Ziesing, 1993
ISBN 0-929480-28-7
311 pages

Kathleen Ann Goonan

DIRTY WORK by Pat Cadigan

This review originally appeared in the NEW YORK REVIEW OF SCIENCE FICTION.

DIRTY WORK, a collection of Cadigan short stories recently published by Mark Zeising, is a rich, complex, heady brew. Cadigan is not a writer who plays just one note. She runs the gamut of emotions in these stories, which range from science fiction to fantasy to horror, with a few humorous tales to balance the mix.

The collection is heavy on vanishings, and on mysterious transfers of being, of essence, of life, or perhaps just of personality, from one level to another.

Of science fiction stories--or perhaps the term speculative fiction would be more appropriate here--there are but a few. With the device of "pathosfinding" employed by Deadpan Allie in "Dirty Work," we are led smack into a vampire story with technological trimmings--flying taxicabs, commnets, and all that there.

But the clunky, heavy pathosfinder equipment Deadpan Allie lugs around is really only a black box to "science fictionize" one of Cadigan's most powerful and pervasive themes--mind to mind communication, in groups, one to one, or with some sort of force which almost always dark. She explores the horrific or beneficent aspects of this theme in story after story, to great effect. Mucking around in the subconscious can, indeed, be "Dirty Work," as Deadpan Allie finds in the title story.

"Johnny Come Home" is another such tale, in which a man part of a tight group of--what, telepaths? telepaths who feed on him somehow?--gains virtual reality messiahship at the turn of the millennium in a cosmic leap for humankind, and freedom from his nagging, dependent group; as for the protagonist, it's kind of pleasant to drink along, glugging gallons of Stoli in Moscow and wavering between Guinness and bitters in London as events take their inevitable course with the power of a rising tidal wave.

The deep framework of many of Cadigan's stories are almost mainstream in their subtlety. One of them, "The Coming of the Doll," could certainly be a mainstream story--it deals with a mother's insistence that her baby has been exchanged by a man with a black bag for a plastic doll. It is clear that the terrible delusion exists entirely in the mind of the mother, powerfully illustrating her difficult mental state.

Raw, unpitying Horror, all the more difficult to digest because of its starkness and lack of compromise, is the substance of two stories, "The Pond," and "Home From the Sea." "The pond was evil," opens the first story, and, indeed, it most definitely is, and Cadigan deftly lulls us into believing that a ridiculous premise, so it is almost as if the evil ambushes us, personally, when the story suddenly ends. "Home From the Sea" is an excellent study in utter nihilism, with its sudden, final lack of stars, its painless, yet disgusting mutilation, and its subtle alien device. "The dark" figures prominently in many stories, playing itself, simply "the dark;" a conscious and powerful entity pushing through the boundaries of everyday life. One of the very best stories in the collection, "In the Dark," manages to be well-balanced, wrenching, and still oddly upbeat in the resolution, in which the protagonist in a powerful act of maturity chooses personal responsibility over a magical deal with devil dark. "The Boys in the Rain" is a haunting look at personal identity, wherein the main character is subsumed into a strange, ephemeral phenomenon. Cadigan's attention to detail grounds the reader in this fantasy, countering the mist, the rain, the boys, so that both worlds are equally real, and one more powerful, eventually, than the other.

"New Life for Old," "The Sorcerer in Spite of Herself," and "Naming Names" all draw from the well of urban fantasy, using elements of traditional fantasy for springboards. The first two end with a clever, resonating twist; the third awakens the protagonist to her true self and her true powers, and the cost of using them. The final story of the collection, "Lost Girls," is a retake on Peter Pan.

All of the stories in DIRTY WORK are dark, or have a dark edge. Even those which are humorous--"Mother's Milt," another story which could have appeared in any mainstream venue, "50 Ways to Improve Your Orgasm," "The Sorceress in Spite of Herself"--are edgy, their humor mitigated by resonances set up in the story. Cadigan's writing style is mature and honed, drawing the reader in, sometimes making the tale turn on a sentence, or a word. Cadigan's strength as a short story writer is her complete control of her material; the themes she explores, such as identity, coping with relationships, abuse, or simply "the dark" in its many guises are seriously and powerfully taken on. Cadigan, being a mature writer, requires a mature reader; these are not stories which lay everything out in a linear fashion; instead, thought and reflection is required in order to experience their full import. This is a solid, worthwhile collection, rewarding; stories to return to, now and again, because of what is said--and sometimes because of what is, quite precisely and powerfully, not said.

The end

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Copyright 1993 Kathleen Ann Goonan All Rights Reserved.