I just finished rereading Fool’s Run by Patricia McKillip, and it went back on the bookshelf again because it will be reread again. Yes, it is that good. McKillip is best known for writing “fantasy;” she must be good at it, not because she has won awards, but because her books still sell, but she’s also written some SciFi. And here’s the thing that never ceases to exasperate me. People say, “Oh, I don’t read SciFi” or “I don’t read Fantasy” like those genres are different somehow from mystery or romance, or what that good ol’ boys’ club of white middle-aged heterosexual men have decided is “Literature” No matter what you dress it in, a good story is a good story. A good story has multidimensional characters you can relate to and care about. It has a plot that holds your interest and shows you things, not only about the characters, but about yourself. I guess some people must just have really heavy disbelief, or they don’t know how to rig it right to suspend it for as long as it takes for them to read a book. And it’s ironic, in a way, because Fool’s Run is about communication and the different ways humans communicate, and how easily those communications can be ignored, misconstrued, or go completely unrecognized.
Humans are communicators. It’s what we do. We do it because we can’t not. Some people are wired to communicate through the medium of shape, color and texture. Someone else might be wired to communicate through the pitches, tones and durations of sounds. Another might be wired to communicate through the words and meanings of language. But, nobody has nothing to say. Even not communicating communicates. A late, much lamented friend, when he telephoned, would invariably begin the conversation with “I’m here; are you there?” The wonder of it is that everybody’s “here” is so completely and totally different; and the miracle of it is that sometimes, the answer to that question is not “Eh?”, or “What?”, or silence, but “Yes.”
Two threads of plot run through Fool’s Run. On the one hand, it is spangly, sparkly SciFi upholstered onto the timeless framework of the Orpheus myth, and on the other hand, it is a very interesting take on the crux of communication as explored in the John Saxe poem, “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” Both these threads are acknowledged, both overtly and subtly, down through the layers of the story. Characters make reference to both the myth and to the poem. And like the Orpheus myth, the plot hinges on a leap of faith all the characters are being asked to make.
What twines those two threads together in Fool’s Run is the gaps communication attempts to bridge and cannot. A musician who bares his soul through his music, and is known only by a stage name. Twins who were once as close as thought, and then suddenly and horrifically aren’t. An administrator who has a job he doesn’t want anymore and is banging his head in frustration against a bureaucracy that is resolutely not hearing his requests to be transferred to another one. A psychiatrist who is attempting to find a method of communicating with minds mired in madness and is testing it on someone he believes is wildly psychotic. An inarticulate policeman who is so locked down in his own grief and loss that he cannot get past it, who is trying desperately to make sense where there is none. A woman caught in the grip of what everyone assumes is psychosis. They are all people trying to understand a senseless, horrific act of violence whose first and most tragic victim was its perpetrator.
Fool’s Run could have been fantasy, or normal-ordinary-present-day mystery or police procedural, except for this one little elegant twist on the idea that slowly begins to emerge, which can only be addressed within the context of SciFi, but it’s a valid idea and, like the blind men and the elephant, and like every character in the book, it is vitally concerned with how important those things called “frames of reference”and “context” are to the act of communication. “I’m here. Are you there?” But then, sometimes, the thing most necessary to communication is a leap of faith.