Friday, June 09, 2006

Gypsies by Robert Charles Wilson

This is a little known science fiction book from the 1980's, that I bought when I was in highschool at my favorite store, Redux - Used Junk. It was wedged between a comic book-sci fi store and someplace that bought used jeans on Broadway, near Garfield school, in Boise, ID. I used to stop in there and talk to the owners on my way home from school and if I had any money I bought a paperback for a dollar or two. I was was drawn in by the eclectic shop and its bohemian owners that made their living as waiters to pay the bills while running the store in between trips to South America in their VW bus.

Whenever I read Gypsies, I think of their store. When I see the characters in my head, I see the owners: the beautiful, but aging hippies. It is the tale of a family that has the ability to step between alternate realities. The spectrum of possibilities being infinite they are limited by their imaginations to the worlds they can find and explore. But, they have not really explored or even used their talents. The family consists of three children Karen the oldest and the responsible one, Laura the ex hippy, and Tim the rebellious angry youngest brother, now grownup. Their parents were killed gruesomely and they were raised by adoptive parents. Their adoptive father, Willis, saw their skills as evil and beat them violently whenever he caught them "making doors" or "windows." This because inevitably afterwards they would be pursued by "the grey man" that had murdered their parents. Willis wordlessly would move them to a new location, beat them all soundly, and it would all begin again.

The story begins with Karen's divorce and realization that her son Michael has their talent, and is pursued by the Grey Man. She runs to her sister, Laura, and together the three attempt to find out the truth about their family and their talents. In the process they have to confront Willis, their brother, Tim, the Gray Man, and even travel to Novus Ordu, an alternative America where magic is real, and their parents were created as part of a mystical military industrial complex.

What makes this one of my favorite books, is that the bulk of the story is about the family, about the consequences of what happened before they want to remember. The need to understand feelings and memories suppressed since childhood because of unravelling adult life is also very real, and grounds the fantastical premise of the book. The characters are mundane, normal, but that is a great strength in a genre where too often all the men are ruggedly handsome, miraculously resourceful, and the women beautiful, busty, but shallow and unimportant. It makes the incredible situations believable.

I also love the descriptions of the worlds, that feel real enough that they could be out there, if only we knew how to get there.


Anonymous said...

Nice post, Brian. I never noticed Redux, but I think I remember a comic-book store on Broadway Avenue in Boise, Idaho. It was like the bookshop in The Neverending Story, cluttered, dingy, and dimly lit. Years before I ever read Tolkien, I remember seeing, on a shelf near the register, a blackened statue, wrought from grey pewter or some gloomy species of plastic, wrought with dark scales, wings like sepulchral shadows, and wielding a curved sword and a twisting whip. I think now that it must have been a Balrog. That and Austin's MERPS set were my first exposures to Tolkien. After I changed my major to English, I studied The Silmarillion with a medievalist, and imagined that statue when I came to the chapter dealing with the Battle Under the Stars, and Gothmog, the Lord of the Balrogs.

I am no stranger to the work of Robert Charles Wilson. I read Darwinia, but it sounds like Gypsies may be better. His latest novel, Spin, is shortlisted for a Hugo. Did you know he has a website?



Brian Gardunia said...


The Redux place opened the year after you guys moved. It never sold much, I was the only customer that I ever saw, but was a great place to hang out. They had a wall of old books purchased at estate sales, a hammock and a wooden canoe hanging in the back corner, with a smattering of vintage clothing, blues and jazz records, and a cabinet full of old pocketknives and small oddities.

Unfortunately, both places are gone last time I was there.

Anonymous said...


Redux sounds like it was an awesome store. Boulder has some boutique-hippie versions of that sort of thing. The most amusing one is a little joint called Happenstance. It's on Pearl Street, east of the outdoor mall where we once contemplated your prospects as a street violinist. (That was about thirteen years ago, when you were here for a bit). Happenstance is crammed with odds and ends, but not just any odds and ends. After a few minutes of browsing, you realize that the clutter is an optical illusion, an effect produced by the systematic arrangement of meticulously chosen objects. The name Happenstance is an especially nice touch, given the intricacy of the design. I have no doubt it would make a stunning dissertation in semiotics, or at least a good scene in a William Gibson novel.

I haven't yet found a copy of Gypsies, but decided to read Spin. It's pretty much fearsomely brilliant in every possible way. Patrick Nielson Haydon, an SF editor for Tor, blogged about it earlier this year: