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Unwelcome Bodies Jennifer Pelland

The nanobots cleaned away arterial plaque, destroyed blood clots, kept his teeth free from plaque, repaired minor damage to blood vessels, and constantly monitored his body for ireegularities. Between them and the telomeric enhancements, if he was careful, he might never die…

He glared up at the ceiling, Take that, God.

Reviewed by Sarah Hilary

Jennifer Pelland is addicted to writing short stories. She’s written an essay about this addiction but you don’t need to read the essay to know it’s true. Each of the tales in this collection is a testament to her love of story-telling, and her imagination. She has a keen sense of irony, and a gift for juxtaposing images and events in a way which enables her to extract emotion at crucial moments from her characters and from the reader.

Underpinning even the most fantastical of these stories is Pelland’s instinct that a good story needs to find a response in the reader, be it laughter, fear, revulsion or compassion. It’s not enough to be "transported to another world", although she does that in spades; a good story must touch the reader, and it must ring true. That’s harder than it sounds in a genre like science-fiction. 

Pelland is smart, she knows the ratio which governs her chosen genre: the more remote the setting, the more the story must reach out (and in) to touch the reader. Thus, when she feeds us a tale as blackly bizarre as Big Sister / Little Sister, mind-boggling in its descriptions of a futuristic surgical procedure which enables an ailing younger sibling to be conjoined with her older sister, Pelland knows exactly how to extract equal amounts of disgust and dismay from the reader. The further she takes us from reality (and there are some trips to make your head spin, here), the harder she works to get close to what moves us. 

Brushstrokes, where life as we know it is not only remote but expiring, is at heart a love story, very simply told. It wasn’t my favourite story in the collection but – wow. What a testament to Pelland’s powers of imagination. I preferred the sustained irony of Immortal Sin which sees a desperate man try and prevent the judgement he believes will come with death. Pelland presents us with a world where immortality may just be possible, but at the cost of sanity and meaningful human contact. Oh and did I mention that the desperado chasing immortality is hobbled by his “out-moded” and thoroughly twisted belief in a vengeful God? Long live irony! 

Unwelcome bodies? Yes. There are some spectacularly disturbing images of deformed, mutilated and dying bodies in this collection. Captive Girl tells of a young woman implanted inside a metal mask, no eyes or ears or mouth, made to watch the stars for signs of a second attack on earth. What really disturbs however is the relationship between this woman and another: entirely human, believable and shocking.

The Last Stand of the Elephant Man works so well because Joseph Merrick lets us see the outlandish "new world" through eyes that invite us to see beneath the surface and consider the heart of the story which is about (among other things) identity and acceptance. The Plague Thereof was Exceeding Great could be set any time any place; its impact draws on timeless universal hopes and fears – how would we live if we couldn’t ever touch another human being, or be touched? What would that do to our humanity and our reason for living? 

Pelland knows exactly which questions to ask, the ones that trouble us most. She’s not arrogant enough to suggest there are solid answers but she spares no pains in taking us far enough away from the world we know in order that we might achieve a proper perspective on it, and ourselves.

Read one of the stories from this collection on Strange Horizons

Sarah Hilary won the Fish Historical-Crime Contest with Fall River, August 1892, and has two stories in the Fish anthology 2008. She was a runner-up in the Biscuit Short Story Contest 2008. MO: Crimes of Practice, the Crime Writers’ Association anthology, features Sarah's story, One Last Pick-Up. Her work appears in Smokelong Quarterly, Literary Fever, Every Day Fiction, Ranfurly Review and Zygote in my Coffee.

Sarah's other Short Reviews: Katherine Mansfield "The Collected Stories"   

Muriel Spark "The Complete Short Stories"   

"I.D. Crimes of Identity" anthology

Susan DiPlacido "American Cool" 

Sophie Hannah "The Fantastic Book of Everybody's Secrets"

Benjamin Percy "Refresh, Refresh"

Chavisa Woods "Love Does Not Make me Gentle or Kind


PublisherApex Book Company

Publication Date: 2008

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

Author bio: Jennifer Pelland is a Waltham, MA, based writer of dark science fiction and fantasy. Her work has been nominated for the Nebula and Gaylactic Spectrum awards.

Read an interview with Jennifer Pelland

Buy this book (used or new) from:

The Publisher's Website: Apex Book Co.





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