Every resident had a similar memory of the journey here: a dream of dry, chitinous wings crossing the moon, the gigantic insects so like roaches or cicadas dropping swiftly over the houses of the neighborhood, and then hooking him with a spur through the base of the thumb, yanking him out of his life for a trip into the distant stars.
Steve Rasnic Tem is a formidable short-story writer, and it’s hard to find a collection of horror, supernatural, or weird fiction that doesn’t include one of his tales. Tem has made quite an impact on the weird fiction genre, having won the World Fantasy Award, British Fantasy Award, and most recently the 2015 Bram Stoker award (for his novel Blood Kin). His latest release, Ubo, is actually one of the earliest works Tem wrote: it started as a few paragraphs in 1968 when Tem was still in high school, and it was something he continued to shape and workshop over the years.
Daniel went to sleep on earth, but awoke on Ubo—an place of unknown origin, maybe in the future, maybe on another planet. All he knows now is that he was carried here on the membranous wings of the roach-like aliens, who now force him to take part in…. something. An experiment, perhaps, or karmic revenge for past human atrocities, though for its participants it’s more akin to torture. When the roaches strap them down and activate the machines, they enter the minds of history’s most nefarious murderers, re-living someone else’s memories of death and violence and bloodshed. Through the killers’ eyes, watching millions engulfed in fire and blood before they’re ripped back to Ubo. And there they mill about in dystopic squalor until they’re thrust back into the eyes of another maniac. There is no explanation. There is no escape. And there is no hope.
Haven’t you been paying attention? Things that were never supposed to happen, they happen all the time.
There’s a long trend of authors using science fiction to examine deep real-world issues, and Ubo uses its frame-work of science fictional horror as an examination of violence. Horror is most effective when it creates an atmosphere of fear, and many (if not most) fears are generated by violence. Ubo hops backwards and forwards across humanity’s worst atrocities, the endless capacity for cruelty that humans can inflict upon other humans: the Mai Lai massacre, Stalin and his purges, Jack the Ripper’s gruesome murders, Himmler and his grim accountant-like ledgers of genocide. It’s a fascinating meditation of humanity’s dark underbelly, as the participants of this torturous experiment each proclaim their humanity—“we’re not like them!”—right before revealing their own dark secrets. That’s the fear that Ubo uses, the lurking dread that some capacity for unrestrained violence lurks within us all…
I didn’t find out about Ubo‘s early origins until after I’d read it—in fact, I didn’t find out until after I’d already written a draft of this review. To some degree, I’m not surprised; overall, the dialogue is a lot heavier on exposition than in Tem’s more recent short stories, and there’s a certain throwback pulpiness to having the alien roaches (dressed in lab coats!) herding human cattle through perverse experiments. Yet I can’t say that I’d ever guess that the book originated almost forty years ago. Even though the book makes scant mention of today’s issues, it still felt relevant and in-tune to today’s geopolitical climate, underlying the sad fact that violence continues to be timely.
Because no one can imagine reality, or would want to. That’s the sad truth of it. Reality seems a poor substitute for what we dream.
Ubo deals with a lot of dark themes, and is something of a nightmarish mind-trip that drags Daniel (and the reader) through a complex examination of violence. Just when I thought I knew where the novel was going, halfway through it started to go in another direction, and despite going over some bleak topics it ends on a fascinating note. It’s more of a deep and psychological work, relying more on quiet reflection than action or scares—which should be expected, as Tem is one of the best around at writing the “quiet” horror tale. Imagine Thomas Disch’s Camp Concentration as written by China Miéville or Jeff Vandermeer and you pretty much have Ubo. In this case, its cool-sounding central idea does live up to its potential, and the result is a thought-provoking novel and a very satisfying read.
Author: Steve Rasnic Tem
First Published: 9 February 2017
What I Read: Solaris ebook, 2017
Price I Paid: $0 (e-ARC via NetGalley and Solaris)
MSRP: $14.99 pb / $6.99 ebook
ISBN: 1781085110 / B01MTSH5W2