Currently Reading - The Year's Best Science Fiction: Fourth Annual Collection


26. “The Gate of Ghosts” by Karen Joy Fowler

I approached this story warily. On the one hand, Karen Joy Fowler has a strong reputation among people whose opinions on sf I respect. On the other, the only story of hers I’d read previously, “The Lake Was Full Of Artificial Things” in the third of these anthologies, did nothing for me. And on a third hand - if I may be so bold - the nature of her reputation suggests “The Lake Was Full Of Artificial Things” could be representative of her work, so while she might be an excellent writer, she might also be one who doesn’t suit my taste.

So, reading this was a bit of mental tug-of-war between yes and no as I was a bit distracted by trying to form an opinion of the writer at the same time as the story.

What we have is a young family, white American woman, Chinese American man, and their toddler daughter. It seems like the mother is overprotective, but the daughter says there’s a special place she goes to, which no one else perceives or believes…

You know, I forgot to say this isn’t science fiction. Not something that bothers me, but I like to mention it because the title of the book says these are science fiction stories.

I had to take some time after reading to appreciate what went on here. Possibly it helped having people on IM to whom I could dump my thoughts immediately; the act of doing so prompted re-evaluation.

My immediate reaction was that this story is ambiguous in just the way I don’t like, when not only interpretation of events but even events themselves are unclear. Like with “Chance” earlier in this collection, I tend to feel that if something as basic as ‘what happened’ is indeterminate, the story may as well not be there (I tend to react similarly against stories which end in memory wiping such that for the characters effectively nothing happened).

Thinking about it a bit more I realised there is quite enough here for me to decide what this story is, to decipher it from within itself. Something I still don’t find to be true of “Chance”. “The Gate of Ghosts” as I see it is divided into three parts, three different characters telling their stories of what it is to go to ‘another place’. First Margaret, seeing her life, her relationship with her daughter Jessica, and what it is in her past that brings her to fear and why she sees death. Second Mei, Jessica’s paternal grandmother, telling a story of China that serves as oblique warning to Jessica. Finally, Jessica herself and what happens to her.

I still don’t know if I like this story but I am surely impressed by it.