SCI FICTION, May 05, 2004

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"The Voluntary State" by Christopher Rowe

Christopher Rowe's novelette "The Voluntary State" evokes the true calling card of speculative fiction: a sense of wonder.  The reader is immediately submerged into a surreal Tennessee of sentient cars, mind-sharing with (or mind-seizure by) a sovereign consciousness, and a Greek chorus of law enforcement officials. At first, the opening concept of a vehicle that can think and feel brought Roger Zelazny's "Devil Car" to my mind.  But while Zelazny's future streetscape is populated by rogue A.I.s knocking off their owners, Rowe's vehicles are loyal and charming, more like pets than cybernetic death dealers.

Also, in contrast to the smoking, gritty setting of Zelazny's realm, Rowe's futuristic vision is shining and bright.  Chock full of anthropomorphic entities–garages, air compressors, cars–all whimsical, all vaguely psychedelic, it is, upon first impression, an utopia.  But quickly, a sour note sounds in the idealistic sing-song chants.  Tennessee is a place where painters must have licenses tattooed to their wrists in order to engage in . . . well, artistic license, the food lacks essential nutrients so that life expectancy tends not to exceed forty years, and at periodic intervals, every citizen is compelled to sing the Tennessee anthem and dance to its glory.  Or die.

Enter the neo-anarchist agitator faction, Kentuckians, intent upon fomenting discord. Reality fractures as the reader discovers what sort of mind-controlled, dystopic place the voluntary state of Tennessee is. There's a feeling of disjointedness, both masked and augmented by Rowe's keen pacing and fascinating setting. It rapidly leaves the reader wondering where the line between real and virtual is drawn, and if there is one. Additionally, the metaphors and symbolism fly fast and frantic in "The Voluntary State": the crow (a common icon for the soul) as freedom fighter, merchant rock monkeys (a la the mythic Monkey King who stole peaches from the tree of immortality and sought enlightenment through Buddhism), the very name of the main character, "Soma," as homage to the euphoric drug in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.  Certainly more subtext and allegories than I can list, with undoubtedly several that I missed or misinterpreted.  The play with literary symbols is dexterous and generally tongue-in-cheek, but I am left with a niggling suspicion that the author got over-enthralled by his own cleverness.

Nevertheless, "The Voluntary State" is thought provoking, skillful, and extraordinary.  An excellent story.  Highly recommended.