes Park’s book. Finally, in the present, we find Christopher Priest, with such novels as The Separation, as the dominant purveyor of such existential labyrinths.

Like any magus working in this vein, Park simultaneously tells us everything and nothing, hides his cards and discloses his whole hand. “[Y]ou could build a story that would function as a machine,” writes Park, “or else a complex of machines, each one moving separately, yet part of a process that ultimately would produce an emotion or a sequence of emotions. You could swap out parts, replace them if they got too old. And this time you would build in some deliberate redundancy, if only just to handle the stress.”

All Those Vanished Engines is just such a semiotic, oneiric machine, its perfectly chromed and oiled parts, forever in motion, generating something surprisingly organic, tender, and delicate.

  • Bill Reynolds

    Discovering Park with the wonderful Starbridge Chronicles, I was presold but now even more so. When I get to the paragraph where you bring up Borbes and PKD, by the time I get to Moorcock I’m thinking: “He should have referenced Chris Priest.” And then you did. Ah, great minds….

    • DiFi

      Hope you enjoy it, Bill!