A collection of science fiction stories and novelettes by the Hugo and Philip K.Dick Award–winning author of Desolation Road and Luna: New Moon.
Published in conjunction with his Locus Award–winning debut novel, Desolation Road, Empire Dreams collects some of Ian McDonald's finest early short fiction, including a several stories that first appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction magazine.
As Asimov's Science Fiction declared, Ian McDonald is "the Frank Herbert, William Gibson, or arguably even Thomas Pynchon of the early 21st century."
Ian and I keep running into in the most unlikely of places, most recently spending an adventure filled few days travelling across China to the futuristic city of Shenzhen where (naturally) we went drone shopping. We also got to play with some highly advanced robots... Ian is one of science fiction's undisputed masters, and even as I write this he's just been nominated for (yet another) Hugo Award. Empire Dreams collects some of his best work in short form. – Lavie Tidhar
"One of the most interesting and accomplished science fiction writers of this latter-day era, indeed maybe the most interesting and accomplished, and certainly the most culturally and musically sophisticated, the Frank Herbert, William Gibson, or arguably even Thomas Pynchon of the early 21st century."– Asimov’s Science Fiction
"I will read anything that man writes — he is the most underappreciated genius working in the field today."– Cory Doctorow
"McDonald's power as a storyteller lies in his stylistic versatility and intensity of language as well as in his capacity to create vivid and memorable characters."– Library Journal
from Radio Marrakech
THE BEACH IS DESERTED. The ultras are gone and I am alone with the gulls and the ashes and the wind, the wind that blows out of the heart of Africa. The old, red, crazy wind blowing from the ancient heart of man. That is why the people fear it. It shakes out the ghosts and the old, old things that we tell ourselves we have forgotten, the crazy wind.
Seagulls and ashes. The wind fans the embers into a red glow.
Blessed craziness. They have a word for it in Arabic. They have a word for everything in Arabic, and every word has four meanings; one true, one contrary, one holy, one obscene.
And which had Hannah Tellender been?
All. None. A woman. An ultra.
And this flatlifer, alone in the dawnlight on the uttermost edge of Africa, crouching by the embers with the wind whipping the ashes up into his eyes and his mouth? We were, in the end as in the beginning, more than strangers. Aliens. Ultra and flatlifer. Lovers. Ashes.
* * * *
Strange. To begin one woman's story I must go back to another. To Ruthie and the night she took me to the Rififi Club to see Hannah perform. Whatever the relationship between Ruthie and I, it was a vague, ill-defined entity. Most of the time it was no relationship at all. A draft-dodging exile with Nicaragua nightmares dredging a dirham from the diplomatic schools and American bars of Tangier, obsessed with the ghost of Bogart; a teenage beach-girl with a permanent bikini line, a round-the-world airticket, and Daddy's Gold MasterCard hovering in the twilight zone between mainstream society and the world of the ultras. What better definition of our relationship could I give? What was remarkable was not the quality of the relationship but that there should have been one at all.
"There's a new group coming in from Spain Thursday." Ruthie's was a well-known face at the Rififi, the preeminent Tangier ultra club. A face held in mild contempt by the ultras who passed through its Moorish doors, for they had seen her type of coward in a thousand ultra bars in the thousand cities of the Soul Circle. The girl who wanted, and feared, nothing more than to pay five hundred dollars to Masrurian the Dream Doctor down in the medina and have him slip a jolt of DPMA up the back of her skull. "Hannah Tellender, the ultra improvisatore. Even you must have heard of Hannah Tellender, Morrisey. She's giving a recitation, if that's the right thing to call it. It's a must. Everyone who's anyone is going."
In a sense we were each other's salvation—I Ruthie's from the agony of choosing: ultra, flatlifer; Ruthie mine from the patriotic penitence of the Mermaid Cafe. A night of color and light and self-loss in the ultraworld which orbited far far above our heads in return for restraint, presence, and an excuse not to have to decide, not tonight. That was the contract.
Outside among the beer cans and cheroot wrappers, the basiji, the ubiquitous Swords of Islam militants called the Holy Judgment of the One God down upon the blasphemers who likened themselves to divinities. Most of them I knew by sight if not by name. Inside, on the Rififi's postage-stamp-sized stage, a tiny woman with lasers on her wrists reached through the streamers of smoke to show everyone the universe she held in the palm of her hand.
