Fans today may be surprised to learn Scott Russell Sanders was previously one of the brightest science-fiction newcomers of the 1980s. In Dancing in Dreamtime, he returns to his roots, exploring both inner and outer space in a speculative collection of short stories. At a time when humankind faces unprecedented, global-scale challenges from climate change, loss of biodiversity, dwindling vital resources, and widespread wars, this collection of planetary tales will strike a poignant chord with the reader. Sanders has created worlds where death tolls rise due to dream deprivation, where animals only exist in mechanical form, and where poisoned air forces people to live in biodomes. Never before has Sanders’s writing been so relevant and never before have the lessons in these stories been so important.
About the Author
Scott Russell Sanders is the author of 20 books of fiction and nonfiction. He is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at Indiana University Bloomington.
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Dancing In Dreamtime
By Scott Russell Sanders
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2016 Scott Russell Sanders
All rights reserved.
The Anatomy Lesson
By the time I reached the Anatomy Library all the bones had been checked out. At every table, students bent over yawning boxes, assembling feet and arms, scribbling in notebooks, muttering Latin names. Half the chairs were occupied by slouching skeletons, and skulls littered the floor like driftwood.
Since I also needed to cram for the following day's exam, I asked the librarian to search one last time for bone-boxes in the storeroom.
"I've told you there aren't any more," she said, frowning at me from beneath a tangle of dark hair, like a vexed animal caught in a bush. How many students had already pestered her for bones this evening?
"Are there partial skeletons? Mismatched sets? Irregulars?"
The librarian measured me with her stare, as if estimating the size of box my bones would fill. She was young enough to be a student herself, yet shadows drooped beneath her eyes, like the painted tears of a clown. "Irregulars," she repeated. "You're sure?"
"I'll take anything."
A bitten-off smile quirked her lips. Then she turned away from the desk, murmuring, "Very well. I'll see what I can find."
I blinked with relief at her departing back. Only as she slipped noiselessly into the storeroom did I notice the beige gloves on her hands. Fastidious, I thought.
While awaiting the specimen, I scrutinized the vertebrae that were exposed like beads along the bent necks of students who labored over skeletons at nearby tables. Five lumbar vertebrae, seven cervical, a dozen thoracic: I rehearsed the names.
Presently the librarian returned with a box the size of an orange crate, wooden, dingy with age. The metal clasps that held it shut were tarnished green. No wonder she wore the gloves.
"You're in luck," she said, shoving it over the counter.
I hesitated, my hands poised above the crate as if I were testing it for heat.
"Well, do you want it, or don't you?" she said.
Afraid she might return it to the archives, I lifted the box, which seemed lighter than its bulk would have promised, as if the wood had dried with age. Perhaps instead of bones inside there would be heaps of dust.
"Must be an old model," I observed amiably.
Her plump lips curled.
I found a clear space on the floor beside a spindly man whose elbows and knees protruded through rents in his clothing like the humps of a sea serpent above the waters. The clasps, cold against my fingers, yielded with a metallic shriek, drawing the bleary glances of my fellow students. I shrugged apologetically, and the glazed eyes returned to work.
Inside the crate I found a stack of hinged trays, as in a fishing-tackle box, each tray gleaming with putty-colored bones. I began on the foot, joining tarsal to metatarsal. It was soon evident that there were too many bones. Each one seemed a bit odd in shape, with an extra flange where none should be, or a misplaced knob, and they were too light, as light as hollow reeds. Fitted together, they formed a seven-toed foot, slightly larger than that of an adult male, with phalanges all of the same length and ankle-bones bearing the sockets for ... what? Flippers? Wings?
This drove me back to my anatomy text. Yet no consulting of diagrams would make sense of this foot. A scrape with a coin assured me these were real bones, not plastic or plaster. But from what creature? Feeling queasy, as if in my ignorance I had created this monstrosity, I looked around to see if anyone had noticed. Everywhere living skulls tilted over dead ones, ignoring me. Only the librarian seemed to be watching me sidelong, through her tangled hair. I hastily returned the foot bones to their various compartments.
Next I worked at the hand, which boasted six rather than seven digits. Two of them were clearly thumbs, opposite in orientation, and each of the remaining fingers was double-jointed, so that both sides of these vanished hands could have served as palms.
