The Lady of Situations - Stephen Dedman
Ticonderoga, September 1999, tpb, 222pp, $24.95. Cover by Russell B. Farr
Reviewed by Jonathan Strahan

Stephen Dedman's first collection features thirteen stories, one original, all written after 1994. In the opening story, "The Lady of Situations", a man tells a group of travellers at a youth hostel how he fell in love with a woman who had a perfect memory, and how that affected the future of their relationship. It is an important story with an almost elegiac tone that introduces a number of themes common to Dedman's fiction - damaged relationships, abuse, and a difficulty in accepting love. It is one of the strongest stories in the book.

Dedman's best known story though, and the one that stands out as the watershed in his career, "Never Seen by Waking Eyes", is a moral fable about a lawyer who meets Alice - a vampire who looks like an eight-year-old girl but is old enough to have known Charles Dodgson. The story centres around their relationship: the lawyer providing Alice with shelter, while she provides him with information about Dodgson. It is a carefully handled consideration of the difference between thought and action, with Dedman's layer using his obsession with Dodgson to control his own own socially unacceptable desires. Moralising in fiction is a dangerous business, too often descending into heavy-handed didacticism, but in "Never Seen by Waking Eyes" Dedman manages to tell a story that is at compelling and effective, without ever making that mistake.

Slightly more heavy-handed, "From Whom All Blessings Flow" was published just a year earlier than "Eyes". Explorers from our world traverse a 'bridge' to a parallel universe where the dominant religion for over two thousand years has been the worship of a mother goddess - something the male explorers find threatening and disturbing. The story has a skilfully worked out background and is certainly thought provoking. But there are times when it does feel like Dedman is lecturing his readers, rather that letting his story carry the moral more naturally.

The highlight of the book for me, though, is Dedman's moving love story "Transit". A young Muslim girl, Aisha, travelling from her homeworld to Earth on a pilgrimage to Mecca, stops on a planet settled by hermaphrodites. There she meets Alex who, in an effort to establish common ground and to make the girl more comfortable, is determined to overcome the barriers that separate them. As they learn more about one another they are at first put off, but as understanding grows so does their love for one another. The story is smoothly handled, has a superbly realised background, and avoids any obvious conclusion without in any way compromising the whole.

There are other worthy stories here. "A Single Shadow" is based on the Japanese idea that ghosts or "rikombyo" are created when a love is not returned. An Australian teaching English to Japanese high school students is disturbed to find that one of his students is shadowed by the ghost of a fellow student's love. It is even more disturbing, given his habit of falling in love with at least one of his students. "Salvation" is an odd tale, effective because of its brevity and subject matter. When a geologist stops overnight in a small Outback town he is invited to visit the local museum - a visit that leads directly to his helping a resident escape the unwelcome pull of a long-since abandoned home. Of the remainder, "The Vision of a Vanished Good" is a strong sequel to "Never Seen by Waking Eyes"; "Founding Fathers" discusses racism on a 'whites-only' world; and "The Godfather Paradox" is a witty alternate history where J. Edgar Hoover is exposed a homosexual, removing some of the Mafia's influence over him. Even the one or two comparative throwaways here have merits, and serve to balance the collection as a reading experience.

A writer's first short story collection tests his mettle. It gathers the work that has established his reputation in a single volume that highlights the strengths and weaknesses of his work. The Lady of Situations shows a writer who has matured and developed from single-idea short fictions, often focussed on pun-endings, to one who is capable of sensitively handling work of depth and complexity. It also shows that Dedman is not afraid of confronting moral issues in his fiction, but has learned how to do so without lecturing or hectoring his audience. It is an impressive achievement, and The Lady of Situations numbers amongst the best short story collections of the year.

©1999 Jonathan Strahan.
This review originally appeared in Locus.