Monday, February 14, 2011

Book Review: Above by Stephanie Campisi/Below by Ben Peek

Disclosure: The publisher sent a review copy for the purposes of this review.

I've always believed the future of the book lies with independent presses and just this month, I've read impressive publications from the likes of Papaveria Press and Twelfth Planet Press. As far as production quality is concerned, one needs to actually hold and grasp a copy of Twelfth Planet Press's Doubles Series which Above/Below is part of. It features double covers and one can read the novelettes in either order. Suffice to say, it's not the mainstream presses that publish books like these: they're risky and unconventional and not easily categorized. But to readers, they can be rewarding--if done right. And if Above/Below is any indication of the future, then Twelfth Planet Press is indeed cutting edge.

Now this isn't the first Doubles Series from Twelfth Planet Press that I've read. Roadkill/Siren Beat was an enjoyable romp. Above/Below however goes beyond that previous publication. If either Roadkill or Siren Beat were published individually, they would still work as stories. Combining them into one book, aside from the aesthetic appeal of book design, adds nothing to the narrative. That's not the case with Above/Below however. Again, if either Above or Below were published individually, they would stand well on their own. Combined into this single publication however, they are greater than the sum of their parts, adding another layer that the reader can enjoy. There is also the impact of reading them in a different order, setting a different expectation for the second story read. The book is laid out in such a way that one could start with Ben Peek's Below before reading Stephanie Campisi's Above. What I've come to realize, especially since I was reading this book through an eBook rather than print, is that this quality is lost in the electronic version. As a file in my computer, the narrative is linear: the book starts with Above and then transitions into Below. It is possible to simply skip to Below before reading Above but this feels unnatural, especially when Above is the first section of the eBook. That's not the case though with print--and that reminds me of the value of the book as an artifact. There is no strict "beginning" and starting with Below is as legitimate as starting with Above. The only betrayal in the print version is the presence of the book's ISBN. In this specific case, I think I can say the print version provides value that the eBook can never provide.

When it comes to the fiction, the parallels and divergences of each narrative is quite interesting. One can't help but compare and contrast the two stories and asking which is the superior story feels inevitable but ultimately faulty. The strengths and weaknesses of one story is supplemented by the characteristics of the other, thus forming a symbiotic relationship that's not possible if this were a single novel (as opposed to two narratives that form a novel-length book). Nor is it simply a matter of different perspectives or point of views. Campisi's writing style, while not too different from Peek's, is still her own and has a different voice. I could review Above or Below on their own but that would do no justice to the book. Instead, they must be assessed together and as a whole.

Both stories start with husbands as characters but thematically, that's where their similarities end. In Above, our main character has hope that his lover will get better. In Below, that's not an option and instead, focuses on the character as a father. If we scrutinize this deeper, especially as we progress through each narrative, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the duality of both stories. One could claim, for example, that our protagonist in Above is focused more on reconciliation with his past while with Below, the main character is looking towards the future.

There is also an irony in the choice of characters. The setting of Above for example is supposed to be the more utopian of the two worlds yet our perspective is that of a social outcast. Below, on the other hand, is viewed from the lens of a privileged person, or at least one burdened with the duties of the elite. That we have this kind of interplay is interesting for me as a reader because while it's clear that Campisi and Peek wrote their stories independent of each other (i.e. it's not a collaboration per se), there is a synthesis that works in this kind of format. One can't help but analyze both stories using juxtaposition. Above, for example, is comprised of two or three main characters, and the conflict works on an abstract level (i.e. we never witness first-hand the consequences of the character's actions). Below, on the other hand, has a relatively large cast, and conflict is gritty and personal.

What's common with both narratives however is the strength of their writing. The characters are three dimensional and complex; in fact, much of the conflict stems from the inner turmoil of the characters in their respective stories. The cosmology is rich and layered--to the point that it echoes current concerns whether it's colonialism, imperialism, war, etc.--but both authors aren't lazy when it comes to introducing the world to us. There is no infodump and instead, readers are guided through context clues and organic narration. Above/Below is also the product of compelling writing as the action is upbeat and tension is constant. There was never a moment where I felt I could tear myself away from the book, nor is there wasted space.

Together, the narratives show us the bigger picture but never leads us to a definite answer as to who the moral victor is. In fact, one could jump to easy conclusions at the end of each narrative, but when you take both stories into consideration, we create this space for ambiguity and debate. 

The book also includes "special features" to supplement each narrative. They're not essential reading by any means but enrich the setting.

One of the questions I'm asked when it comes to the craft of writing and speculative fiction is whether the genre has done anything new or remarkably different. Most of the time, I have no valid reply. A short story is a short story after all, irregardless of genre. It's not everyday after all that we come across a book like The Griffin and Sabine trilogy or City of Saints and Madmen: The Book of Ambergris in which the medium or the storytelling technique changes everything. Above/Below is one such book and I say that not just because of the format but due to the quality of the writing as well. While short and immediate, one could spend a long time analyzing the book, poring over the details, debating the politics of the setting, and analyzing the nuances of Campisi and Peek's technique. They're compelling novelettes in their own right but together, a must-read novel for any reader--genre or otherwise--and is easily one of my favorites for 2011.

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