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New story collection sees Kentucky in science fiction, fantasy realms

Author Christopher Rowe at his home in downtown Lexington. His book of short stories, “Telling The Map,” is getting positive reviews nationally.
Author Christopher Rowe at his home in downtown Lexington. His book of short stories, “Telling The Map,” is getting positive reviews nationally. palcala@herald-leader.com

Christopher Rowe’s new book of stories, “Telling the Map,” (Small Beer Press, $16), features Kentucky and Tennessee — just not the way you know them.

They’re the Kentucky and Tennessee you know, geographically speaking — but they’re also places of strange occurrences, bizarre histories and technology that seems to permeate the very air molecules.

“The Voluntary State,” a novella written in 2004, is perhaps the best-known piece in the collection.

The story is set in a Tennessee where the governing order has been ceded to a sort of super-technological order, both ominous and whimsical, based in Nashville: Wrecked cars are healed by mechanics who are more horse-mounted nurses than grease monkeys.

An artist with a malignantly uncluttered mind is commandeered by a pack of Kentuckians who have a plan, after a fashion, to strike into the heart of the Tennessee technology. Things end well — or do they? How can a civilization that has given itself up to so much soulless technology be fixed by a bunch of semi-organized Kentuckians?

Rowe’s prose excels not only at witty ribbing of the traditional Kentucky-Tennessee rivalry, but at passing stabs at legislators. In Nashville, the slime creatures known as legislators are distinguishable only by the gold or silver trails they leave to designate their political leanings.

“Rowe is endlessly inventive in presenting us worlds that are often dystopian, sometimes funny, but always original — and completely his own,” the Chicago Tribune said in a review.

Kirkus Reviews summed up the book thus: “Kentucky gets dystopian — or just plain weird — in this debut collection of stories merging realism and science fiction.” Writing for the Tor publishers’ website, author Brit Mandelo said that 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.”

Kirkus added in its review that Rowe’s stories are “a clutch of complex, persuasive visions of an alternative South.”

Rowe was born in Columbia, in Adair County on Christmas Day 1969. He met his wife, Gwenda Bond, who also is his co-author for the book series “The Supernormal Sleuthing Service,” at an academic conference; they were married in 2004.

They have a bantering relationship as professional writers married and working in the same house — in this case, a 100-year-old downtown brick that they share with their two dogs. Bond, author of the young-adult series “Lois Lane and Cirque American,” says she sometimes shoots Rowe with a water gun to get him to help her with a plot problem.

Rowe began writing stories as a child and had his first story published in Realms of Fantasy in 1998. The character Japheth Sapp appears in that story and later appears in both “The Voluntary State” in 2004 and “The Border State,” written in 2016. Both of the later stories are included in “Telling the Map.”

In his mid-20s, Rowe was working at a Waldenbooks when he came upon Kentuckian Terry Bisson’s science fiction story collection “Bears Discover Fire”.

“I discovered to my delight I did not have to choose between being a Kentucky writer and being a science fiction writer.”

He’s part of a writing group, the Wild Cards Consortium, with famed “Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin. He writes interstitial material linking other stories by the writers’ group.

Rowe and Bond have different writing styles. He will take in media and research — whether gospel music or Warner Brothers cartoons — then write in a flurry; she is more methodical, aiming for a particular daily output.

Rowe also experiments with ways of writing the story: He wrote his first novel on a manual typewriter. “I like the physicality of feeling I was making something.”

Sometimes he writes longhand, sometimes on an iPad with keyboard.

Rowe’s work can be like stepping onto a separate planet, a fever dream of Kentucky, but he said there’s more than one way for readers to absorb the stories: “There is more than one entry point, more than one through line. ... Technology can change us, ... with consequences that we don’t always foresee.”

Rowe enjoys picking up bits of biography people reveal in public: “The whole world is like Chekhov if you just listen. ... Everybody’s got a story. Everybody’s a hero of their own epic.”

Cheryl Truman: 859-231-3202, @CherylTruman

Excerpt

Soma, a painter in a technology-soaked autocracy in Tennessee whose car has been damaged, meets a raiding party of Kentuckians and becomes confused about the difference between hemp and tobacco:

“The caves and hills these Kentuckians haunted unopposed were a hundred miles and more north and east, across the shifting skirmish line of a border. Kentuckians couldn’t be here, so far from the frontier stockades at Fort Clarksville and Barren Green. ...

“A Crow clicked his tongue twice and suddenly Soma was the center of much activity. Muddy hands forced his mouth open and a paste that first stung then numbed was swabbed around his mouth and nose. His wrists were bound before him with rough hemp twine. Even frightened as he was, Soma couldn’t contained his astonishment. ‘Smoke rope!’ he said.

“The squad leader grimaced, shook his head in disgust and disbelief. ‘Rope and cigarettes come from two completely different varieties of plants,’ he said, his accent barely decipherable. ‘Vols are so f------ stupid.’”

From “The Voluntary State,” by Christopher Rowe

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