Made in Canada Review
"I Knew a Guy Once"
by Tanya Huff
From the anthology Space Inc.
edited by Julie E. Czerneda
Publication July 1st, 2003
DAW Books Inc.
ISBN : 0-7564-0147-X
Mass Market Paperback
Cover art by Jean-Pierre Normand
Reviewed by Pat Forde
All short stories/novelettes seem to me to be set during that midnight hour when feverish thoughts must fly up from the page, and everything the story must do must be done before the clock strikes one.
No time for the telling detail. Clock is tick-tocking, pages are flying by, The End is nigh . . . Thus, a concise writing style suits this length best. Or, as Strunk and White put it in rule #17 of the Little Book: "Omit needless words."
"I Knew a Guy Once" is a tale that shows a delightful disregard for the length limits placed upon the writer. The pacing of this tale, which manages to read rapidly while feeling leisurely-paced, enhanced the story’s overall intrigue for me. How, I thought, can the scenes I’m reading be taking the time to show me the smallest of telling details and introduce the most minor characters when the final page will be coming round the mountain when she comes?
Which is another way of saying, Damn, I’m most of the way into this story and I haven’t got a bloody idea where it’s heading, or how it’s going to bow out!
Tick tock. Turn the page.
Please don’t mistake the matter. Ms. Huff has mastered the concise, as in the following lines:
"His tone touched patronizing."
"The klaxon’s sudden bellow clamped his hands to the arms of his seat."
Lines that get the point across, get the job done, get on with it . . . Certainly the concise, precise writing in "I Knew a Guy Once" leads the reader on rapidly and offers some electric passages where the terse and the tense intersect, as in:
"‘Perhaps we’ll meet again.’
"‘Could happen. It’s a small station in a big universe.’"
"His grip was a little too emphatic. A young man with something to prove."
"Don’t need to prove it to me. Her grip matched his exactly."
Needless words omitted, yes.
The brisk writing directs the reader through a sequence of scenes that feel as if they are all "intro." Until the final page, there’s a sense that we’re still at the beginning of a longer tale than "I Knew a Guy Once" can possibly be. An inspired method of misdirection, if there ever was one, for misdirection is the main weapon in the arsenal of the short story writer, allowing the writer to lead logically toward the end in a short space indeed, and still have the reader arrive there without having spotted the end beforehand. Tick tock, tick tock; time’s racing. Did I mention that Ms. Huff does damn fine feminist Heinleinesque in this finale to the Space, Inc. anthology?
Well, she does.
When our main character, Able, an older woman whose "short gray hair seemed to have been hacked off during a power shortage," arrives on a Jovian orbital station where "the only thing that got processed faster than the gas pumped off Jupiter was gossip," the first thing she does is head down to the Quartermaster’s office to learn more about her posting as the new bartender.
"‘You’ve got standard quarters behind the bar. You got six servers, burnouts for the most part--I think Webster was paying at least one of them in booze.’
‘‘I know. I’m the one who asked you to drag your ass out to the armpit of the universe, remember? Usual drill.... Jonathon!’
"One of the clerks jerked and peered over the top of his monitor.
"‘Where’s my freakin’ ass-Quart?’"
Sure, the QM sounds like she’s out of Starship Troopers, but she’s an old girlfriend of Our Girl Able. Most of the strong leadership roles on the station in "I Knew a Guy Once" are held by women who are, well, able.
Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock.
Did I say Ms. Huff does some mighty badass Heinlein riffs?
Well, hell, yes she does!
And they appear faster and funnier as the story piledrives into its final pages, while STILL feeling as though it’s in the set-up/intro/early build-up to the big event phase. Midnight hour’s almost up, story’s progressing fine--but progressing to where? How to wrap? Surely she can’t possibly pull an appropriate end out of this long wind-up, can she?
We STILL can’t *guess* where it’s going! Which is half the fun with this length of tale.
The surprise of how a short story/novelette writer ties it off, neatly delivers, against expectations, a denouement that’s obvious in hindsight: That’s the goal. But before this review considers whether "I Knew a Guy Once" reaches it, consider the following badass bits between bartender and clientele:
"‘I like to know when it’s getting better.’
"‘Yeah? Well, what I’d like to know is where you get off tellin’ us how to fuckin’ behave.’
"‘I don’t. I tell you what I won’t put up with. You choose how to behave.’"
Or when some snooty suits drop by the bar, uninvited.
"‘Evening. Don’t you lot usually drink in lower amid?’
"‘We’ve been hearing good things about this place.’ He folded his arms and managed to simultaneously look up at her and stare down his nose."
Or when the opening character finally drops by the bar, right on the last page:
"‘It’s a small station in a big universe, Able. How’ve you been?’
"‘Good. What can I get you?’
"She set the mug down, studied him for a moment, then slid over two sugars. No creamer.
Ms. Huff rocks; oh yeah. But uh-oh, it’s . . .
The clock strikes one. Hour’s gone. Time’s up. No more pages left.
Let me state categorically and emphatically here that "I Knew a Guy Once" wraps with a surprising pitch-perfect ending--one I should have seen coming. Obvious in hindsight--just as it should be.
And let me say this also: I am deep, deep into complexity and systems theory, and in this story a Butterfly Effect is applied with gusto, affection and badass panache .
I knew a story once, and when it was over, realized it ended in the perfect place.
And I didn’t really want it to end.
Those are the best tales of all, natch.