After examining fibula, femur, sternum, and clavicle, each bone familiar yet slightly awry from the norm, I gingerly unpacked the plates of the skull. Their scattered state was unsettling enough, since in ordinary skeletal kits they would have come pre-assembled into a braincase. Their gathered state was even more unsettling. They would go together in only one arrangement, yet it appeared so outrageous to me that I reassembled the skull three times, always with the same result. There was only one jaw, to be sure, though an exceedingly broad one, and the usual pair of holes for ears. The skull itself, however, was clearly double, as if two heads had been squeezed together, like cherries grown double on a single stem. Each hemisphere of the brain enjoyed its own cranium. The opening for the nose was in its accustomed place, as were two of the eyes. But in the center of the vast forehead, like the drain in a bare expanse of bathtub, was the cavity for a third eye.
I closed the anatomy text. Hunched over to shield this freak from the gaze of other students, I stared long at that triangle of eyes, and at the twinned craniums that splayed out behind like a fusion of moons. No, I decided, such a creature was not possible. It must be a counterfeit, like the Piltdown Man or the Cardiff Giant. But I would not fall for the trick. I dismantled the skull, stuffed the bones into their trays, clasped the box shut and returned it to the check-out desk.
"This may seem funny to you," I hissed at the librarian, who was rooting in her bush of hair with the point of a pencil, "but I have an exam to pass."
"Funny?" she whispered.
"This hoax." I slapped the box, raising a puff of dust.
"Not so loud, please."
"It's a fabrication."
"Is it?" She rested her gloved hands atop the crate.
"Nobody who knows a scrap of anatomy would fall for it."
"Really?" she said, peeling the glove away from one wrist. I wanted to hurry away before she could uncover that hand. Yet I was caught by the slide of cloth, the sight of pink skin emerging. "I found it hard to believe myself, at first," she said, spreading the naked hand before me, palm up. I was relieved to count only five digits. But the fleshy heel was inflamed, as if the bud of a new thumb were sprouting there. A scar, only a scar, I thought. Nothing more. Whereupon she turned the hand over and displayed another palm. The fingers curled upward and then curled in the reverse direction, forming a cage of fingers on the counter.
I flinched, and turned my gaze aside, unwilling to look her in the eye, fearful of what those snarled bangs might hide. Skeletons were shattering in my mind, names of bones were fluttering away like blown leaves.
"How many of you are there?" I whispered.
"I'm the first, so far as I know. Unless you count our friend here." She clacked her nails on the bone-box.
I guessed the distances to inhabited planets. "Where do you come from?"
"Boise ... Idaho?"
"Actually, I grew up in a logging camp out in the sticks, but Boise's the nearest place anybody's ever heard of."
"You mean you're ..."
"Human? Of course!" She loosed a quiet laugh. Students glanced up momentarily from their skeletons with glassy eyes. The librarian lowered her voice, until it burbled like whale song. "At least I started out that way," she whispered.
"But what about your hands? Your face?"
"Until a few months ago they were just ordinary hands." She wriggled fingers back into the glove and touched one cheek. "My face wasn't swollen. My shoes fit."
"Then what happened?"
"I assembled these bones." Again she tapped the crate. From inside came a muffled clatter, like the sound of gravel sliding.
"You're becoming one of them?"
"So it appears."
Her upturned lips and downturned eyes gave me contradictory messages. The clown-sad eyes seemed too far apart, and her forehead, obscured behind a thicket of hair, seemed impossibly broad.
"Aren't you frightened?" I said.
"Not anymore," she answered. "Not since my head began to open."
I winced, recalling the vast skull, pale as porcelain, and the triangle of eyes. I touched the bone-box gingerly. "What are you turning into?"
"I don't know yet. But I begin to get glimmerings, begin to see myself flying."
"Or maybe swimming. I can't be sure. My vision's still blurry."
I tried to imagine her ankles affixed with wings, her head swollen like a double moon, her third eye blinking. "And what sort of creature will you be when you're ... changed?"
"We'll just have to wait and see, won't we?"
"You've put the bones together, haven't you?"
I stared at my palms, and then turned my hands over to examine the twitching skin where the knuckles should be.CHAPTER 2
"Have you noticed there aren't nearly so many dreams these days?" said the man who sat down next to Veronica on the park bench one April morning. He was about her age, mid-twenties, bearded, bespectacled, thin as a bird's wing, with the secretive air of a spy. "And the dreams that do come," he added, "are so threadbare you can see right through them."
When Veronica merely studied the black scuffed toes of her nurse's clogs without replying, the man leaned toward her and confided, "It comes from cutting down the old forest. There aren't enough places for dreams to roost in the daytime. I can remember when this whole ridge was covered in trees."
Ordinarily, when a strange man addressed her, Veronica either ignored him until he fell silent or else, if he persisted, she glared at him and walked swiftly away. But she was intrigued by what this stranger said, and reassured by his shyness. Accustomed to being stared at by men, she found it refreshing that he peered through his metal-rimmed glasses in every direction but hers.
