Wednesday, September 02, 2009

World Fantasy Award Nominee: Tales from Outer Suburbia

Tales from Outer Suburbia
Shaun Tan
Nominated for the World Fantasy Award: Best Collection

Compared to the other four collections nominated for the World Fantasy Award this year, Tales from Outer Suburbia offers something different. Shaun Tan is best known as an artist, and though this is a collection of short fiction the stories are told through text as well as the artwork. Collections can come wrapped in pretty packages, but the usual way to talk about a short fiction collection is to talk about the stories themselves.

We can’t do that with Tales from Outer Suburbia. With a story like “Grandpa's Story”, the images are part of the storytelling. The art is essential for all of the stories, but "Grandpa's Story" requires the art. The grandfather tells about the travels he and his bride-to-be went on as part of the pre-wedding ceremony, but the story he tells is through a series of images that tell the story far better than words ever could. “Eric” is a similar story in that the ending hinges entirely on the artwork on the last page, but the charm of the story comes from the artwork throughout the story. It’s a delightful tale, but the sense of wonder is art-driven.

There are some stories that can still work with only the text, but even those are enhanced by the artwork. "Alert but not Alarmed" and "Wake" are examples of this.

As a book Tales from Outer Suburbia is a delight and a wonder. The artwork is moving and charming and effective. It’s beautifully drawn and fairly well written. If we consider Tales from Outer Suburbia as a short story collection where the prose drives the story, the collection does not measure up. The art is required. Without the art, the stories are not all that satisfying. Tales from Outer Suburbia is a mixed medium storytelling experience. As such, it works. Shaun Tan is a fantastic artist (also check out The Arrival) and he does great work in blending simple stories with the wonder of his artwork.

As a short story collection, Tales from Outer Suburbia just doesn’t stand up next to Peter Beagle or Kelly Link or Nisi Shawl. It’s not at all the same thing, nor is it supposed to be, but looking at it in terms of the Best Collection category for the World Fantasy Awards, I’m not sure it is in the same league. As a work standing on its own and not part of that category, I would not hesitate to recommend Tales from Outer Suburbia to anyone. It is quite good.

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