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Adherents.com's review of Washed by a Wave of Wind
Virginia Ellen Baker's "Songs of Solomon" stands out in the anthology Washed by a Wave of Wind, full of excellent science fiction about life in the endlessly foreign and intriguing real-world region known as the "Corridor" (Utah and Idaho). Most of this anthology's stories are set in science fictional versions of Utah which seem quite livable, inviting even. But Baker imagines a horrific Utah and America (perhaps the whole world?) in which government-implanted brain chips allow bureaucrats to monitor the citizenry, and use dreams, nightmares, or outright mental destruction to control people's thoughts and actions. One would rather die than live in the world Baker describes. In fact, that's exactly what one character does.
Brain-altering technology is a theme Baker touched upon in her earlier story "Rachel's Wedding," but the idea is the focus of this story. Set in Salt Lake, the nightmares and waking imagery used in the story are often Latter-day Saint-related. But, the story points out, people in other places would be subjected to other, equally effective nightmares.
The intense horror stirred by "Songs of Solomon" comes in large part from its evocative, haunting language. Baker has published more poetry than short stories, and her fiction has been called "lyrical." This is certainly true here. "Songs of Solomon" is both story and poem, much like the book of the Old Testament from which it derives its name.
"Songs of Solomon" is a darkly beautiful but disturbing story. Perhaps most frightening is contemplating what could have inspired (or driven) Baker to write this. One hopes that she simply has a very vivid imagination. But that's probably not all.
15 August 2000
Described most simply, "Rachel's Wedding" presents a clash between tradition and modernism as a group of Orthodox Hasidic Jews arrive on Solomon's Row, an asteroid inhabited only by liberal Jewish kibbutzim. That alone would be ample material for an interesting story. But Baker has packed this award-winning story with a score of other interesting ideas, technologies, settings, and characters, turning what might have been a routine compare-and-contrast fiction exercise into a moment of time captured from a fictional future which seems completely real. There is easily enough material here for an entire novel, but through Baker's expert pacing the story never feels crowded or confusing
The Jewish aspect alone should make "Rachel's Wedding" of interest to many readers, especially those who like see real world religious cultures explored in fiction. All of the major divisions in real world Judaism are represented: conservative/liberal, Orthodox/Reform, Ashkenazi/Sephardim. Even the universal male/female and parent/child dichotomies are explored in this story of conflict and accommodation.
One story-telling choice which greatly contributes to the power of "Rachel's Wedding" is the use of multiple viewpoints: the narrative voice switches between four different characters: two of the liberal kibbutzim and two Orthodox, two men and two women. This is done so naturally that only in retrospect did I realize the perfect balance this provided to the story. The multiple viewpoints never seemed gimmicky or forced.
All characters in this story are Jewish, yet the diversity they represent is far more complex and interesting than the shallow (melanin-centric) "diversity" seen on a typical contemporary TV show with a 3-whites-2-blacks-one-asian-or-hispanic-one-gay cast where everybody thinks exactly the same. Baker's characters highlight differences that matter, and how those differences affect individuals and the community. Some of the most pronounced differences are between people of apparently identical backgrounds, such as the two Hasidic leaders, Rebbe Meyer and Rebbe Poul.
The concept of an ethnic/religious group establishing an off-planet colony for itself in the near future has been dealt with frequently in science fiction. Indeed, Dean Ing's Systemic Shock tells of Jewish colonization of artificial Earth satellites in the aftermath of armed conflict in the Middle East, a premise similar in many ways that used by Baker. As with Ing's novel, the war and the establishment of the colony are only background material to the main story.
Mike Resnick's award-winning Kikuyu stories (now collected in Kirinyaga) may be one of the best known examples of ethnic/religious colonization of artificial satellites. Interestingly, Resnick was a Jewish writer writing about African tribal religion. Baker is a Latter-day Saint writer writing about Jewish religion. Yet in both cases, the authors' treatments of their subject material are so informed and accurate that it's hard to believe the writers were outsiders. In both cases, the writers seem to have spent considerable time among the people they are writing about, and have done excellent research. [Although, according to Greenberg, Resnick has never been to Africa.] M. Shayne Bell's Inuit is another example of this premise.
While it has nothing to do with Baker's story, it's interesting to note that some excellent science fiction about Latter-day Saint colonization has been written by Jewish writers: Avram Davidson and Cynthia Goldstone's "Pebble in Time", Harry Turtledove's How Few Remain and Larry Niven's The Gripping Hand are three example that come to mind. (Even Robert Silverberg's A Time of Changes could fit into this category.) So Baker's "Rachel's Wedding" provides a certain sort of symmetry.
"Rachel's Wedding" illustrates the Chaim Potok notion (recently championed by Richard Dutcher) that fiction can actually be more universally authentic as it is more "inside" -- more specifically about an actual culture rather than about artificially non-denominational/non-ethnic "generic" characters who belong to no identifiable community.
Clearly, I liked the cultural ingredients used to create "Rachel's Wedding." The mix of cultures and believable characters was essentially what the story was about. Most of the plot grew organically from these elements and it is almost superfluous to describe it in much detail. The wedding referred to in the title is declared by the staunchly conservative Rebbe Poul, who orders the Hasidic maiden Rachel to marry a much older Hasidic bachelor. Rachel, alas, has already developed feelings for Jacob, one of the leaders of the kibbutzim. This is classic "Romeo and Juliet" stuff, sure, but the resulting emotions and resolutions are so powerfully portrayed that even this aspect of the story seems fresh and original.
There is a subplot involving the medical and mental meltdown of Saul, a newly arrived Hasidic Jew who had undergone an illegal computer chip grafting process in Mexico before coming to the satellite. The chip is found to be one manufactured on the satellite by the kibbutzim themselves, although they had no idea their product was being used for such purposes. Although an interesting part of the plot, and perhaps necessary to make this truly a science fiction story and not just an ethnic story set in space, this is the only plot element which seems somehow "grafted on" -- not arising purely from the culture clash.
"Rachel's Wedding" is a well told, memorable story unafraid to delve deeply and sympathetically into interesting religious cultures. It is not surprising that this won the Grand Prize in the Writers of the Future contest -- chosen as first among the year's best science fiction by new writers. What is surprising is that this story hasn't been subsequently anthologized, but hopefully that will change.
15 August 2000
Web page created 15 August 2000. Last modified 22 August 2002.