"Yes," she said. "From the fire tower you could see trees all the way to the horizon."
The man nodded agreement with a wag of his chin. Veronica gripped the edge of the bench to keep her hands from trembling, wondering if she had finally met a kindred soul.
* * *
Although she did nothing to enhance what nature had blessed her with, neither padding nor painting, wherever Veronica went men flung after her the lassos of their gaze. They saw in her wavy auburn hair and rosy complexion promises of offspring and delight. Her swaying walk set their hearts racing. Had they been moose or bison they would have battered one another to win her favor; since they were human, they invited her on dates. But Veronica found her suitors to be drearily predictable, passionate only about money and sex, perhaps with milder interest in cars or golf, without an ounce of imagination. Their idea of high adventure was to try a new restaurant or to shift the asset allocation in their portfolios. One after another she told them no, no, a thousand times no.
"You won't bloom forever," her mother warned. "One day the bees will stop buzzing around." Then I won't get stung, Veronica thought. "Would a doctor be such a bad catch?" her father asked. C aught like a cold, she thought, or like plague? She bit her tongue and let her parents nag. For how could they know what she longed for, when she had only the vaguest notion herself?
She chose to work the graveyard shift in the emergency ward because at night there were fewer doctors around to pat and pinch and ogle her. The bleary-eyed interns only gave her speculative stares, as if they were studying the menu but too tired to eat. The male nurses had learned to fear her wrath.
Night was the prime time for accidents and mayhem, as if people took leave of their senses with the onset of darkness. Husbands beat up their wives. Boys raped their girlfriends. Mothers with nerves rubbed raw by bawling infants took too many pills. Toddlers swallowed paperclips or mothballs or keys. Teenagers tried uppers or downers, sliced their arms with razor blades, wrecked their cars. Drunks tripped on curbs and broke bones. Muggers worked the sidewalks, car thieves worked the streets, rival gangs fought over turf with guns or knives. During the graveyard shift, wave after wave of sirens rushed toward the emergency room like storm-driven surf.
"It beats me why you keep working nights," her father said, in the tone of baffled affection he had used toward Veronica since her adolescent blossoming. "You've got enough seniority to work afternoons, maybe even straight days."
"Don't hide your light under a bushel," said her mother.
"Those surgeons you work with can earn a thousand bucks with a few flicks of a scalpel," her father said, "and you won't give them the time of day."
"You're so often asleep when your beaus call, I have to convince them you aren't sick," her mother complained.
"They aren't my beaus," Veronica said. "They're just men pestering me."
Her mother sighed. "You're punishing us, aren't you? As if it's our fault you're gorgeous."
"Okay," her father conceded. "Maybe all the doctors are creeps. But there's other fish in the sea. Right? What about that vice president from the bank? Or the bowling alley magnate? Or the tech entrepreneur? Or the contractor who builds pizza franchises? Those are decent guys, and they're rolling in dough."
"Snag a husband while you can," her mother advised. "Do you want to be a night shift nurse for the rest of your life?"
The answer to that question was no. Veronica did not want to be any sort of nurse forever. She was already nearing burnout from dealing with broken, bleeding, desperate people. But she could not decide what else to do with her life. No matter what path she envisioned — teaching, forestry, market gardening, graphic design — it led through a gauntlet of men. They would be her bosses, her colleagues, her students, her customers. Until her accidental beauty faded, they would value nothing else about her. With their rudimentary drives, men seemed to her a separate species, trapped in an evolutionary cul-de-sac, like plankton or horseshoe crabs, while women had evolved to higher levels of complexity.
* * *
For the present, Veronica stuck with her midnight shift despite the stress and gore. After supper she changed into her navy blue scrubs and sturdy clogs. Although her jacket and pants were a couple of sizes too large, chosen to fit loosely, when she arrived at the hospital men would still gawk at her.
She always arrived early and parked her car at the edge of the lot near a stand of big trees, mostly beeches and maples and oaks, the last survivors of an ancient forest that once covered the ridge now occupied by the hospital. From this vantage point, she could see skeins of streetlights stretching along the three rivers that converged at the heart of the city, the flashing red beacons atop bridges, the glare of blast furnaces, the jets of yellow flame above refineries, and steam drifting in luminous clouds above the mills. But her chief pleasure was to watch the dream creatures stir from their roosts in the high branches and go gliding down to haunt the bedrooms of sleepers.
Once she clocked in for work, time passed quickly in a siege of heart attacks, gunshot wounds, diabetic seizures, broken legs, collapsed lungs, third-degree burns, and sundry other afflictions, all accompanied by cries of pain. Among the few patients who lifted her spirits were the expectant mothers, too far along to reach the maternity ward, who staggered in and delivered their babies on a gurney, often into Veronica's gloved hands.
