Howard Waldrop, et al., Custer's Last Jump and Other Collaborations (Golden Gryphon, 2003)
In case you've never encountered him before, Howard Waldrop possesses quite possibly the most gloriously diseased mind of this or any other generation. As a writer, his strange and fertile imagination knows no equals. Over the course of his 30-plus year career, Waldrop has come into contact with, and infected, numerous other writers with his particular brand of madness. The proof is held within the covers of this book. Fasten your seatbelts -- not even a Grateful Dead retrospective could prepare you for the long, strange trip that begins here.
Waldrop's victims, er, collaborators, are an interesting bunch: Bruce Sterling, George R.R. Martin, Jake "Buddy" Saunders, Dr. Al Jackson, Leigh Kennedy and Steven Utley. No two stories are alike, and the tones struck range from the serious to the sublime to the outright silly. Even when the writing teams are putting the meaning of "outlandish" sorely to the test, they do so with such a straight face that the reader is halfway convinced to take what's presented as gospel truth. There are a handful of short essays on writing thrown in by Waldrop, but while these are interesting, it's the fiction that is the main attraction here.
Take, for example, the title story, written with Utley. "Custer's Last Jump" is exactly what you think it is: General George Armstrong Custer, commander of the United States' elite paratrooper brigade, meets his end at the hands of Crazy Horse and a squadron of vintage Confederate monoplanes at the Battle of Little Bighorn. By the same token, it's nothing like you expect. It is more, oh, so much more than that. It's not a lark, a spoof, or a send-up of alternate history. Sure, there's a wry amusement obvious behind every word, but if this were nothing more than a one-note joke, why is there a pitch-perfect excerpt from Mark Twain's unpublished volume Huckleberry Among the Hostiles? Who can take such an authority as the Smithsonian Annals of Flight, Vol. 39: The Air War in the West at anything more than historic fact? Or the reprinted article from the December 2, 1939 issue of Collier's Magazine? No, "Custer's Last Jump" is perhaps one of the greatest examples of inspired alternate history ever, behind, perhaps, only Waldrop's other alternate history tour de force, "The Ugly Chickens." The only drawback to this story is the fact that readers will forevermore be tormented by the fact they will never get to see Erroll Flynn, Olivia deHavilland and Anthony Quinn in the Warner Brothers motion picture "They Died with Their Chutes On."
Utley strikes again in "Willow Beeman," which presages the goofy humor of Futurama by close to two-and-a-half decades. An absurd take on the I Am Legend, last-man-on-Earth motif, "Willow Beeman" manages to conclude with a groan-inducing punchline and hold its head high while doing so. Much more substantial is Utley's final contribution, the haunting "Black as the Pit, from Pole to Pole," which follows the travails of Frankenstein's monster as he makes his way through the bowels of the hollow Earth after surviving death at the North Pole. In the process, the tortured beast crashes the subterranean civilizations penned by Burroughs, with dashes of Poe and Melville thrown in before things turn ugly -- literally -- with a Lovecraftian flavor. "Black As the Pit" manages to capture the essence of both Mary Shelly's original novel and the James Whale movies that followed, as well as the works of other 19th century authors. For anyone interested in seeing how literary conflation was done before Alan Moore turned his pen towards the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, look no further.
"One Horse Town," Kennedy's contribution, is the most quiet in tone of all the stories here. Coincidentally, it's also the most recent piece. Following an account told parallel in three different eras, the reader watches as a young Homer climbs over the ruins of a once-great city, which inspires him to pursue the life of a poet; a modern-day archaeological dig as the team leaders struggle to find conclusive, physical evidence of the existence of characters from The Iliad; and finally ancient Troy itself, as the citizens, weary after a decade of non-stop war, are tempted sorely by a dubious offer of peace. Bittersweet and melancholy throughout, this story will make it hard to ever view the Trojan War the same again.
