Telling the Map, the first full collection from multiple award nominee Christopher Rowe, features nine previously published stories spanning from 2003 to 2015 as well as an original novella, “The Border State.” These stories are, for the most part, all set in the near- or near-enough-future, exploring a post-Scarcity collapse and restructure of our recognizable social order through a variety of lenses.
However, there is one other consistent thread running through the entirety of the collection, and that is setting. In Telling the Map, Rowe has rendered Kentucky over and over again with a lush, loving, bone-deep accuracy—one that startled and thrilled me so thoroughly, as a fellow native son, that I had to read the book through twice to begin to form a critical opinion.
It’s an objectively good collection of pieces, but it’s also a collection that sang to me in particular.
To be clear, it’s still difficult for me to discuss these stories without discussing the shiver of recognition that followed me through the experience of reading them, so I won’t attempt to do that. Plus, it seems a bit disingenuous. I was born in Bullitt County; I grew up in Bullitt County; I’ve lived elsewhere but I chose to return to Louisville, and I’m writing this review from an apartment in our historical district. The first story in the collection, “The Contrary Gardner,” takes place during the Derby—which the protagonist is exhausted and annoyed by, familiar sentiment—and I had to put the book down for a brief moment at the description of Central Avenue.
As for the reason: this evening, I went into a Starbucks on that same Central Avenue where I’ve gone for years because a friend manages it. I sat at a table and stared out the window at the landscape that has contained all the small personal moments of life for me, and remembered “The Contrary Gardner,” and was inordinately satisfied. Ours is not a state or a space or a culture that gets much attention in fiction, but Rowe does a fantastic job of representing and reimagining it in a different future that is still much the same.
It felt a little as if it has been written for me.
However, there are also a thousand reasons it might’ve been written for someone who hasn’t stepped foot on Central Avenue or driven through the verdant, improbable, rolling hills between Louisville and Lexington that he bequeaths to the Horselords in “The Voluntary State” and its long-awaited sequel novella “The Border State.” The recognition won’t be there—but one would be hard pressed to argue that Rowe’s skill with description doesn’t bring the setting to intense life regardless. It’s perhaps a more honest illustration of the feeling of the Bluegrass than a straightforward piece of nonfiction might offer.
The characters in these stories are part of their landscapes, too. It isn’t just the physical setting that Rowe embraces, it’s the psychological setting—the culture—for these versions of life. In the majority of these stories, set post-Peak Oil, characters have grown within and been rooted to their towns in Kentucky. The older generations remember large-scale travel, but the younger protagonists are unable to recall cars or planes. The dirt on their parents’ feet is the same dirt on their feet. The sense of continuity, of a scope narrowed, is overwhelming; so, too, is the sense of potential and possibility Rowe manages to give his characters despite this seeming restriction on their mobility.
Across these stories, the drive to achieve and to exceed is a common factor. In “The Voluntary State,” “Nowhere Fast,” “The Contrary Gardner,” and “The Border State,” for example, the protagonists in this realistic but strange future Kentucky are all relatively young, relatively motivated to change or challenge the social order of their parents, and relatively successful in that quest. Bloodlines and family loyalties are often a point of pride, but also a point of strain. In “The Border State” the twins’ preacher father and dead mother are known-names for all the other adults encountered in the piece from the Reenactors to the bicycle race managers. The twins themselves have a fraught but close relationship forged on the roads of their town and the surrounding hills.
There are, as with all collections, pieces that stand up less than their neighbors. The flash-fiction piece “Two Figures in a Landscape Between Storms” could’ve been removed and the book would be stronger for it. The imagery is fairly straightforward, not much of particular note, and the tone doesn’t match well with the rest of the included stories. “Gather” struck me as narratively unbalanced and shallow comparative to the tension and sharpness of the other pieces in the collection—it read as more of an idea than a fully realized story, though an interesting idea for certain.
Overall, though, this was a stellar set of stories that mesh well together. “The Border State” is perhaps the most well-executed and engaging novella I’ve read to date in 2017, a clever balance of rural magic and advanced technologies with the physical realities of a professional cycling competition and the emotional struggle of following in the footsteps of missing parents. It’s doing so much, so well, and that could be said of the majority of the stories included herein.
Truly, Rowe’s skill at shifting the weirdness of the Appalachian South—the odd border state that Kentucky is—to a magic realist or scientifically fantastical future is singular and impressive. The result for a native reader is a feeling akin to awe, or perhaps just homecoming, but I suspect the result wouldn’t differ much for an unfamiliar audience either. If anything, the depth and breadth of comfort with a not-often-accessed culture and setting makes these stories fresh and engaging. It’s home for me; it might be a provocative unexplored landscape for someone else—but regardless, Rowe’s facility with language, description, and emotional arcs makes for a solid, intentional, and satisfying collection of short fiction.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.