Hannah Tellender. The ultra poetess.
She gasped, all of a muck-sweat under the pin-spots.
"Thank you. Thank you. Hey … ho. It's hot in here. You're a good audience. It's always kind of nice when you come to a new place and the people take you into their hearts."
Ruthie pressed forward toward the foot of the stage. I braved the cocktail glasses, nasal inhalers, cinder-tipped black cheroots, to snag her arm. She barely registered my presence. I have seen that same expression of rapture in the eyes of Coptic women praying, in the eyes of Orthodox icons.
Hannah Tellender stretched her arms above her head and sighed. "Okay. Okay. Who's next? Who's next? Anyone got anything? Anything, just fire something at me …"
Ruthie gazed up at the tiny woman and whispered, "Radio Marrakech."
"Radio Marrakech. Radio Marrakech." The ultra poetess closed her eyes to summon the Muse. The two musicians manning the Rififi synthesizers waited, fingers touched to keyboards, for their cue to their own improvisations. "Radio Marrakech." She crossed arms and ankles and giggled in glee as fans of laserlight sprang from her projectors. "Okay, Tangier. Radio Marrakech." She brought her wrists together and down. I gasped: where the fans of laserlight crossed, ephemeral holographic interference patterns shimmered. She clapped her hands, clap clapclap clap clapclap clap, each handclap an explosion of lightshards. The ectomorphic phantoms on the Prophet Nines pounced upon the beat, scooped up the beat, and rammed it through their machines. And the Rififi Club exploded!
A holographic dervish whirling in a jellaba of laserlight, she danced, snapping her body round and around and around to the rhythm of the driving synthesizers and her extemporized, ecstatic poetry.
"Oh Arthur, Arthur, Dervish D with the leather turban! Clay between your terra-cotta toes, Arthur, clay, red dust: do your teeth glint, like Valentino (again and again and again the Sheik), like Bogart, will they always have Paris?
"Axial hub of the city (commercial spiritual political amen amen amen): square of souls, squared souls, the sum of the square of the souls on the hypo you use is equal to the sum of the squares on the other side. Round gravesockets, plug-in saints, skull-rooted teeth of Tyrannosaurus oedipus sultan: on the final Day of Judgment, on the day of all souls (round, square, soulful), on the day, on the day, on the day when God says, 'Well, how about you?' on that Black Thursday, will you be there, Arthur? Plucked from your covering of warm grave soil like a tooth from a sultan's skull; clay between your toes, clay between your teeth, red clay of Africa, neo-barbarian!
"Ochre. Ochre. Ochre. Ochre … primeval pulse-beat, call sign of radio, Radio Africa, Radio Marrakech: ochreness abounds. And if I had an aerial, a minaret, a spire, a lingam, what soul juice could I not draw down from God? Rock 'n' Soul with a minaret between my bounding breasts. Look at the jets, Arthur, the jets, dropping their bombs between the minarets, bounding, bouncing bombs, Arthur.
"See! The minarets falling!
"See! The spires collapsing!
"See! The lingam wilting … melting … falling … falling …
"If I had an aerial, an aerial ten thousand miles tall, I'd run up the aerial, run up the aerial, run up the goddamn aerial, swing and sway and swing and sway and swing and sway until it came down in Marrakech, in the Square of Souls, inverse Rapture for the Judgment Day.
"Clay Arthur, the clay man, red dirt of Africa, Bogart-toothed, are you ready for the Judgment? Is your soul stropped for my shriving as I come sliding down the aerial down down down from heaven, ten thousand miles of aerial, to judge you, Arthur, find you wanting?
"Your soul music. The glint of your skull-rooted teeth, emotional dinosaur. An ocean away you stand planted in red soil: spirit-weed of the Rif, of the Kif. From my bi-plane apartment I watch you, Arthur, in Marrakech, in the Square of Souls, square-souled Berber. Dust and snow. Dust and snow! Behind you the Atlas: High Atlas, atlas of the world: God, how much longer will you carry the world on your shoulders?"
