Title: Wandering Realities: The Mormonish Short Fiction of Steven L. Peck
Author: Steven L. Peck
Publisher: Zarahemla Books
Genre: Short Story Collection
Year Published: 2015
Number of Pages: 219
Binding: Trade Paperback
Also available as an ebook
Reviewed by Jonathan Langford.
Steve Peck is an alien. A kind of geeky-looking one (wholly appropriate for a professor of evolutionary biology), friendly, congenial, but an alien nonetheless. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for how, in this set of 16 stories, he so consistently manages to provide such startlingly different, yet at the same time deeply insightful, perspectives on the culture and religion he has adopted for his own.
Which is about the only thing these stories — which range from short to long, humor to pathos, realism to postmodernly zany, contemporary to historical to science fiction — have in common. Eight of them have been previously published, in venues ranging from Irreantum to Covenant to the Everyday Mormon Writer contest. Yet the effect is not incoherent. Rather, it provides a sense of the range of Peck’s work, which includes something that will, I guarantee, appeal to pretty much everyone with the slightest interest in reading fiction about the Mormon experience: highbrow or lowbrow, literary or popular, funny or serious, light or thought-provoking. It’s pretty much all here. And while not every story is equally polished, each provides something interesting and (here’s that word again) different.
Full disclosure: I’m a friend of Steve’s (hey, we aliens need to stick together). My first exposure to him was secondhand through my son Nathan, as they worked together in an ultimately failed effort (through no fault of their own) to keep Life, the Universe and Everything on the BYU campus. For almost three years now, I’ve been part of an online writing group with him, Scott Parkin, and William Morris. (Our numbers originally included Kathleen Woodbury, who had to drop out due to other commitments.) Also, I got a free copy of the book, in exchange for proofreading a draft. (The first thing I saw when I opened a print copy was a typo I had missed. Sigh.)
Despite which, I had never, as it turned out, actually read any of the pieces in this collection before. Which made proofreading an especially pleasant process of discovery. From time to time, I would leave my computer to quote particularly funny lines to other members of my family, or summarize a story I had just read (or was currently reading). It was that kind of experience. In the interests of preserving that experience for others, I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers here — but some are nonetheless unavoidable. So if you’re the type for whom knowing about a story before reading it ruins the reading experience, then stop now, buy the book, and discover for yourself.
The collection is divided into two parts: Part I, Other Worlds, with nine stories, and Part II, This World. Which, while accurate enough, is less than usually meaningful, since the “other worlds” described are often as not just a slightly offbeat version of our own, while “this world” includes an imagined setting in sixth century B.C. Mesopotamia.
I’ll start with the first story, “Avek, Who Is Distributed” — a short (four-page) reflection on how alien biology might interact with Mormon practice reminiscent of Eric James Stone’s Nebula Award-winning “That Leviathan Whom Thou Hast Made” (another must-read in Mormon science fiction). However, Peck’s story, to my mind, possesses a more profoundly Mormon theme and a deeper emotional impact. It is, perhaps, less polished, and I honestly don’t know what a non-Mormon reader would make of it. The key question of the story is how to adapt the essential ordinance of baptism to an entity for whom the physical act is frankly impossible — something perhaps trivial to a nonbeliever, but deeply important both to Avek, the Mormon convert AI, and to POV character Elder Windle, the Seventy responsible for artificial-life relations, whose well-meaning intentions are stymied by his inability to find a satisfactory solution. Metaphorically, the story is about how the gospel, if it is to be truly universal, must extend beyond the historical mainstream. For me, this was a deeply moving story — studded with small, almost cartoonish throwaway details of how everyday life and the Church itself might have evolved in ways transparent to the POV character but unexpected for us. (I particularly like the reference to “Elder Janxvon, the first android apostle and former starship captain whose stories of adventures were always a favorite at general conference.”) Some readers with a distaste for science fiction might find such details distracting; I found them delightful.
