The sea off the coast of New England has gone foul with the poison of a fallen star. Ptolema, an agent of the same sort as the Signalman but employed on a different shore, must unravel the chess game in action around her to resolve a potential apocalypse. The pieces in motion include a pair of psychokinetically gifted twins separated by a sinister doctor at the behest of a rival agency, the devouring filth of the tainted sea, attempted assassinations and misplaced pawns.
These singular figures—the Signalman, Ptolema, the doctor Twisby—and their vast, invisible agencies are a horror equal to those from out of space. However, their interventions might also be the one thing keeping our species afloat on unkind cosmic waves.
The original Black Helicopters was released as a limited chapbook in 2013 by Subterranean Press; five years later, this revised and significantly expanded edition follows on the heels of Agents of Dreamland. I read the original on publication—however, this was a fresh experience, in part because my recollection of that first reading was vague and in part because Agents of Dreamland left such a recent and memorable mark on me.
Rather than tread on the same critical ground as the aforementioned review, I’d prefer to focus on the thematic and stylistic aspects of Black Helicopters that set it apart. Both texts, after all, are twin narratives in a shared universe; the general attitude as summed up in the Signalman’s sole chapter here is gruesome and nihilistic without, paradoxically, being devoid of hope.
Black Helicopters itself is an obsessive examination of chaos: how one action and one reaction can spool out a different future, a different self, a coexistence of moments in or unstuck from time. The chapters ping between years ranging from 1966 to 2152, offering brief slashes of narrative at significant points in between and narrated at turns through Ptolema, the twins, the White Queen, a journalist in 2035, and so forth.
As with Kiernan’s other recent work this novella is intense in its intertextuality and participation in the concept of “necessary fictions,” a term that chills and delights me on each repetition in a fresh work, stitching a connection between the pieces of her oeuvre. If stories are humanity’s method of creation and survival, it is unsurprising that the characters here are all haunted by and constructed from those selfsame stories. There is a quote from David Copperfield that intersects with the narration at one pivotal point, stating clear the concept that Kiernan is unweaving: “I had considered how the things that never happen are often as much realities to us, in their effects, as those that are accomplished.”
Things that never happen include fantasies, potential futures, stories, and lost chances, to name a bare few options. Each single chapter, with its gut-punch of a title, stands separate as a rumination and a ghost made text. Things that do happen and things that don’t, things that might, are all ripples in time. When the twins are reunited into a single shared form almost too soon for the agency’s scheme to work, it spins off one future. In that future, the White Queen remains in conflict with Ptolema until the open-ended confrontation that the ninth chapter (“Bury Magnets. Swallow the Rapture.”) sets up—where the White Queen intends to disperse the vial of contagion saved from that quarantined Maine sea in 2012 and start the cycle over again.
Agents of chaos, agents of order: two sides of one coin. Other agencies and invisible figures push and pull their pieces on the board as well, watching and waiting, changing their desired matrices of influence. The sixteenth chapter (“Now[here] Man Saves/Damns the World”) is the lone section set in Albany, from the Signalman’s point of view, as he decides when to push the button to help prevent a particular apocalypse over a glass of whiskey with an anxious and power-hungry subordinate. After all, he hasn’t been involved in this mess—but he isn’t without investment, either.
Where Agents of Dreamland had the atmosphere of noir-cum-Lovecraftian-horror, Black Helicopters is an anxious, complicated net of political texts and references. The titles alone reveal their paired but quite separate thematic approaches. This novella is not gruesome but it is frightful. Paranoia, governmental interference, conspiracies, and manipulations ten tiers deep are the monsters here, far moreso than the actual horror from out of space—wormwood, according to the Biblical reference—infecting the waters around Deer Isle. This claustrophobic terror of shadow controls and the big games played out of view, with no regard to individual human lives, felt prescient in 2013 but is far more wrenching in 2018.
Kiernan’s prose, as expected, lends itself well to the manic and smothering atmosphere. Ivoire’s chapters—filtered through a haze of pain and heroin and horror—are breathtaking. So, too, are the constant clips to quotation and reference and layered implication that differ in style and origin depending on the narrating point of view’s range. Black Helicopters does not offer itself for easy reading but for affective reading. The ninth chapter, for example, has an appendix version because nearly all of the dialogue is in French. Kiernan is not going to hold the reader’s hand through the strain of this experience and I, also as expected, delighted in the struggle (or, the maze) constructed for me.
The expanded, revised Black Helicopters is a perfect match to Agents of Dreamland. Both are challenging, psychologically and textually. Kiernan is a master of her craft and seeing more of that craft in action is a real pleasure. I intend to return to these novellas in the future to pore over each separate chapter, each line, each possible implication—because I have no doubt of the rewards second or third or fourth readings will offer, philosophical and dense as these texts are.
Black Helicopters is available now from Tor.com Publishing.
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.