George Alec Effinger, |
Live! From Planet Earth
(Golden Gryphon, 2005)
George Alec Effinger is a chameleon. At least, that's the impression one is left with after reading Live! From Planet Earth. Of the 20 stories and two poems contained in this posthumous collection, nearly half are written in another author's voice. And the impersonations are extraordinary. Whether Effinger is constructing a science fiction tale as it might have been composed by Ernest Hemingway ("Afternoon Under Glass"), A.A. Milne ("Two Sadnesses") or Winsor McKay ("Seven Nights in Slumberland"), his command of tone and inflection is quite astounding. I'm much less familiar with the works of Ring Lardner and Don Marquis, but I can only assume that Effinger's attention to stylistic detail is as acute in these pastiches as it is in those I can more fully appreciate.
But where, in all this "Rich Little" showmanship, is the real George Alec Effinger? Luckily, the editors at Golden Gryphon Press felt obliged to balance this collection with some of the author's most impressive, and self-revealing, stories. And, thanks to the stories' introductions, written by Effinger's friends and colleagues, we get a better understanding of how to search for the writer in the looking glass of his work.
Effinger, who passed away in 2002, was an immensely talented and terribly unfortunate writer. He lived most of his adult life in either great pain or in the haze that the drugs that controlled his pain imposed. I met him just once, for a television interview in the summer of 1991. He wasn't at his most coherent at the time, popping pills each time we stopped to change tapes. And yet there's a clarity in his work, a rapier sharpness to his satirical style, that elevates his fiction to heights not often achieved within the confines of SF.
Like Terry Bisson and Harlan Ellison, Effinger wrote the sort of science fiction that should have spoken to a broader audience. In the introduction to "Target: Berlin!" Pamela Sargent refers to "his delightfully quirky short stories, most of which would not have been out of place in the New Yorker." But his medical conditions, which bankrupted him, prevented such a level of success. As Neil Gaiman explains in the introduction to "Seven Nights in Slumberland," George's hospital bills "meant that, for several years, he would only write 'sharecropped' stories in other people's worlds -- the hospital he owed money to was claiming that they owned his copyright material."
Despite the difficulties of Effinger's life, his fiction, while often cynical, is not melancholy. There's a tremendous amount of humor in stories like "The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything," in which aliens manage to bring peace to the galaxy by being insufferable. "Everything But Honor" is a time travel/multiple universes story in which the lead character's attempts to adjust history and build a better world are thwarted by his "rare talent for making good times hard, and hard times worse." Then there are the lesser-known tales like "Solo in the Spotlight," in which the president of the United States is given psychic advice on a developing international crisis through a reading using Barbie tarot cards. When the fate of the country hangs on the turn of a card, and that card is the "ten of Hairbrushes," what can one do but laugh ... nervously?
Live! From Planet Earth is a wonderful, but incomplete, book. My personal favorite Effinger story, the Hugo and Nebula award-winning "Schrodinger's Kitten," has not been included here since it had already appeared in an earlier collection from Golden Gryphon Press, Budayeen Nights. But, as editor Marty Halpern writes in his introduction to this collection, "There are so many wondrous, timeless stories still remaining in George's oeuvre that I hope there will be another volume (or two) of his short fiction to read and savor in the near future." I, for one, will be keeping my eyes peeled.