Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Steven Popkes

Today is Steven Popkes' birthday. He's been publishing strong short fiction (and a couple of novels) since the early '80s, never making a huge splash, as common for writers who don't publish a lot of novels. But he's really a fine writer. Here's a selection of my reviews of his short fiction in my Locus column:

Locus, December 2002

Steven Popkes, like Ray Aldridge, is a writer who made a mild splash in the field then seemed to disappear for a while, and who has returned recently. He gives us "Winters are Hard" (Sci Fiction, November), set in a near future where humans can be engineered to adopt various animal characteristics. His main character is a journalist who tries to understand the motivations driving one such man, who has become part wolf, and who lives on an isolated reservation with a wolf pack.

Locus, January 2003

Last month I noted the appearance in the December F&SF of the first story in several years from Ray Aldridge. The January 2003 issue of Asimov's features two stories by fine writers who took longish sabbaticals from the field. Steven Popkes, after an absence of some years, has appeared in F&SF, Realms of Fantasy, and Sci Fiction in the last year or two, and in this issue he returns to Asimov's with a fine novella, "The Ice". Phil Berger is a high-school hockey player contemplating scholarships from a couple of small colleges. All this changes when a reporter reveals that Phil is actually the clone of Gordie Howe (one of the greatest hockey players of all time). Suddenly interest in Phil's hockey playing mushrooms, as does the pressure on him. Popkes follows Phil's life over some decades, as he abandons hockey, deals with some personal issues, puts his life in order, meets a fellow clone whose development didn't go quite as well, and comes to term with what his "family" really is. The story is an effective extended essay on identity, and on the true wellsprings of a person's "self". It's highly readable, moving, well-presented and thematically honest. It does show signs of excessive authorial manipulation in a couple places, and the rationale for the original cloning is not convincing, but overall I quite liked it.

Locus, February 2003

The February Realms of Fantasy opens with two rather long stories (for them), and both are quite good. ... Steven Popkes's "Stegosaurus Boy" is perhaps unavoidably a bit over-earnest dealing with its subject matter, race relations in Alabama in 1964, but the main character, a boy fascinated by dinosaurs who learns a very odd secret about himself, is well-portrayed and the central secret is clever and original.

Locus, January 2004

Steven Popkes returns in the January Asimov's with "This Old Man", a fine post-holocaust story. The holocaust in this case was a plague that made almost everyone incapable of reading. Lemuel is an orphan, and the bodyguard of the old man of the title, a very old man indeed, and perhaps the only person left who can read. He leads a settlement in Missouri. This story follows the old man and Lemuel as they visit another settlement and try to unravel the mystery of the "Kingdom City Man", a rapist and murderer who has so far eluded capture. Lemuel's personal history, and some secrets of the old man's, also come into play. It's an absorbing and ultimately wrenching story.

Locus, July 2006

Quite different in tone is “Holding Pattern” by Steven Popkes (F&SF, July), in which a Guatemalan tyrant (modeled, it would seem, on Saddam) has been deposed: but the “real” tyrant cannot be identified among his various doubles – especially as each double has been imprinted with the memories of the original. It’s an effective meditation on guilt and punishment and the sources of personality.

Locus, August 2009

Steven Popkes treats again the newly fashionable idea of genetically restored Neanderthals in “Two Boys” (Asimov's, August). Two time tracks follow one of the earliest “new” Neanderthals and one of his grandchildren, both in different ways dealing with the attitudes of other (Homo Sapiens) children. Neanderthals turn out to be brilliant negotiators, and to have strange senses of humor. And to understand something about their species history, and that of Homo Sapiens … Though I don’t quite buy some of the assumptions underlying the story, the extrapolations Popkes makes from these assumptions – such as the real reason humans outcompeted Neanderthals – are original and striking.

Locus, May 2010

Steven Popkes’s “Jackie’s-Boy” (Asimov's, April-May) is also nice but imperfect. It’s set a few decades in the future, after a series of plagues, engineered and otherwise, have all but wiped out humanity. The title character is a boy who meets an elephant at the St. Louis zoo – an uplifted elephant, we soon gather. The two eventually head south in search of more elephants. It’s an enjoyable read, and Jackie (the elephant) has a bitter side to her character that really works. But I was never convinced by the boy’s character – neither his voice nor his learning, and for that matter Jackie’s knowledge and motivations don’t quite hang together either.

Popkes is present as well in the May-June F&SF, with an altogether darker story, “The Crocodiles”. This is the second Nazi zombie story I’ve read recently, though the other one was a light-hearted romp compared to this. It’s told in first person by a German engineer who agrees to work on the “Tote Manner” project to avoid being sent to the front. He tells, with some near glee, of the efforts they go through to weaponize this disease, using, of course, the ready supply of subjects from Buchenwald, then Auschwitz, for their trials. His deadpan lack of morality – pure Hannah Arendt “banality of evil” – is almost funny, though the end results are anything but.

Locus, December 2012

At Asimov's for December the longest story is “Sudden, Broken, and Unexpected”, by Steven Popkes. Jacob is a once successful rock star who is suddenly contacted by his ex-lover, Rosie. She wants him to serve as a song doctor – but not for a human, rather for a “divaloid”, a simulation of a teenaged pop star. Rosie is helping to program the divaloid, and she wants to understand how, or if, one can program creativity. Naturally the ultimate question is what the divaloid wants, or if the divaloid can “want” anything. The magic Jacob performs doesn't necessarily convince me, but the interaction of the main characters – Jacob, Rosie, and Dot (the divaloid) – does convince. A moving and thoughtful story.

The November-December F&SF has another very good Steven Popkes story, “Breathe”, about a family of vampires of a sort – they can steal “health” from other people. The story contrasts two brothers – one who rejects his “gift” and another who has benefited greatly from it – as their father dies. (Perhaps too slowly.) A sharp moral exercise.

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