There are not a lot South Dakota writers of the fantastic. There aren’t a lot of South Dakotans period.
Yes, yes, there’s Frank L. Baum and The Wizard of Oz written in Aberdeen, South Dakota. But Baum was just passing through the state.
As far as I know, Aaron B. Larson was a native South Dakotan and wrote The Weird Western Adventures of Haakon Jones while living in the state. Hardly a renowned classic, like Baum’s, but I thought it worth reading.
Bill Johnson, like many of us, left the state. But he did sort of return for one story … which is why you get this November 1, 2000 retro review.
Review: Dakota Dreamin’, Bill Johnson, 1999.
I’ll admit I bought this collection because I expected Johnson to be sort of a Clifford Simak for South Dakota, but the state only shows up as a setting in Johnson’s most famous story, the Hugo-winning “We Will Drink a Fish Together“. Now, I’m from South Dakota too, but I’m not familiar with fish drinking or the idea of “lines”, sort of clans of not necessarily related people. But, then, I’m from the Black Hills, the other end of the state from the town of Summit where the story takes place. And, as Johnson notes in the collection’s introduction, that’s a different geography and a different culture. The story is like Simak in its mixture of aliens and rural America and quirky characters though its plot, involving an alien ambassador fleeing assassins and the narrator attending the funeral of the head of his line, is a bit hard edged for Simak. Johnson’s perceptions match mine when he talks about Dakota weather and the easy acceptance of strangers there.
Aliens show up frequently in these stories as they do in Simak’s work. The “Motivational Engineers” have a surprising reason for visiting Earth on a trade mission. The old idea of aliens judging man’s suitability for continued existence is reworked in “Respect” Its tale of aliens getting involved in a future border war between Mexico and the U.S. seems to owe something to George Orwell’s famous essay “Shooting an Elephant.” I suppose “Every Choice Has a Price” was intended as a thoughtful, controversial discussion of abortion ethics. A woman has to decide between carrying a child to term and losing her telepathic abilities or aborting it and possibly wresting the secret of travel between the stars from an injured alien. The story’s ending seemed contrived, though, and Johnson’s ultimate point unclear. Another story with a weak ending was “Streetwise” a satire on lawyers and bureaucrats in which an ambulance chaser brings up the idea of implicit agreements to a bunch of mysterious aliens. They’ve established several uncommunicative enclaves in various cities — after clearly demonstrating their invincibility and invulnerability. The motivation for the aliens putting up with the lawyer wasn’t entirely clear, but the story was still fun.
The weakest story in the collection, “A Matter of Thirst“, doesn’t involve aliens at all. It’s Johnson’s entry in the “end of the world sweepstakes”. The setup of Earth’s civilization collapsing from a cancer plague and leaving orbital colonies to fend for themselves was good. And Johnson does a nice job showing how heroic efforts at scavenging and recycling vital materials is not going to be enough to save the race. But his solution to the problem is unbelievable.
In the middle ground of quality is Johnson’s first sale, “Stormfall“. It’s a moody piece about a man who glides into hurricanes to tame their fury. “Send Random Romantic” is a cross between a ghost story and one of those tales where denizens of an overregulated, compulsively tranquil future rediscover some of the joys and pains of their antique ancestors. “Meet Me at Apogee” is an exciting treasure hunt tale set in orbit around a black hole. A man is hired to help retrieve some religious artifacts off an abandoned spaceship but soon finds himself involved in lethal religious fanaticism and schism.
My favorite stories were “Evelyn’s Children“, about a Presidential campaign manager investigating some peculiarities in the census of Chicago, and “One Quiet Night,” an all too plausible tale about what some harried, very tired parents would do with a “standstill box”.
Even though I had problems with some of Johnson’s endings, he’s still a writer not content to limit himself to one type or style of story, and he knows how to evoke a place.