Gunning for the Buddha by Michael Jasper

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"Gunning for the Buddha"
"Goddamn Redneck Surfer Zombies"
"Visions of Suburban Bliss"
"A Feast at the Manor"
"Working the Game"
"Mud and Salt"
"Crossing the Camp"
"Black Angels"
"The Disillusionist"
"Coal Ash and Sparrows"
"An Outrider’s Tale"
"Natural Order"

ImageThis is a marvelous collection, full of intelligence and keen insight; at the same time, it rarely forgets to be entertaining. I only recently discovered Michael Jasper‘s work, and am glad for having done so.

"Gunning for the Buddha" is an interesting spin of the old maxim, "If you meet a Buddha on the road, kill him." The violent protagonists of the story do exactly that—they meet a hitchhiking Buddha on their mad dash to another temporal jump. The protagonists have discovered a way to travel through time and space with nothing more than a bridge and a car. I don’t want to give too much away, but the tables turn in the end, leading to a sad and profound resolution.

"Goddamn Redneck Surfer Zombies" is about (you guessed it) surfing zombies. That is, they start out eating people’s brains, just like any zombie would, but the locals teach zombies to surf, and the new passion distracts them from mayhem. In less skilled hands, that would be an interesting gimmick but not much of a story. Jasper throws in a narrator—a man who likes to fish and surf, and who is getting old. The end result is a bittersweet meditation on mortality and afterlife, and a strong message of hope.

"Visions of Suburban Bliss" is my least favorite story of the bunch. Many can relate to the trials of the protagonist—going to work every day, yoked to a soul-deadening labor to feed the family, confined in a suburb, and believing that he made it by moving to a gated community. It had a nice weird quality to it, and the protagonist’s suffocation in the heat and uniformity, his longing for something better, something more diverse, is almost palpable. Still, I felt that the story was a bit thin, and the ending was a letdown.

"A Feast at the Manor" is lovely. Rob and Melinda go to a weight-loss facility, where they are tortured by horrible exercise and deprivation. The writing is so vivid, I could taste the chalky shakes they were given instead of meals. Is it any wonder that the inmates rebel and order pizza? As a consequence, they discover a sinister secret behind the facility’s success. While I wasn’t crazy about the sinister secret itself, the rest of the story more than made up for it. Jasper’s skill of sympathetic observation shines in this tale—it is impossible not to love his overweight protagonists, far as they may be from the current ideal of a human body.

"Unplugged" is a decent story, dealing with the hackers addicted to technology. It is sort of Kesey meets Cronenberg, and makes for a quick and enjoyable read. While the subject matter is not particularly new, I found the setting of a drug rehab facility interesting and well done, and the view of technology as an addictive vice, refreshing.

"Working the Game" continued the theme of a man being trapped in his work. The bleak future painted in the story seemed disturbingly close at times. Everyone has to accumulate a certain number of work points, after which they can cross the great wall that separates the world of work from the world of leisure where you live in a warm cocoon and everything you can possibly desire is delivered to you. It reminded me of so many people who work insane hours in order to retire early; for the privilege of doing nothing tomorrow, they are killing themselves today. And the chilling ending was as surprising as it was unavoidable. I just wish there was more of this story, since some very interesting threads (cloneslaves, for one) were left unresolved and underexplained. Nonetheless, a great, if depressing, read.

Linked stories "Explosions," "Wantaviewer," "Mud and Salt," and "Crossing the Camp" all explore the same situation, so I am going to discuss them together. All four detail the arrival of aliens, Wannoshay, to Earth. The stories deal with the interactions between the aliens and humans, and they ring true. The paranoia, the fear of the other, the judgmental attitudes and lightning-quick stereotyping seemed very accurate, if unflattering. Moreover, Jasper’s aliens are believable—they are neither monsters bent on world domination nor flawlessly wise and adorable aliens that dominate science fiction. Wannoshay are different from us, different to the point of frustrating any attempt at mutual understanding; at the same time, there are glimpsed possibilities of finding a common language, especially haunting in the first and the last of these four stories. And Wannoshay are not perfect; if they were, it would be all too easy to be outraged at the injustice and cruelty with which they are treated. But they are flawed—prone to violent outbursts, fond of mind-altering drugs, and not altogether friendly. The question is, of course, whether only perfect beings deserve compassion and respect. These four stories are worth the price of the hardcover by themselves.

"Black Angels" is one of the more traditional stories of the bunch—not that it’s a bad thing. It has angels and demons doing battle in a graveyard, and overall it’s a nice creepy tale. I was somewhat perplexed that the Wandering Jew and Judas were lumped into a single character, and wish this development was explored in greater detail.

"The Disillusionist" features a well-known historical figure, early in his career, chasing after a man who devastates every town he goes through by his sinister "magic"—taking away people’s illusions. A very thoughtful exploration of the place of illusion and truth, with nice special effects. I especially liked the Disillusionist’s tricks—such as pulling a dead rabbit out of a hat.

I first read "Coal Ash and Sparrows" in Asimov’s, and was pleased to revisit this magical tale. While it feels like a fragment of a larger tale, it is still spell-binding. The centerpiece of the story is a book of magic that falls into the hands of Lina, a nine-year-old girl. Her father before her read this book on the voyage from Ireland to America, and now it is Lina’s turn. The catch is that the book only allows one "journey" per person, and Lina’s takes over a hundred years. While the plot appears conventional (a young person finds a magic book), the way Jasper handles it is unique, strange, and moving.

"An Outrider’s Tale" is a straight-up fantasy, mixing fairy-tale with a ghost story in a way that is both fresh and satisfying. It has a bit of battle, a bit of magic, but mostly it’s a story about regret and redemption. The milieu is a mix between medieval and fairy-tale, and the protagonists are well-drawn and sympathetic. This type of story is the main reason I read fantasy.

"Natural Order" is an appropriate closer for this collection—many of the previously explored themes resurface in this tale. The group of protagonists—Zed, Mrs. Thompson, Missy, and the greyhound named Walt Whitman—travel all over the country on the orders from their mysterious Bosses, maintaining the balance of nature. Each has their special power, and each is aware of their purpose; but that does not mean that they do not have their doubts. Moreover, interference of humans throws the balance off more and more frequently. This intensely moving story asks some profound questions—what is the place of human beings in the natural order? Is life more valuable than duty? Are even the worst of us deserving of forgiveness?

Overall, I highly recommend this collection. It is well-written, intelligent, and honest. Moreover, it explores some deep themes in a grown-up way—that is, it offers no easy answers or definitive resolutions. But if you like your reading to affect you on an emotional level and linger for a while afterwards, this book will do just that.

Publisher: Prime Books (January 2005)
Hardback. $29.95.
Cover art by Jamie Bishop.