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Artist, Heather Oliver             

The Hard Underbelly of the Future: Sue Lange’s Uncategorized

Sue Lange’s collection Uncategorized (Book View Café, 2009, $1.99 digital edition) contains fifteen stories published in various venues (among them Apex, Astounding Tales, Sentinel, Mbrane and Aoife’s Kiss). If I wanted to categorize them, I’d call them quasi-mundane near-future SF – but some of the unifying threads that run through them are unusual.

One is Lange’s love and professional knowledge of music, which pops up in unexpected spots in the stories and is the focus of one of them (“The Failure”).  Another is the matter-of-fact attitude toward technology: the people and societies in Uncategorized have come to terms with genetic engineering and its cousins, although they are aware of their problems.  Finally, the points of view are resolutely working class (many springing directly from Lange’s varied work experience). This doesn’t merely mean that the protagonists/narrators are blue collar. Instead, almost all the stories in Uncategorized center around work issues for people whose jobs are not a way of “expressing themselves” but a way to keep food on the table. These are people who cannot afford ennui or angst, who must punch time cards and undergo intrusive HR evaluations.

There’s an additional feature that makes Lange’s blue-collar protagonists stand out: most are women who do “traditionally masculine” work: meat plant workers, plumbers, soldiers, radiation cleanup crews. Furthermore, these women focus on their jobs and many of their co-workers and friends are women as well. In other words, Lange’s stories handily pass the Bechdel test without falling even remotely into the arbitrarily devalued subgenre of chicklit. If you took Rosie the Riveter and transposed her to a near-future alternate US (minus such outworn cyberpunk accessories as pneumatic-boob avatars and Matrix-style gyrations), you’d have the setting for most of the stories in Uncategorized.

Contributing to this gestalt are Lange’s deadpan humor and rapid-fire dialogue, which require some acclimatization but can become as catchy as strong beats and riffs. Her language is unvarnished Bauhaus – there’s scarcely a descriptive adjective or adverb to be found. Ditto for the settings, which are urban grit to the max even in the stories set off-Earth. One recurrent weakness is hurried endings, often accompanied by twists that were predictable (to me at least). Almost all the stories in Uncategorized would have increased their impact if they were longer and/or less sparse, because they grapple with important issues in original ways without fanfare.

Although Uncategorized hews to the premise of its title, some of its stories are thematically paired – one version comic, the other tragic. “The Club” / “How to Dispose of Sneakers” deal with the intractable problem of humanity’s ecological footprint; “BehaviorNorm” / “Buyer’s Club” tackle another intractable problem, the callousness of administrative management (think Dilbert with a touch of Big Brother transhumanism). For me, the standouts in the collection were: “Peroxide Head”, a poignant vignette on what balancing issues might really be like for a liaison to “Others” in Banks’ Culture universe; “The Meateaters”, a no-holds-barred Outland retelling of Eurypides’ Bacchae; “Buyer’s Club”; “Pictures”, a valentine to second chances; and “Zara Gets Laid”, in which sexual intercourse boosts the immunity of bio-augmented radiation cleanup workers (based on solid extrapolation, no less!).

Despite its deceptively plain trappings, Uncategorized subtends a wide arc and is textbook-classic SF: its stories follow “what if” questions to their logical conclusions, pulling no punches. It’s a prickly, bracing read that walks a fine line between bleakness and pragmatism, and it deserves the wider readership it might well have got if its author had been of the other gender.

6 Responses to “The Hard Underbelly of the Future: Sue Lange’s Uncategorized”

  1. 1) You sold me! 🙂 Just went and grabbed the antho at BVC.

    2) Also, you didn’t mention the price, which is an unbelievable $1.99 for a digital edition.

  2. Athena says:

    I’m happy I did! And let me add the price to the essay as an extra enticement.

  3. Asakiyume says:

    These sound fascinating; I’m especially interested in the fact that some of the stories are paired, humorous and serious. It’s been a while since I read any science fiction–this looks like a great collection.

  4. Athena says:

    I don’t think the author intended to pair them (they don’t follow each other in the collection) and they didn’t appear in the same venues. I suspect the mirroring reflects her preoccupations, and these become more apparent when the stories are grouped.

  5. intrigued_scribe says:

    This anthology looks engrossing, and the range of atmosphere from seriousness to humor makes the stories sound that much more so. Definitely interested. 🙂

  6. Athena says:

    They certainly have a cumulative impact, though they’re not comfortable stories!