Read this slim book in one sitting and you’ll get a perfect overview of the career of Elizabeth Hand. There’s the witty, subversive fiction. There’s an autobiographical piece – “Beyond Belief: On Becoming a Writer.” There are two biographical portraits of fine writers who are in danger of slipping out of public consciousness. And there’s an interview with the author conducted by writer/editor Terry Bisson. Fact and fiction, then. And some stuff in between.
Of the three short stories here, two deal with affairs of the heart while the title story – “Fire.” – puts us in the midst of a bickering, post-apocalyptic community hiding out God-knows-where. As the joke doesn’t go, “a poet, a firefighter, a nuclear physicist guy, a director, an illusionist and a stand-up comic all walk into a bar.” Except in this case it’s some kind of bunker instead of a bar and resources are running low. And there’s no punch-line.
As powerful as the fiction is an autobiographical essay first published in 2004. Hand has lived an extraordinary and, in many ways, harrowing life. As a youngster, she ran wild in the three-cornered triangle of sex, drugs and rock and roll (she was an early Patti Smith devotee and saw The Ramones and Talking Heads before they were famous). Reading appears to have been her one consistent solace. She went from The Jungle Book to The Hobbit to Beowulf before taking a detour into sci-fi. As a winner of The Nebula and World Fantasy Awards, she’s never left that detour. Her story is marked by personal tragedy, but she writes about it coolly, dispassionately, with what le Carré once called a splinter of ice in the heart.
The two essay/portraits are about Tom Disch and Alice Sheldon, who found fame publishing under the name James Tiptree Jr until she was exposed. Eventually, wracked with depression, Sheldon killed her elderly husband before killing herself in a suicide pact. Disch, author of the great novel On Wings of Song, was another suicide.
Judging from her subject matter in this collection, Hand is drawn to the darkness. Yet she writes with a light touch. The New York Times calls her “a superior stylist.” For me, she’s a natural storyteller who can do it all: straight reportage, post-punk noir, autobiography and fantasy. That’s quite a package, and this is quite a book.