The synthesizers hissed into silence. The spray of moiré patterns froze, faded.
I could not move.
None of us could move.
Then a cry from the door, a smash of breaking glass, a blossom of flame brought us crashing down. The crowd packed into the Rififi surged, shrieking. Somewhere, somewhen, I had lost Ruthie's hand. I snatched up a fire extinguisher hidden beneath a table, not to deal with the leaping flames enveloping the rear of the club, but as a weapon. The anger. Never very far from me, my personal demon, a thorn in my flesh. I stood swinging the extinguisher, ready for an enemy, any enemy. Screams, dervish whoops; by the burning Moorish doors shadow-play demons struggled with the bouncers, overcame them, and crashed forward in a wave of table-turning and chair-smashing. Panicked patrons stampeding the fire doors jammed me hard against the edge of the low stage.
The Swords of Allah pelted us with bottles. A scimitar-thin youth came at me, chair-leg raised. Ruthie forgotten, everything forgotten save my need, my lust for expression in violence, I stabbed him in the gut with the fire extinguisher. I knew his face. I had taught him T. S. Eliot and the emptiness at the heart of modern man. As he doubled up, a bolt of blue light took him across the eyes. I looked about me to see tiny, ferocious Hannah Tellender clasp hands together, point fingers, and stab another blue-hot blast from her wrist-lasers at the burning basiji. A charging demon figure fell with a wailing cry, hands pawing at blinded eyes. Three further stabs of light, three figures fell. My eyes met those of the ultra improvisatore.
"Baraka," I said.
"Baraka," she replied. She smiled. Baraka, the charisma that makes a beggar a king. For an instant there was almost communication, then the crowd broke over the stage and swept me away from her, dazed, confused, dazzled, out into the street filled with unfamiliar faces and the apocalyptic chorus of police sirens. And I suppose I loved her from that moment, but did not know it because I could not see past the dazedness, confusion, and dazzlement into her true light.
* * * *
Ruthie picked me out of siesta-sleepy boulevard Pasteur in a big black car that was not Ruthie's driven by a man who was not Ruthie's—not any of hers I could recall.
"I phoned you, I phoned your friends, I bribed my way past the concierge of that rue Ibn Ben Moussah slum you call an apartment, I even phoned the police to see if you'd been thrown into jail by mistake, and the only thing which kept me from phoning the morgue was that I heard on the radio news that no corpses had been dragged out of the Rififi. Name of Allah, girl, what have you been doing?"
Prim and cool in print frock, straw hat, and bandanna, Ruthie sniffed huffily and peered over the driver's shoulder into the rearview mirror to paint a pair of crude, persimmon lips onto her face.
"Geez, Morrisey, I'd a thought you'd be grateful. It's not every flatlifer gets invited to a claybreaking." The driver, whom I had until now ignored, laughed a sudden, too-knowledgeable laugh. "Oh geez, I forgot. Morrisey, this is Armand. He played synth? At the club? Last night? Armand, this is Morrisey, my best friend, aren't you, Morrisey?" She gave me a play tickle that made me cringe. "Armand's one of them." Needless explanation.
The big black car hooted its way across the Grand Socco, then suddenly, suicidally, darted through the medina gate into the labyrinth of streets that divided and subdivided like the human arterial system into the capillary alleyways of the old town.
"He'll never get a car through here," I whispered. Armand laughed again and a sudden stab of braking threw us to the floor (Ruthie bitching and flapping over spilled cosmetics) as a three-wheeler motor-dray leapt out of nowhere into the bedlam of vehicles and pedestrians. A swerve left and we were in a warren of medina streets so narrow the side mirrors scraped against the venerable Moorish plaster. The constant stop-start, the constantly blaring horn, frayed the never-too-firm fabric of my temper. Just as it seemed we must annihilate an entire generation of Tangerines from eldest grandmother down to most junior in parasoled baby buggy, the ultra chauffeur veered the big black car down an entry I had not even suspected was there. We lurched to a stop scant centimeters from a wall that had stood sound and solid since the days of the Cid.
Ruthie dabbed her face in nervous relief.
"This is it. This is it. Geez, a claybreaking. This is so exciting."
