There are times when fantastical stories can tell us something about our world and ourselves that fiction based in reality cannot. I always find that the best speculative fiction is this kind, the kind that speaks to real life and to real human feeling. Kelly Link’s most recent short story collection, Get in Trouble, does this flawlessly. These nine stories, varied in tone and covering a full spectrum from realistic to outlandish, are highly character-driven and are tied together by a certain attention to conflict and emotion, to the question of how ordinary people would be affected if their environment included something that ours does not have. The stories are set in a wide range of universes, some our own, some quite close to our own, and some completely other.
We never catch the characters in these stories at their best moments. We don’t see them fighting crime, getting the girl, being successful, or demonstrating stunning powers, although many of them are quite capable of doing these things. Instead, Link shows them to us when they are vulnerable, and sometimes when they are following evil impulses: when they are, as you might expect, on the verge of getting in trouble. We see them drunk and half-naked in abandoned buildings, spilling secrets. We see them trapped in tombs, trapped in unsatisfying jobs, trapped on spaceships. We see them despairing over relationships, work, family. Having superheroes, fancy gadgets, or fairy creatures around, it would seem, does not make life easy, nor does it help to solve your everyday problems. We learn from “Secret Identity” and “Origin Story” that superheroes must be concerned with their brand, must audition sidekicks and network at superhero conferences. Teenagers like the ones in “Valley of the Girls” who have surrogates and implanted chips to keep them out of trouble, or those in “The New Boyfriend” who can purchase robot “Boyfriends” (which come in Vampire, Werewolf, and Ghost varieties), are still teenagers and still have the same urges, the same anxieties about friendships, significant others, sex, siblings, and parents. Some aspects of these stories may be alien to us, but the conflicts are wholly human, entirely familiar.
In some ways, what makes the speculative elements of these stories both real and compelling is the way they are introduced, casually but surprisingly, as ordinary parts of life. Sometimes they pop up just when you think you’re in a world you understand. In the wonderful opening story, “The Summer People,” for instance, a high school girl in the rural South is left in charge of a group of visitors who live in a guest house nearby. She refers to them as the “summer people,” the same term the locals use to describe all ordinary visitors who live in the area just during summer. It’s only gradually that the full extent of this particular group’s otherness becomes apparent: the girl hears their voices in her head, strange and beautiful objects appear in her house, and little by little, we discover just how much power these people hold over her.
On the other hand, some of these stories have few or no overt speculative elements at all, but the real world comes across as strange, surreal. In “I Can See Right Through You,” a middle-aged horror movie actor visits his ex, who is filming a TV show at the site of an old nudist colony from which all the inhabitants vanished many years ago. “The Lesson,” which is about a gay couple soon to have a child through a surrogate mother, features one especially memorable scene in which a group of wedding guests, men and women all wearing ugly wedding dresses, travel together to a pond in the middle of a forest on a private island in order to make wishes. There is little or no definite magic in these two stories, but Link presents reality in such a way that you find yourself holding your breath, ready for the ghost or the monster to appear at any moment.
While there is a lot of excellent sci-fi and fantasy writing out there that offers an escape from ordinary life, Get in Trouble‘s strengths lie in its ability to make us confront reality in a new way. We are forced to recognize the constant presence of human imperfection and yearning, no matter what universe we’re in. These stories exist in a place right on the border between realistic and fantastical, where elements of real life are unreal and fantastical elements are run-of-the-mill. They exist in a magical place to which we can all relate. And that, I think, is something very special.