Fiction Reviews

Emporium Stories

(2002/2014) Adam Johnson, Black Swan, £8.99, pbk, ISBN 978-1-784-16010-4


This is a book of interlinked short stories by the Pulitzer Prize winning author Adam Johnson. This collection’s been around since 2002, though only published in the UK this year (2014), and recently reissued on the back of Johnson’s 2013 Pulitzer success (for his second novel: The Orphan Master’s Son). And since the (extensive) quoted glowing reviews come from places like the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicl and the Chicago Tribune you probably think this is not SF at all, but something entirely more highbrow slumming it down with the genre books.

In its defence this book doesn’t claim to be science fiction. But in that crossover world we seem to live in, it really is. All these stories are set in an imaginary place something like midwest America. But this is a world with 15 year old government-sanctioned snipers, stores selling bulletproof vests and bizarrely ineffective aborted Canadian death rays and Moonshots.

Most of the stories are told from a teenage point of view, a different one for each, and there’s a sense of lost innocence or coming of age about them. In 'Your Own Backyard', a man whose job is to cull animals in a zoo tries to make sense of his increasingly detatched relationship with his teenage son. In the 'Death Dealing Cassini Satellite', a teenage boy loses his virginity to a terminal cancer patient. In 'Trauma Plate', the daughter of the owner of a body shop emporium falls in love with the son of a rival store. And in 'The Jughead of Berlin' a pilot, banned for drunk flying, takes a last ill-advised trip with disastrous consequences.

There are more stories than these but all share some common threads. They are about change – coming to terms with it, growing up, moving on. But they are about dislocation too. All the characters here are off balance in some way, and that is neatly mirrored in the slightly off kilter way this book is written.

The writing itself is tight and snappy, with an easy street smart style that makes the writing appealing even though some of the stories are a bit disturbing (the casual attitude to life, and youthful innocence, in 'Teen Sniper', for instance, is very unsettling). That, in the context of a slightly weird version of the world we live in, or our Earth’s decadent future twin, makes this collection very engaging. Not all triumphant – 'The Canadanaut', for instance, looks like it belongs somewhere else entirely – but more than good enough.

In summary, then, well written stories with a literary leaning, but certainly not inaccessible. Not all of it makes sense, but what would you expect from a book dedicated ‘to the boxy loop of youth’? Recommended.

Mark Bilsborough

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