Conversion is also a theme of “The Gift of the King’s Jeweler,” a novella (or is that novelette?) that tells the story of a jeweler in ancient Babylon, a convert to the Jewish religion, who in a dream is inspired to make a peculiar brass instrument, then ultimately leave it on the ground outside the camp of what seem to him an uncilized band of vagabonds (who even eat their meat raw!). A consistent theme in this story is the jeweler’s efforts to discern what his duty is in respect to the worship of his new god, based on the promptings he feels — sometimes aided but more often hindered by the (sometimes hilariously mistaken) advice he receives, social expectations among family and associates unsympathetic to his new religion, and his own reasoning. While the story’s impact was (for me) reduced at times by too much of the flavor of the standard Mormon conversion story, complete with explication of basic doctrines, the premise, characters, and setting were sufficient to keep me engaged, and even moved. This is a “feel-good” Mormon story, but a well done and unusually imagined one — a description I hope won’t put off potential readers.
Mormon life gets a variety of humorous and zany snapshots in some of Peck’s smaller pieces. “The Best Pinewood Derby Ever” — another four-pager — will delight anyone who has suffered through this quintessential Mormon trial of charity and patience. (I printed out a copy and passed it around at church.) “When the Bishop Started Killing Dogs” is a similarly humorous human look at how the trials of life can (and often do) turn even the faithful slightly crazy, while with “Bishop, Banker, Grocer, Fry,” Peck has (to the best of my knowledge) invented a style I can only refer to as “bishop noir.” Zanier still is “Rennact,” a quick look at what a pioneer reenactment of the future might look like, while “The Captain Makes a Friend on the Day His Cravings and Listings Disappear” gives a conversation between two spirits — one a pirate captain — watching as their temple work is done. “Question Four,” though only tangentially Mormon, is either a hilarious depiction of craziness-slash-obsession, or the kind of creative response that graduate school applications deserve but, sadly, never get. Other applications of science fiction convention to a Mormon setting include “Forgotten Zero,” a time travel story; “Recreated in His Image,” another story about personal choices in obedience to faith; “A Strange Report from the Church Archives,” in which James E. Talmage tackles a device that (maybe?) allows reality to be altered; and “Runners,” a postapocalyptic story in which strangers help each other escape from a danger that is never fully explicated.
On a lengthier note is “Let the Mountains Tremble, for Adoniha Has Fallen,” which postulates how a splitoff LDS Church on Mars might have evolved during centuries of isolation from Earth. Faced with a Church leadership who do not understand the implications of Earth’s superior technology, the point of view character — again a “Seventy,” though in this context that means something more like a cross between a medieval country squire and a religious knight — and his fellows must choose between obedience to constituted authority and acting for what they see as the salvation of their people. This is the kind of story we like to imagine would not happen in God’s True Church, and I suppose it’s easy enough to dismiss the Church of Jesus Christ of Martian Saints as clearly apostate, if you’re of such a mind. For me, it was an engaging re-imagining of Mormonism in a distinctly “other” culture (the use of dodos for Christmas dinner just scratches the surface), but ultimately a painful story of a man who (in the story’s last words) “believed himself damned, but who loved Mars more than his own soul.”
Similarly troubling, though in a purely realistic and more personal (as opposed to society-saving) setting, is “Two-dog Dose,” the story of a man whose friend, mind breaking down from Alzheimer’s, invokes a terrible pact they had made during trips into Utah’s Canyonlands. Here is one place I have to invoke spoilers: this is probably not a story you want to give to someone with strong triggers in the areas of either Alzheimer’s or assisted suicide. A powerful, powerful story nonetheless — with sympathies for all involved, particularly the POV character, no longer himself a believer, who does his best to get out of fulfilling his promise but is unable to escape in the end.
Rounding out the collection, the humanity of those in leadership positions is a theme in both “The Problem” — the story of a bishop beset by temptation, who happily does not fall victim to it in the end — and “Exactness,” a slight piece in praise of Carole King’s song “Tapestry” and of some degree of flexibility in applying the established standards to music in church meetings.
So, should you buy this book?
I’m planning on buying another copy. In fact, probably several. I’ll have to think about which of my relatives and friends would most appreciate it; as mentioned, some of the stories won’t be to everyone’s taste, or might cause pain for some readers. Still, I urge you to give it a try. Taken as a whole, this collection is one of the freshest, most engaging, and most entertaining contributions to Mormon literature that I’ve seen in a long while.