Tachyon Publications: 2007
Nominated for the World Fantasy Award: Collection
Science Fiction is, I've read, a literature of setting. For some, that means other planets, other worlds, other dimensions. For me, it's the past, but a slightly alternate past, a reality that existed - at least in my imagination - just below the surface of everyday life. Ellen Klages, pg. 209
Portable Childhoods is the debut short story collection from Ellen Klages. In her afterword to the collection Klages writes about why she writes science fiction. For Klages it is not an escape into the future or a desire to explore the stars. Rather, Ellen Klages writes "to tap into that (literally) unadulterated sense of delight and wonder." She writes "stories about being a kid."
It is important to point out the very next thing Klages has to say in her afterword.
They are not children's stories.
Though the stories of Portable Childhoods may be about childhood, in various stages, they are not children's stories. The distinction is important. Stories about childhood are able to tap into that sense of wonder which can be defining aspect of science fiction and that which may be frequently felt by younger readers who are discovering science fiction for the first time. The best and most honest stories of Portable Childhoods are rife with a sense of wonder, or, a child's sense of discovery. These are not children's stories. They are informed and understood through the eyes of an adult and these are adult visions of childhood.
The third story in the collection, "The Green Glass Sea", takes the testing of the atomic bomb in July 1945 and rather than telling a story directly about the testing, instead tells a story of ten year old Dewey Kerrigan on a weekend trip with the family she stayed with while her father was
working on the bomb. This is understood by the adult reader and by the end of the story the adult reader knows exactly what the title signifies. A child reader should be able to pick up that there is significance in the sea of green glass at the end of the story, but like Dewey, may only see that while the green glass was somehow created by Dewey's father it was really only a special present.
While there is an American cultural heritage around the atomic bomb that film, television, and even the education system should help inform, there is nothing inherent about the American experience to help a younger adult to truly grasp and perhaps understand what is going on in "The Green Glass Sea". The significance is for those who know what Los Alamos means, why this story has to be set in 1945, and how that green glass was created.
Or, does this not give enough credit to children?
Several of the stories in Portable Childhoods focus a variety of childhood experiences, from the persecution of step-mothers in "Basement Magic" to God's childhood in "Intelligent Design", from not fitting the physical ideals of a mother in "Flying Over Water" to discovering that emotions and memories have tastes in "A Taste of Summer", not to mention the title story which shows glimpses of childhood as viewed by the mother in ten scenes. As suggested by the title of this collection, the bulk of the stories touch upon memories of childhoods that adults take from place to place and can remember quite clearly, even if they never lived these particular lives.
This is not to say that every story in the collection is a story about "being a kid". Two stories, in particular, stand out: "Triangle" and "Time Gypsy".
"Triangle" touches upon the horror of the Nazi persecution of homosexuals through the discovery of a pink badge in an antique shop. The story is horrifying. It is an essential part of this collection, but it might be jarring for readers expecting another story of childhood (not that the stories about "being a kid" are all that happy).
"Time Gypsy", perhaps the strongest story in the collection, touches upon time travel and the paradox inherent in time travel. Like the other stories Klages tells, "Time Gypsy" is not about time travel any more than "The Green Glass Sea" is about atomic bombs. Instead, the story is about relationships, love, the past, and identity. It is also probably about other things which are not readily evident.
This praise of the best stories of Portable Childhoods is not to suggest that every story is superb or that there are not disappointments (I'm looking at you, "Ringing Up Baby), but taken as a whole Portable Childhoods is an exceptional collection. More often than not the stories contained within easily engage and entertain. They strike chords within the reader. The less successful stories do not linger in the memory like an angry specter. The fade, leaving the stronger stories to shine all that much brighter.
Reading copy provide courtesy of Tachyon Publications.
Further discussion of the stories of Portable Childhoods can be found below:
"The Green Glass Sea"
One Post for Four Stories: "Mobius, Stripped of a Muse", "Be Prepared", "Travel Agency", "Ringing Up Baby"
"A Taste of Summer"
"Guy's Day Out"
"In the House of Seven Librarians"