Let’s get this clear first. The Signalman is not a signalman he’s actually a special agent hooking up with a mysterious woman, an intelligence operative called Immacolata (love the name) in an Arizona diner. Clarity is an important issue as regards this Lovecraftian novelette by Caitlin R. Kiernan, as you can find yourself getting lost in its wonderfully written, viscerally engaging but sometimes difficult to absorb passages. The Signalman issue is the easy bit. But you can’t argue with a writing style that has brought her two World Fantasy Awards, two Bram Stoker Awards and a James Tiptree Jr Award.
This genre of science fiction is also gruesome and unerving enough to be comfortably termed horror. In the early chapters the Signalman and Immacolata are thumbing through an envelope of black and white photos and a strange tarot and you, certainly, don’t expect this to act as a catalyst for an alien invasion and the release of deadly spores that cause faces to explode.
Charles Manson-like cult leader Drew Standish has a central role in all of this but you’d be pushed to grasp exactly how. Is he the instigator? Is he working with the aliens? Is he an alien in human guise collecting human souls? Much of the chapters around Drew have a dream-like, trippy quality. Deliberate, because his followers are fallen types such as heroin addict Chloe who provides much of the first person narrative in these chapters. Again, it’s only halfway into Chloe’s introductory chapter that you realize who she is, what her relationship with Drew is and who Drew is anyway and by that time you’re too confused to meaningfully absorb this. What we do know is Drew feeds them rattlesnakes and green tea and keeps telling them the last days are coming.
Planetary probe New Horizons makes his prophecy come true when it stumbles upon ‘something’ orbiting Pluto. It is organic rather than mechanical in nature but to all extent and purposes is a satellite itself – just a very advanced and nasty one. What’s refreshing here onwards is the novelette doesn’t try to sell itself as a conventional alien invasion story. There’s a heavy, claustrophobic sense of mystery clawing at you throughout. Descriptive references to the aliens are brief so that you are driven by the grotesque realities of the unfolding events rather than a search for little green men (they are neither small nor green). And, of course, the author’s grim, noirish take on the Earth’s destruction as against the comparative whimsical fairy tales of Star Trek and Star Wars.
Hardcore fans of sci-fi literature will love the dark fantasy it weaves and appreciate the foggy, under-informed language but perhaps the average reader will find it heavy going.
Agents of Dreamland (Caitlin R. Kiernan) Paperback £6.99 Kindle Edition £2.22