SCI FICTION, August 18, 2004

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"Beautiful Stuff" by Susan Palwick

"Beautiful Stuff" by Susan Palwick starts with a day in the death of Rusty Kerfuffle. Rusty is a zombie, or more accurately, a revived dead person. Due to a new scientific technique (hence landing this story safely wihin the realm of "science fiction" rather than, as one might expect with reawakened cadavers, horror), corpses can be brought back for a day to walk in the world of the living. It's a terribly expensive procedure, but what wouldn't a loved one pay for just one more day with a husband or wife, brother or daughter, untimely stolen by death? Except Rusty wasn't brought back by a loved one, but by a powerful man with an agenda. Rusty has twenty-four hours to experience the world of the living once more, and he gets another twenty-four if he agrees to do what the man behind the desk asks of him. But if he doesn't, there's blackmail to consider, and worse, he might not get to hold the shiny paperweight on the desk, which distresses him more than threats of having his living sins revealed. It seems the dead come back different. They don't have the same priorities they had in life. When they return, their attention is fixated by shiny things, colorful objects, beautiful stuff.

Palwick delivers an acerbic piece of political satire in "Beautiful Stuff" with flare and dry wit. Of note, a "kerfuffle," according to Webster's, is a disturbance or fuss, a commotion. What Rusty Kerfuffle does upon his second return creates a major furor, and in the process makes a reflective statement about death, dying, and the value of life. While the moral isn't subtle in "Beautiful Stuff," the presentation is refreshing and droll. And it's a good moral, one that more people, especially those in position to order death and warfare for whatever cause or purpose, should sit up and take notice of.