By Cheryl Morgan
The nice people at PS Publishing are making available Impossible Stories, a large collection of tales by Zoran Živković. Many of the stories appeared in Interzone, mainly through 2000 and 2001, so they will be familiar to a number of UK readers. On the other hand the book also includes the World Fantasy Award winning story cycle, "The Library", which was previously only available in Jeff VanderMeer’s Leviathan #3 anthology.
I mentioned the term "story cycle" above, and that deserves a little explanation as it is something that is rarely done but which Živković has very much made his own. Rather than produce just one story from an idea, he produces several. It is almost as if he is setting himself an exercise. He comes up with an idea for a story, then sees how many different ways he can express it. Sometimes the connection is fairly tenuous — for example a group of stories all featuring a mysterious mist. Other cycles are much more involved — suppose that The Devil (or at least someone who might be The Devil), offers people the ability to travel in time; how might this be a torment as well as a boon? This reminds me of Samuel Delany’s book, On Writing, in which he takes a single scene and re-writes it in several different ways. But for Živković, rather than changing the style, he’s changing the plot while using the same basic ideas.
Actually, if I were to predict that something bad was going to happen, I’m certain almost no one would believe me. This seems to be part of human nature. If you tell people something that suits them, they all accept it eagerly, regardless of how implausible or even impossible it might appear. Sometimes it seems the more incredible the favorable prophecy, the easier it is for them to accept. They don’t quibble. And of course, if you tell them something that doesn’t suit them, they immediately become doubtful and suspicious. They launch into a debate on reliability, and then on the meaning of divination, endeavoring to show it’s all pure quackery that only the gullible would swallow. If that’s true, then why on earth did they come to see me?
From "Line on the Palm"
Mention of style brings me to something that may be an issue for some readers with such a large collection of Živković stories. Firstly his characters tend to have a lot of common. They are nearly all loners, and they all seem to be stuck somewhere in the early half of the 20th Century because they have an obsession with proper social behavior. Indeed, the horror that the characters suffer in the stories has as much to do with their being put in positions they find socially uncomfortable rather than any fantastical perturbation of the normal state of the world.
In addition the stories tend to all be told in the same Živković voice. I found a few stories were the narrator turned out to be female but, having received no clues early on, I had assumed that she was male.
"Don’t you get it?" she asked. "There is only one other possibility."
He stared fixedly at her back, over which the thin nightgown was now wrinkling like ripples on the surface of the water. "I don’t get it. What possibility?"
"This is not reality. This is also one of his stories."
From "The Artist"
Having said that, the book is well worth reading for the ingenuity of Živković’s stories. He is extraordinarily clever and has a particular talent for devising awkward moral dilemmas for his characters. His writing is also, as Paul Di Filippo found out when trying to write an introduction, quite unlike that of anyone else. The fact that all this is achieved in relative isolation in Serbia, and is rendered into perfect English by the very talented Alice Copple Tošić makes the whole achievement even more remarkable.