James Sallis was born December 21, 1944. His day job was as a respiratory therapist, but he's better known as a writer. His novels have been almost all crime novels -- the Lew Griffin books in particular, as well as Drive, which became a movie starring Ryan Gosling. He got his start writing SF, however, and early on was particularly associated with the New Wave -- he published regularly in Orbit, and served for a time as co-editor of New Worlds. His short -- often very short -- fiction has been compared -- sensibly, it seems to me -- with another "New Wave", the French Nouvelle Vague cinema. He has continued to publish short work in SF magazines over the years, some of it truly excellent -- notably, to me, "Dayenu", from Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet in 2018, which I think one of the best (and most overlooked) novelettes of the past decade. Here's a look at some of his fiction -- recent work I've reviewed for Locus, and older work I wrote about less formally.
"The Creation of Bennie Good" is James Sallis in a somewhat surrealistic mode, with the title character at dinner with a woman, trying to please her with an offer of his foot. There's more going on in this very short piece, but there's little I can say that will make much sense -- best just to read it.
James Sallis' "Jim and Mary G" is a wrenching and somewhat mysterious story about a family, a mother and father (presumably the title characters) and their young son, it what seems a strangely empty city. I couldn't figure out what was going on for sure -- some kind of post-Apocalyptic environment -- but the mother and father have come to a decision about the child. Chilling, very sad.
This volume of Orbit includes two very odd stories by James Sallis. I can't say I'm sure I understood either of them, but both are intriguing, well-written, experimental pieces. "Binaries" tells in several sections of the relationship of a man and a woman, or multiple men and multiple women, across years, across continents. "Only the Words are Different" is also about men and women. It's also very strange, and somewhat more comic, and vaguely science-fictional. It's hard to say much about these stories that makes sense, but they were worth reading.
F&SF, June 1971
"They Fly at Ciron", by Samuel R. Delany and James Sallis, is one of a rare set of stories -- collaborations that were later expanded to novels by only one of the collaborators. Other examples include "The Weakness of RVOG", by James Blish and Damon Knight, a 1949 novelette that became Blish's solo novel from 1958, VOR; and "Tomorrow's Children", Poul Anderson's first published story from 1947, a collaboration with F. N. Waldrop, which became Anderson's novel Twilight World in 1961. (Less certain is the novel The Sky is Falling, by Lester del Rey, which is an expansion of the novella "No More Stars", by the pseudonymous "Charles Satterfield", often attributed to del Rey with Frederik Pohl.) Delany expanded this novelette to the novel They Fly at Çiron in 1993, in an edition which includes two additional stories, "Ruins" and "Return to Çiron".
"They Fly at Ciron" is in a way a standard sort of fantasy adventure. Ciron is a peaceful land, suddenly subject to invasion by the warmongers of Myetra. The military leader of the invasion is Handman Kire, himself a victim of Myetra's expansionism. On the way to the invasion, Kire, revolted by the cruelty of his Myetran prince, Nactor, goes off by himself to cool down, and encounters Rahm, a Cironian, and happens to save Rahm from a threat from a Winged One. Rahm returns to Ciron, and though warned of the danger of the Myetrans, cannot believe they would attack his peaceful people. Of course they do, and Rahm flees, ending up with the Winged Ones, saving one of their princes from a spider creature -- but returns to Ciron, determined to resist the Myetrans -- a resistance only made possible by the help of people from outside peaceful Ciron -- a visiting bard, a Winged One, and, eventually, Kire. There's nothing much really new her, but it's very well done, and I liked it a lot.
Orbit regular James Sallis' contribution this time is "Doucement, S'il Vous Plait", a quite delightfully wistful, even mournful, story told from the point of view of a letter, which is forwarded and returned and remailed all over the world ... by the end we sense that this is a sort of metaphorical treatment of a failed relationship. I think it may be my favorite early Sallis story.
James Sallis contributes "My Friend Zarathustra", an intriguing short-short about a man who has lost his wife to his friend Zarathustra ... of course there is more going on, and like Sallis' other Orbit pieces, I'm not sure I fully followed it but it was fun and intriguing.
Review of Leviathan 3
"Up", by James Sallis, another curious and intriguing story, about a man in a world much like ours, where people are beginning suddenly to go "up" – to vanish literally into ashes. This man is dealing with the death of his wife, and his life seems more and more lonely and constrained. Perhaps the story is about his plight only – or perhaps the story is about the plight of all of us.
Locus, July 2018
Even better is a remarkable long story by James Sallis, “Dayenu” (Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Spring). It opens with the narrator doing an unspecified but apparently criminal job, and then fleeing the house he was squatting in, and meeting an old contact for a new identity. Seems like a crime story – and Sallis is, after all, primarily a crime novelist. But details of unfamiliarity mount, from the pervasive surveillance to a changed geography, then to the realization that the rehab stint the narrator mentioned right at the start was a rather more extensive rehab than we might have thought. Memories of wartime service are detailed, and two partners in particular – a woman named Fran or Molly, a man named Merrit Li. Page by page the story seems odder, and the destination less expected. The prose is a pleasure too – with desolate rhythms and striking images. Quite a work, and not like anything I’ve recently read.
Locus, May 2020
Interzone features a novelette by the great James Sallis in the March-April issue. As common for Sallis, “Carriers” begins in a strange place and ends up somewhere completely different (though still plenty strange.) The opening describes a brief skirmish in a decaying or collapsing near future US, followed by a few encounters between a doctor desperately trying to save the people he can, even (or especially?) those on the wrong side of what now counts as law, and in this case specifically including the very young man who was hurt in the first section. Then we move decades in the future, to another odd encounter between the doctor and the man he had saved long ago, with a mysterious sort of ghost present as well. It’s simply differently powerful – but very powerful – in a way I’m coming to associate with Sallis.
Locus, July 2020
Analog continues to morph into a new Analog – true to its tradition, still full of near-future stories of planetary exploration and colonization, for example – but open to writers I’d not have expected to see. For example, the May-June issue includes a story by James Sallis (Sallis in the Analog mafia! Will wonders never cease?): “Net Loss”, a sneakily very dark short-short about a man who is arrested due to evidence from his “smart” TV.