Sunday, May 15, 2005

[Book Review] Barnacle Bill the Spacer and Other Stories by Lucius Shepard (1997)

Don’t Judge a Book by Its Title

Honestly speaking, the title grabbed my attention but for all the wrong reasons. Barnacle Bill the Spacer and Other Stories sounds more like the tagline of a pop comic serial rather than that of a respectable science-fiction novel. Thankfully, I’ve heard praises for the author, Lucius Shepard, so I gave the book a shot despite my apprehensions at the anthology’s name.

Thankfully, the anthology doesn’t disappoint. Interestingly enough, the mood of the book is a complete opposite of what you’d expect from the title. It’s really a good collection of short stories from a talented writer. The pilot story from which the book is named after is actually the most moving story I’ve read in this collection. Barnacle Bill isn’t the narrator of the story nor even the protagonist but he is definitely one of the main characters. Shepard’s tone is serious, consistent, and uses sophisticated words and sentences but remains understandable and readable. It’s also not every day that you read a story about a retarded child, and has a darker feel compared to Flowers for Algernon. Another thing that impressed me was Shepard’s ability to capture various accents through the text, yet remains readable and doesn’t jar you from the text.

A Little Night Music is the second story in the anthology. It’s short yet the message is haunting. While other writers might have used more descriptions to illustrate the effects of music, Shepard does it with sheer emotion and depth, which actually fits the mood of the story. Human History is long and here we catch a glimpse of Shepard’s talent in creating multi-layered characters; protagonists that have their own strengths and weaknesses, flaws and virtues that you both love and hate. As can be expected with the theme of this book, Human History isn’t the prettiest tale, although it’s cathartic and leaves us a message of hope in the end.

Sports in America starts off with a dialogue between two Irish Americans in the modern day world. It’s interesting to see how the story flows into its eventual climax, and at the interesting turn of events. It’s not exactly a story you’d categorize as science-fiction, but it’s enjoyable and solid. On the other hand, as much as I love The Sun Spider, it betrays an inherent weakness in Shepard’s writing. While Shepard has mastered the art of capturing various accents and speech patterns and injecting it into the characters, his narrative style remains much less the same. This story is told from the point of view of two characters. Unfortunately, unless I really pay attention to the chapter headings, I couldn’t really differentiate one character from another, which is saying a lot considering the two characters are of the opposite gender and have distinct personalities from each other. Other than that, it’s a good sci-fi story with intriguing repercussions.

The last two stories, All the Perfumes of Araby and Beasts of the Heartland, are set in modern times yet there’s a fantastical feel to them coupled with superior writing. The former, for example, deals with the psychological journey of the main character, while the latter is an exciting boxing match told from the perspective of the underdog. Despite the leap in topic of both stories, I was really drawn to it and impressed at Shepard’s repertoire.

Barnacle Bill the Spacer and Other Stories is a small collection of stories by Lucius Shepard but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. Yet Shepard writes in a certain way and those who are looking for something light and fun will be disappointed. However, if you’re looking for depth, substance, and complexity, this book might appeal to you, irregardless if you’re a fan of science-fiction or not.

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