“Beside Calais” by Samantha Henderson
Reviewed by Matthew Nadelhaft
Strange Horizons’ one-story-a-week format makes life unpredictable for the reviewer. Last week’s offering was quite brief; this week, Samantha Henderson’s “Beside Calais” almost had more stamina than I did.
This tale really could have been shorter, as the introductory section went on quite a bit longer than it needed to. It was here, in particular, that the story suffered from wordiness and overwriting. Memories, features of the landscape, characters’ thoughts and actions are surrounded with metaphors, descriptions leading to descriptions of the descriptions… The prose struck me as an attempt to mimic JG Ballard’s mesmerizing tone and imagery from works such as The Crystal World and The Unlimited Dream Company but was too cumbersome, especially applied to the fragile structure of this opening section, with its rapid movements back and forth from present to near past to old memory (another Ballardian practice). It’s possible that either technique, on its own, might have been more effective, but the amount of distraction generated by both the frequent shifts in time-frame and the overlong and overabundant descriptions made the reading confusing and off-putting.
Fortunately, “Beside Calais” eventually settles itself in to the task of telling a story, and its plot is rich and wise. Set on the verge of World War One, this semi-steampunk tale starts with the gorgeous premise of wild airplanes, animals with wings and engines caught and tamed like horses to serve human needs and human passions. Interestingly, these animals are the only things not over-described; the reader’s picture of them builds gradually each time the main character, Ian, glimpses or thinks about them. These éoles, avions and blériot’s drift about the background with less fanfare than the grass and walls which, by contrast, highlights their centrality to the story and the extent to which its characters know them.
These creatures occupy the heart of the story and the hearts of its main characters. With war approaching, the world wants fighting machines, éoles bred from American stock and trained at the École Aéronautique where Ian once lived and worked and where flocks of the wild machines roam. But the military-industrial complex insists: to make room for their breeding facilities and stock, the wild fliers must go. Ian is given the task of overseeing their slaughter.
There are other emotional complexities to this story, particularly revolving around Ian’s relationship with Claire, the school’s legendary and crippled former pilot, and Claire’s relationship to the blériot which crippled her. It is as much Claire’s story as Ian’s. Overall the tale evokes a powerful sense of colonial nostalgia and regret. Claire warns Ian: “And the flying beasts—there’s no more room for the wild ones in this world. Soon there won’t be an éole or an antoinette alive that isn’t tame, bred or broke to our need. Soon we’ll forget that they ever ran free. We’ll think we’ve always bred them. We’ll think we made them.” Could it be that the F-16s and jumbo jets of today are descended from these creatures, and the Wright Brothers are a convenient mythology?
“Beside Calais” is a powerful meditation on our domineering and abusive relationship to the natural world (something which most science fiction, with its dreams of technology, takes for granted) and a good story in its own right. Good enough, by its conclusion, that I found it frustrating. The overdone prose and needlessly complex narrative position make the story less accessible than it deserves to be. “Beside Calais” could have been a perfect story but, ironically, falls short of perfection as a result of its author’s ambitions.