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Black Static

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The Late Review: Butterfly Dream

30th Jan, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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Okay, I'm supposed to be reviewing novellas but as only the Great Reviewer in the Sky is allowed to be perfect I've decided to include Butterfly Dream (Snuggly Books) from 2017, a mini-collection of linked short stories by Kristine Ong Muslim, as the flaw in this post-Advent Calendar of reviews.

The book's title refers to the dream of the Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou that he was a butterfly and happy as such, and how on waking he did not know if he was a man who dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly who dreamed he was a man.

In the brief opening piece "Artificial Life" Patty tries day after day to resuscitate her doll, something allowed by others as a gesture to her love of life and recognition of the potential in non-living things. "The Six Mutations of Jerome" concerns a man 'who can be anyone and anything', describing him variously as Hanged Man, Kettle Man, Stick Man, Multiple Personality Disorder, Elizabeth, and Burned Man. Beautifully written, evocative, the story captures the fluidity of identity, suggesting that in some way Jerome is an everyman, representative of the potential inside all of us to be other than we are.

"In the Eye of the Beholder" is a subtle ghost story of sorts, with one-eyed Jimmy wishing to kill one of his parents and seeing the ghost of his mother, only the story's end game reveals the situation is very different. It's a story that covers a lot of ground in only three pages, with an unsettling atmosphere and touching on feelings of loss, grief, and alienation. The young girl who is the protagonist of "The Girl Who Did Not Exist" denies the existence of a girl in a cupboard under the stairs when the authorities speak to her, but there is the suggestion that she is using this denial so as not to have to confront her own suffering, the piece sensitively written and conveying far more than is actually laid out in the narrative.

In "Wreck, Slash, Burn" intelligent machines assigned tasks that border on drudgery try to figure out the difference between themselves and the Master. It's an engaging and clever interrogation of what it ultimately means to be human, with a lovely tongue in cheek feel to the dialogue, and perhaps even more pertinent today given recent developments in Artificial Intelligence. I don't quite know what to make of "The Lonely People" in which various characters seem to take on the qualities of such things as sky, a drain, a house, and so on. There are references to a giant mechanical worm that threatens them, but I'm afraid I simply can't make it all fit into some greater scheme. Intriguing, but too nebulous for my liking.

"Letter to a Certain Dr. Bill" is similarly enigmatic but much shorter, a document labelled 'Property of The Outerbridge Historical Restoration Team' which gives us tantalising glimpses of life in the twenty-third century. References to eternal life, the rarity of rats, purchasing and dismantling wives, the burden of loneliness, all hint at a very different way of life to that we know or, indeed, expect of the future. "The Psychopomps" escort their charges on into the afterlife, or whatever passes for such in this reality, the story only two pages long and delighting with its wistful imagery.

There are links between the various stories, names that recur, while the author's introductory note hints at some overarching schemata, but for this reader it remained teasingly out of reach. I enjoyed the book for the language and imagery, the hints of challenging ideas peeping out from between the lines of text, but I can't claim to understand or appreciate it as something greater than the sum of its parts.  




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