The Far Side of Nowhere
Arkham House ($34.95)
by Alan Deniro
Perhaps there are two types of writers in the world: those who write for the now and those who create for posterity-paraphrasing Baudelaire, the times imprinted on the senses instead of time. Nelson Bond clearly falls in the former category. The Far Side of Nowhere is a generous collection of 29 stories mostly written in the 1930s through '50s, an era in which short fiction ruled the roost of an increasingly literate population searching for entertainment in print. And they received it in Bond's work. Although many of the stories collected here could be lumped into "science fiction and fantasy," Bond's writing creates touchstones with earlier traditions of the American fantastic, in much the same way that Ray Bradbury's does.
In reviewing a book of this kind, however, one must ask: What can be taken from these words when they are stripped away from the confines of nostalgia? What is the lasting effect of these stories when some of the elements of plot, theme, and diction are dated?
The answers lie, I think, in those times when the cauldron of fantastic literature in America was bubbling over in transmutative fashion. Though he published in science fiction magazines (as well as more general magazines like the long-defunct Blue Book), Bond himself said that he never saw himself as a science fiction writer as much as a fantasist. The stories neither seem particularly interested in scientific explication, or "hardware" as he calls it-many of the earliest American science fiction magazines had more to do with the propagation of scientific progress rather than the rigor of narrative techniques-nor does his work seem readily influenced by the European giants of science fiction such as Verne and Wells. What's interesting in Bond's work is how he took the paraliterary machinations of early science fiction-space travel, time travel, aliens, and so on-and wedded them to quintessentially American modes of fiction, hearkening back to Irving, Hawthorne, and Poe, as well as the folklore and tall tales that have percolated throughout the years. This combination, coupled with a sprightly style, would for sixty-odd years and counting provide a crucial counterpoint to the more technocratic and clinical leanings of the field.
Bond's role in this shaping of inter- and intra-genre traits has often been overlooked, perhaps because the tone of his writing could be seen as "slick," moving with too easy a gait. He explores in his stories, in perspicacious fashion, nearly every nook and cranny of modern fabulist storytelling that would later, through extensive clumsy use, become cliché. For example, the post-apocalyptic journey in "Magic City"-with its passing references to the Ancient Ones and its landscape of burnt-out 20th century architectural landmarks-would later find its way into everything from the trashiest dime novel to classics like John Crowley's Engine Summer and Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. Bond, though he wasn't alone in this, certainly did more than his share to trigger that meme, which subsequent writers would tweak and hone. It will take some re-orientation on the reader's part to realize that, though these tropes have been beaten to death, It Was Once Not So. We are dealing with pre-workshop times here, before rough edges of a clearly delineated narrative were smoothed over, with voices honed to consistency and plots tied with bows.
This is not to say that these stories are merely unsophisticated artifacts of an earlier, "simpler" era-and none of Bond's stories, even when they try too hard to gain the reader's affection, could be called unreadable. What makes these stories alluring, even when their slickness seems more like rust? Perhaps it's that the innovations come less from smooth surfaces and more from the rust itself. With no small degree of subtlety, many of these stories exhibit a trickiness that goes beyond the mere trick ending (although The Far Side of Nowhere has many of these). The playful conceits often conceal unsettling undercurrents, as in one of the best stories in the collection, "Pawns of Tomorrow," a chess story that evokes Calvino's "Tarot as story generator" in The Castle of Crossed Destinies. Above all, Bond doesn't take himself too seriously-a noteworthy accomplishment considering his prodigious talent.
There is a glorious tradition in American letters of writers who, if dogged enough, were once able to make a living on short fiction alone. And so they wrote. The creation of an aesthetic, a larger vision, only came haltingly, on the fly-if at all. But if a writer, like Bond, was both fast and a consummate craftsperson, then the rift between high and low fiction, the populist and the erudite, could be more readily closed.
Upon final inspection of this compendium of stories, it may be said that Bond's writing is a missing evolutionary link-one of them, at least-between Mark Twain and Philip K. Dick, all sharing in strange fabulism, omnivorous range, and absurdist, wisecracking humor. Nelson Bond gives us stories that are more like broadsheets from a bygone era, with the ink still warm on the non-acid free paper. A time when Redbook could publish, with a straight face, a story entitled "Herman and the Mermaid" (July 1943); Esquire could run supernatural/angler flash fiction ("The Battle of Blue Trout Basin," 1937); and a writer could make a living sending short stories to magazines like Fantastic Universe. A time before boundaries between genres became rigid and codified, before it became harder to cross from one side to the other than to escape from Alcatraz. Filled with a knowing, clever grace, Bond's writing is timeless precisely because it is from his time.