I had no idea of what a claybreaking might be.
Locked wooden shutters excluded the street but admitted long slats of afternoon light and little djinns of air that sent the suspended petrol lantern swaying, dodging, weaving erratic shadows over the congregation that had gathered in a circle of crouchings and squattings on the bare clay floor, a circle of mutterings and the furtive communion of touching hands.
She was there. Not the creature of spirit and laserlight of the night before: different, a shrouded painting, a candle in an alcove. She sensed my presence, raised her eyes to meet mine.
"I know. Sheridan Morrison. The Rififi …"
"I know." Her smile was enigmatic as a Madonna's. "Ultras never forget. Baraka."
Before I could speak, she pressed fingers to my lips and pointed at the thing on the floor.
At the center of the circle of hands and faces lay a supine clay Venus, slightly over life-size, crudely shaped from mud. Mountain-breasted, insect-waisted, the steatopygous buttocks were splayed out on the floor by the pressing weight of heavy clay flesh. The coarse thing was daubed with swirls of black-oxide fingerpainting which reminded me of the meaningless meandering patterns of Altamira man. Between the conical thighs, labia had been vulgarly incised with a stick.
Questions flocked to my lips; Hannah's fingers brushed them away. This was a holy moment, I was not to profane it. A murmur ran through the small, crowded room. Those squatting closest reached out to lay hands to the effigy.
And I thought I saw a tremor run through the clay thing.
The fluttering hands reached out again and there was indeed a tremor, more; a shudder, and a sound, a splitting, cracking sound. The clay thing flexed. Its mud carapace crazed over in a web of cracks. Pure dread possessed me. There was a spasm, a subsentient moan, scales of sun-dried clay fell to the clay floor and something moved inside, something sun-starved and ghastly. I almost cried aloud … And the hand-music began; hands dancing, hands tapping, hands clapping, hands slapping the clay floor, the rhythm of the heat, the street, the swinging petrol lantern; rhythm of the shadows. Another primal cry. The hands beat faster, faster, the whole room became their drum.
"What is it?" I whispered to Hannah Tellender. She swayed unconsciously to the song of the claybreaking.
"One of us, Mr. Morrison."
Soft human hands brushed cold clay, pitter-pat, pitter-pat. The spiral-painted face-mask split and sloughed away. There was a face beneath, a girl-face, stupid, newborn, blinking. The mud-crumbed lips shaped silent syllables. A sigh rippled across the room and the hands drummed harder, louder, until it seemed that the whole city throbbed to their hand-song. The entombed girl struggled to heave herself free from her chrysalis, for now I saw the truth of the coarse clay Venus. The tension peaked toward the edge of hysteria, then abruptly, terrifyingly, there was silence. Still, silent hands reached to pull the naked girl from the broken clay shards. A gust of red wind swung the petrol lantern and for an instant of pure insanity I saw diaphanous wings unfold from her shoulders; rainbow-sheened, as delicate as oil on water. Then the shadows re-formed and I saw only a stupid, confused girl of about twenty, blind and reaching. Flakes of mud clung to her blonde hair. The naked newborn passed around the circle of ultras and each in turn pressed his flesh to hers. Yet there was nothing in the least sexual in this pressing of nakedness; quite the opposite, I felt like an infidel witnessing the administration of some precious sacrament.
Then I saw Ruthie gather the blonde ultra-child into her arms and I did not want to see any more. Hannah's simultaneous whisper voiced my feelings.
"Take me away from here, Mr. Morrison. Anywhere, I just want away from here."
* * * *
What else could I do? Where else could a beach-bum street-exile draft-dodger take his ultra-poetess-improvisatore but the Mermaid Cafe where all beach-bums street-exiles draft-dodgers are fetched up by the tides of war, sorry, police action. Spiritual flotsam, drifting toward the edge of the twentieth century under the rueful proprietorial eye of Fat Sonny, expiating his own particular brand of patriotic guilt by dressing in helicopter-pilot fatigues and shades. Time makes us all into the things we despise most.
Over a bottle of Fat Sonny's House Vintage, Hannah confessed why she had fled the claybreaking.