"The Latter Days of the Law," written with Sterling, is original to this collection, although the story itself was begun years ago. Another low-key piece, the tale focuses on a complex, secret history of feudal Japan, complete with all the complexities and intrigues of that setting you'd expect from a Sterling story. Indeed, "The Latter Days of the Law" reads much more like a Sterling tale than a Waldrop one, which is somewhat surprising, since Waldrop's writing voice, while adaptable, is very distinctive. Another departure from the norm is "Sun's Up!" written with Dr. Jackson, a balls-to-the-wall hard SF interstellar adventure featuring an A.I. that really, really doesn't want to die when the star it's sent to study decides to go nova. It's the kind of intelligent, fun SF that Analog was once known for under Ben Bova and is a real treat, if only because it's so atypical of Waldrop's normal output.
Significantly grimmer, but more in line with the traditional voice associated with Waldrop, is the Saunders piece "A Voice and Bitter Weeping." The story is -- get this -- a future history set in 1999 (which makes it some sort of retro-futurian alternate history now, doesn't it?) in which Texas has seceded from a disintegrating United States, and the Israeli Army, now mercenaries without a homeland, is contracted to bring the rogue state to heel. It's a rough-and-tumble, grit in your teeth kind of war story, complete with lasers, tanks and battleships and very little comic relief. It's a gripping read, one that will make you curse publishers for letting the extended novel version of this, The Texas-Israeli War: 1999, remain out of print for so long. But then I suspect there is an obscure federal statute somewhere which requires all Waldrop books to go out of print before anyone can buy them, so in that light, The Texas-Israeli War: 1999 is in good company.
One of only two disappointments in the collection is "The Men of Greywater Station," a servicable SF version of Zulu, set on a planet dominated by an intelligent, devious fungus. The story is dour and grim the entire way, with a fairly obvious (if clever) twist ending but few of Waldrop's trademark quirks thrown in to liven things up. To further muddy the waters, in his rambling introduction to the piece, Martin seems to go out of the way to point out that all the best bits in the story were his, and that Waldrop didn't have all that much to do with writing it in the first place. A writer of Martin's stature doesn't need to be territorial, so I'm not entirely sure what to make of his comments. A very strange vibe indeed for a story that really doesn't feel like it belongs.
The other disappointment deals with what this book is lacking, to whit, stories. Four stories, to be exact. These samples contained here do not represent the totality of Waldrop's collaborative output, and anyone who tells you otherwise is an outright liar. "Even The Children Know" and "Crab" were written with Utley, "Up Uranus!" originally published as written by one "F.D. Wyatt" but in reality a tag-team effort among Waldrop, Utley and George Proctor, and finally, "Time and Variance," written by Waldrop with Saunders and, yep, you guessed it, Utley again. Now, the only reason I can fathom that these stories were ignored (other than their being godawful pieces of excrement, which is inconceivable where published Waldrop is concerned) is that the publishers feared some sort of Utley over-saturation. For shame. No one complains that Niven and Pournelle work together too much, do they? The quantity as well as quality of Waldrop's individual collaborations are of as much interest to readers in a historical context, not to mention the sheer entertainment value. These orphan collaborations were originally published over 1973-75, in markets that no longer exist. If they are not represented in a collection of Waldrop collaborations seemingly custom-made for such oddities, then I ask you, where will we see them? Certainly not anywhere else -- Utley's long-overdue collection, Ghost Seas, from a few years back didn't feature any of them, and Proctor and Saunders aren't likely to put out collections any time soon, either. It's injustices like this what cause unrest.
In any event, Custer's Last Jump and Other Collaborations is the single most important "can't miss" volume of the year. Which almost guarantees that if you blink, you'll miss it. Do yourself a favor and track this book down, and learn for yourself why so many acknowledge Waldrop as an unparalleled master of short fiction.
[Jayme Lynn Blaschke]
Howard Waldrop's Web site can be found here, and features an exhaustive list of all the Waldrop stories and books you can't read because stupid publishers keep letting them go out of print. (Note from the editor: Try ABE or one of the other online used book sources.)