Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Time Travelers, Ghosts, and Other Visitors (Five Star, 2003)

I have read some wonderful stories by Nina Kiriki Hoffman in various anthologies and magazines. The chilling and ultra-original “A Touch of the Old Lilith,” for instance, or the sweetly poignant “Home For Christmas.”

So I was disappointed to find that Time Travelers, Ghosts, and Other Visitors is not a career retrospective collecting all, most, or even much of her short fiction, but a slim collection of eight recent stories. Neither of the stories I mention above are included.

Hoffman has previously published two volumes of short stories, A Legacy of Fire and Courting Disasters and Other Strange Affinities. Unfortunately, both of those were published by small presses and are now out of print.

Several of the stories in Time Travelers contain plot elements which I’m allergic to, primarily because I have so often been buttonholed by flakes who are convinced that such things really happen: things like groups of Satanists making human sacrifices, for instance, or ghosts inhabiting living humans who then manifest multiple personalities.

Hoffman and I also have very different views on the nature of evil and how one should respond to it. (In a nutshell, I’m more inclined toward justice than forgiving and moving on.) In most cases, her skill as a writer enabled me to enjoy her stories despite my philosophical disagreements with the lessons her protagonists learn.

“The Skeleton Key” was nominated for a Nebula for best novelette in 1994, and is a better story than David Gerrold’s sentimental “The Martian Child,” which won. On the negative side, it contains a coven of evil Satanists and a New Agey view of good and evil. But on the positive side, it also features Hermes, and a thoughtful look at the interactions between the living and the dead. It’s touching and well-written, though ultimately more feel-good than the darkness of the subject matter warrants.

In “Objects of Desire,” aliens influence the minds of children via consumer goods, ostensibly for benevolent reasons. Whether the aliens are really humanitarians, and whether humans will end up thanking them in the long run, is left to the reader to decide. In “Toobychubbies,” aliens influence the minds of children via a TV show. The outcome of their intervention is not left to the reader to decide.

Both stories are intriguing and creepy, but are too similar to each other to have been included in such a short collection. (They’re also not all that dissimilar to “Eggshells,” in which adults influence the minds of children via mandatory bodyswitching.)

“Unleashed” has an intriguing premise, once you swallow the likelihood of two people who involuntarily change shape living in the same apartment building. Even as a metaphor for the suppressed self that everyone hides within, it’s a heck of a coincidence. But it’s a good metaphor.

“Mint Condition” is about a time-traveler from the future who discovers that her time-traveling co-workers have given her a hypnotic suggestion that, while on missions into the past, she will do anything they say and then forget about it afterward. It’s strongly suggested that a number of them used this to rape her and have others rape her. Repeatedly.

I found this so horrifying that the resolution to the story, which involves one sentence worth of comparatively mild revenge against one of the many people who victimized her, came across as depressing in content and inappropriately cheerful in tone.

“Night Life” is an engaging variation on the fairytale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.”

“Entertaining Possibilities” is an amusing but very slight story about magical in-laws from hell.

“Haunted Humans” was nominated for a Nebula for best novella in 1994, but lost to Mike Resnick’s “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge.” It’s a long and technically accomplished cross-genre story, utilizing a cast of thousands — well, tens, at least — even though much of it takes place between two people in a bedroom. One of them has multiple personalities which function in an eccentric yet successful manner. The same can be said of the story itself, which is comic and bloody, suspenseful and romantic, hard to describe but rewarding to read.

“Eggshells” is barely eight pages long, but its central idea could support a novel. Children between the ages of ten and sixteen are assigned new bodies, called shells, every few weeks. They don’t switch gender, but their race, appearance, physical aptitudes, and possibly mental abilities and even personalities are in constant flux. A clunkily handled expository lump explains that the official justification for this is to teach kids empathy. Can they mock a fat teenager or be prejudiced against a black one when just last week, they were fat or black?

An eerie, destabilizing undercurrent flows beneath the story’s surface, in which the protagonist goes to school on a day when everyone’s changed shells, and begins to wonder about the practice. What if her best friend is really someone else? Would it make a difference? Is it her or her new shell making her wonder about such things? Is there a difference? And is the ostensible reason for shelling the real one?

Of all the stories in the collection, “Eggshells” has the best balance of dark and light, and is the best showcase for Hoffman’s characteristic themes and tones. Its kind and quirky characters navigate a landscape of half-seen and sinister shapes, holding each other’s hands.

I’m still hoping for a more substantial collection of Hoffman’s short work. But if you’re a fan of hers, this should tide you over till that happy day arrives.

[Rachel Manija Brown]