"It was just too personal for me, Mr. Morrison." The wine was clear and cold and carried a faint bouquet of apricots. "Seeing her come out of the clay reminded me too much of when I came out of the clay like that, naked, vulnerable, newborn. You can't begin to understand what it's like; only someone who has been through it can, it's a precious, precious time, alone with yourself, catatonic in the clay chrysalis. You learn, you see, you become; new paths of perception are mapped out in your brain, new ways of seeing reality. Connections are made between areas of your brain that haven't been connected since the dream-time, new neural networks laid down … Alone, you learn that you are an extraordinary creature in a universe so extraordinary no dull, flatlifed ordinary person can ever begin to touch the splendor of it …" She gazed wistfully into her glass. Then, sensing she had wounded me as unthinkingly as a child might maim a fly, she said, "Oh God, I'm sorry, I didn't mean that about dull, flat lives."
"Yes you did," I said.
"Yes, I did," she agreed. And it was as if the recognition of the unbridgeable distance between us somehow bound us together.
By day, after the consular brats had scampered back to their porno discs and cocaine habits, I showed Hannah the city of Tangier and amidst the tangled laneways of the medina and the bustle of the fruit market found a new freshness in her appreciation of what, to me, was contemptibly familiar. By night, after the streets had emptied of evening strollers and the cafes had put up the shutters, she whirled me through the small cafes and bars and after-hours clubs and took me as close to the heart of the extraordinary universe the ultras inhabited as any flatlifer could come.
Fragment by fragment, stone by stone, like some shattered clay stele of an ancient revelation, I learned her story: rummaging and haggling in the Souk for dubious souvenirs, sipping afternoon coffee at the sidewalk tables of the Mermaid Cafe, among the evening crowds walking the Terrace amidst the schoolkids and grazing herds of paparazzi with the green hills of Spain rising behind us, fragment by fragment, stone by stone, I learned how an ultra improvisatore is made.
In Deerfield, Tennessee, they had a saying: God made the world but the TVA made Deerfield, Tennessee. And in that place that God forgot to make, there was a little girl, born little, grew up little, but who was big inside, bigger than Deerfield, Tennessee. She had to be big inside to contain all the dreams, for they were big dreams, bigger than Deerfield, Tennessee. Big dreams of big places: walled cities and desert caravans, crescent moons and high snowy mountains, places larger than truth, big as dreams, places she had read about in the National Geographic magazines in the waiting room of her father's dental surgery. As she grew the dreams grew to fit her, the dreams of things she could not put a name to which she wanted more than anything. So the poems flocked into her head, good poems, poems much too good for Deerfield, Tennessee, for sometimes she would recite the poems in her head to people in a bar who did not understand them, not at all, because the poetry they wanted to hear was pretty words and pretty thoughts and pretty pictures trapped on pretty paper and her poems were not like that, not at all. And so she was unhappy.
"Then I saw this TV news report about a doctor down in Memphis who was up in court because he was giving DPMA to anyone who would pay him three hundred dollars and I knew that I had to have it. Had to. No other way to make the dream spark into life. So I worked in the surgery and after hours in a diner and I saved every penny until I had my dream ticket. Then I took a bus to Memphis, put the cash down on Dr. MacKinley's table, and he slipped the needle up the back of my skull and when I woke up it was the dream-time again. For always."
We were kicking around in a souvenir shop on some anonymous alleyway just off the Petit Socco. Hannah picked up a large enameled plate.
"You like this? I think I might buy it for you as a present."
But the wind blows where it will, as the Berbers say, and with the joyful, carefree times came times of melancholy when a great silence welled out of Hannah like blood and we would sit for hours, not speaking, yet desperate for communication. On one such occasion, over glasses of afternoon coffee in a roadside cafe overlooking the place of legends where the waters of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic break upon each other, I asked, purely for the sake of making noise,
"So, was there a Marrakech?"
She smiled within her sorrow.
"There was. There still is."
"And an Arthur?"
"No. Not really. There was someone, back in Deerfield. He was a skipper, that was what we called them in Deerfield, skipped off the draft and ran to Marrakech. Impossibly romantic. But as for being an Arthur. No. Never." Presently she said, very quietly, "But you could be him if you like."
We never came any closer to saying it than that.