Aventine, Lee Killough (1982)
Review by Ian Sales
Short story collections set in a single locale are nothing new in science fiction – nor, indeed, in fiction as a whole. The same might also be said of stories set in an artists’ colony – whether it is St Ives, Cornwall, or Laguna Beach, California, or an entirely different planet altogether. The seven stories in Aventine are set in the eponymous town, located in the mountains an hour by “cabletrain” from Gateside, a galactic transport hub. An introduction expains how Aventine was once an artists’ colony but it is now chiefly populated by the rich and famous and reclusive – each story revolves around someone who is famous, although their narrators generally are not (all of the stories are in the first-person).
‘The Siren Garden’ is told by one of Aventine’s artisanal tradesmen. He specialises in “silicavitae”, singing gems, which are actually a crystalline lifeform. One day, the beautiful wife of a rich and pwoerful man walks into the narrator’s shop. She becomes fascinated with the gems, spending more and more time in the shop – and the narrator, of course, falls in love with her. She persuades him to design a garden of singing gems, and even finds a way to limit the gems’ sensitivity – as the sounds they make reflect the emotions of the people around them. Her motives, however, are not as pure as the narrator had believed… as he eventually discovers.
‘Tropic of Eden’ is also centred around a beautiful woman, and a narrator who falls in love with her. This woman is a famous actress, and the narrator is one of Aventine’s artists, a sculptor. She commissions a piece from him, a psychotropic sculpture. The more time he spends with her, the more he is puzzled by the actress’s young cousin – except, of course, she is not a cousin at all, as her close resemblance to the actress indicates.
‘A House Divided’ follows the same pattern of as the previous two stories: a beautiful woman moves to Aventine and one of Aventine’s male residents, who initially enters into a professional relationship with her, falls in love, and it all ends badly. The woman in this case has two distinct personalities – one which is in a fugue state when the other is dominant, while the other remains aware at all times. The first is frightened of the second, and although they have agreed to share their body, six months each per year, she is afraid the other is trying to take over permanently.
‘Broken Stairways, Walls of Time’ slightly reverses the pattern, inasmuch as the man is the visitor to Aventine and the woman the resident. However, they had been lovers years before – also in Aventine – and he has returned to record a holo symphony featuring some of the more indulgent architecture of the town’s wealthy homeowners. One of which is his ex-lover, once a famous singer but now a total recluse, who surrounds herself with holographic facsimiles of herself.
‘Shadow Dance’ returns to the template: the leader of a male dance troupe is commissioned to choreograph and stage a dance routine for a beautiful woman. The lead male dancer falls in love with the woman’s daughter, and the two decided to run away together. But once the mother learns of this, and accepts that her daughter’s life is her own, the romance is shown to be a sham (on the daughter’s part, that is) to provoke precisely that reaction. The troupe leader has artificial eyes, which can also see in the infra red, as can the mother, and the dance is designed to be seen at that wavelength as well as in visible light.
‘Ménage Outré’ features a famous novelist and his reclusive sister (she is, unlike all the other women in the collection, plain, and has not had “cosmetisculpture” or plastic surgery to remedy this, as is commonplace). A woman rents the property next door, and proves to be a famous cosmetisculpturer… who has surrounded herself with a coterie of grotesques – a hunchbacked dwarf, a snake lady, a lizard man, etc, people who have been surgically altered to be the opposite of standard ideals of beauty. Although the story is about them, they’re little more than ciphers, furniture agianst which the plot regarding the three main characters is played out.
Finally, in ‘Bête et Noir’, the roles are partly reversed – the narrator is a famous actor, who has come to Gateside to appear in a theatre verité play. She will play the lover of a trader who is forced to hand her over as hostage to his alien backer until he has sold a valuable cargo. Theatre verité uses no scripts, only rough notes on the plot, and detailed biographies. The actors take a pill, an “angel”, which creates the role’s personality. The director of the play, however, has more in mind than just impressing an audience.
As I read these stories, something about each one struck me as familiar. I’ve no memory of reading Aventine before – nor does it appear in my records, although I only began recording the books I read some two decades after starting to read science fiction. So it is possible I read this book sometime during the 1980s or earlier, and have since forgotten it. On the other hand, Eric Brown has written several stories, also set in an artists’ colony on another world, which are similar in tone and affect – and I know I’ve read those. But perhaps it’s simply that each story in Aventine seems to follow an established template – man meets beautiful woman (he’s usually a tradesman, she is someone famous), falls in love with her… only for it all to go horribly wrong. More than anything, the similarity of the stories makes the collection feel like a television series, one in which similar characters act out similar histories and so meet similar ends. And yet, despite that, Aventine is not a dull read. The prose is very readable, the individual situations different enough to be memorable, and the setting familiar enough to make the stories simple to parse. You could do much worse than read this book.