During the rare lulls between emergencies, she wrote lists in a small notebook she kept in her pocket — lists of proverbs, vegetables, rivers, constellations, titles of books, women scientists, famous painters, obscure actors, songs — lists of anything she could dredge up from her brain. While hoisting the bag for a blood transfusion or pressing defibrillator pads to a patient's chest, she might recall burnt sienna or Baton Rouge, Louisiana; then at the next opportunity she would add those items to her lists of colors or state capitals. Noticing her habit, one of the gawkers might ask, "What are you scribbling, baby doll?" "Poetry," she might answer, to discourage the man, or "Letters to a crazed world." Indeed, as the world sank into disarray, she would have written poetry if she knew how, but at least she could make little havens of order by writing lists.
Veronica's favorite moment arrived after she clocked out at dawn. In cold weather she sat in her car and gazed down at the incandescent city. In mild weather she watched from a bench under the creamy branches of a giant sycamore. As alarm clocks rang and sleepers awoke, dream creatures slipped away from bedsides and came wafting up out of the valley to roost in the old trees beside the parking lot. They filled every branch, crammed together cheek by jowl. Judging by their gaudy outfits, they might have been a flock of parrots. Yet they made little noise, only a dry rustling, like wind in leaves. The sound enchanted Veronica, who imagined they were exchanging notes about the dreams they had performed for sleepers in the city.
Of course dreams were also needed in daytime, though not so many, for napping babies and drowsy old folks and dozing workers home from the graveyard shift. On mornings when Veronica sat watching the flocks of characters returning to the ridge, a smaller number rose from the treetops where they had been roosting and swooped down into the city. Occasionally, she would meet in her dreams some dragon or soldier or crone whom she had seen gliding away on this daytime duty.
Excerpted from Dancing In Dreamtime by Scott Russell Sanders. Copyright © 2016 Scott Russell Sanders. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Anatomy Lesson
The First Journey of Jason Moss
The Artist of Hunger
The Engineer of Beasts
The Circus Animals’ Desertion
Mountains of Memory
Touch the Earth
The Audubon Effect
The Land Where Songtrees Grow
Travels in the Interior
Dancing in Dreamtime
What People are Saying About This
The stories in Dancing in Dreamtimearefamiliar enough to make your heart ache and new enough to feel fresh and wondrous. Here you will find people connecting and falling apart as people have always connected and fallen apart, but beneath a fantastical and occasionally terrifying sky.
As these enchanting stories examine how technologies and advancements disconnect us and create chaos, Sanders always shows that we will persevere with our own kind of hope, our own kind of love, and our own kind of heart.
Although the stories in Scott Russell Sanders's new collection, Dancing in Dreamtime, often portray futuristic worlds, they always hold a mirror to our contemporary society in a way that allows us to see ourselves and our present time more clearly. Wildly imaginative and haunting, these stories are the stuff of dreams, yes, but they also have much to show us about who we are in the here and now.
Though Scott Russell Sanders is best known today as an essayist and conservationist, he previously was one of the brightest science-fiction newcomers of the 1980s, and his incisive, playful, startling stories–which speak directly to our 21st-century environmental and genetic concerns-were staples of Omni, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. To have virtually all this material back in print in a single collection is a joy. Whether you knew it or not, you’ve had a space on your shelf all these years, waiting to be filled by Dancing in Dreamtime.
These brilliant stories explore birds who’ve time-warped to avoid extinction on earth, and people who long for both tidiness and the wilds. Human innovation and destruction are at the center of all these tales, which leave reality in order to return readers to this planet we’ve ravaged, more awake to ecological catastrophe, and our earth and its peoples who are ravenous and yearning and not-yet ruined. These fictions both delight and warn.
Dancing in Dreamtime sparks with brilliant imagery, from a city where dreams roost in trees and the destruction of their habitat threatens the inhabitants' sanity, to a circus where robotic pandas play organ music and tigers blink with neon stripes. These are stories of people subjected to the dreams of others, reminders that our best fantasies have unintended consequences. They dream our doom, they dream our possible salvation, they draw us further into the dance.
Scott Russell Sanders is certainly best known as one of our finest essayists. What is less knownand likely more surprisingis that he was once also an artful author of science fiction. We should all rejoice that these stories have at last been collected inDancing in Dreamtime. Sanders is the Alice Munro of science fiction, and these quiet, lyrical stories covering his career in the genre offer all the necessary proof. Highly recommended.