Terry Bisson’s latest collection of short stories, TVA Baby, presents thirteen science fiction tales that focus on voyeurism and violence—and sometimes both.
The title story starts the collection with a dose of hyper violence that unfolds with dark humor. The main character, a southerner whose Yankee father came to the south to work for Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Authority, is never named but refers to himself as “TVA Baby.” And he’s got some issues: the story starts out on a plane where TVA Baby punches a guy in the face, driving the bone into the brain and killing him. “You hardly ever see blood on a commercial flight,” he exclaims. When he takes a hostage he misinterprets her fearful stuttering for an actual speech impediment and relates to us the lesson he learned in the Boy Scouts about kids who stutter: “cruelty isn’t a merit badge.” The story progresses with increased violence, and ends with a dramatic shoot-out at a Wal-Mart with “Darth Vader types” (a SWAT team) and a hurried conversation with Ellen Degeneres through a television screen about what to do next.
The voyeurism theme is common throughout the collection, but most prevalent in the story “Private Eye.” In a not too distant future, people are implanted with video cameras in their eyes that stream to pay-per-view websites; the story is told in first person but because of the streaming aspect, the reader becomes a subscribing voyeur to the romantic relationship that develops between the two main characters. Bisson also toys with point of view in “Pirates of the Somali Coast,” an epistolary tale told by a ten-year-old boy via e-mails to his mom and his best friend. An innocent, the boy never fully comprehends the ultra-violence that the pirates are committing; he is overjoyed when he gets to keep a murdered child’s Game-boy but finds disappointment when he discovers “the batteries are all ready dead, just my luck.”
The strongest story here is “Charlie’s Angels,” a stylish piece of noir fiction. Jack Villon is a supernatural investigator hired by a chain-smoking Edith Prang, the director of the New Orleans Museum of Art and Antiquities. His job is to find out who is mysteriously killing people by pinching off their heads, and also where a giant statue keeps disappearing to. The mystery intensifies when clues begin pointing to the statue itself as the culprit, and a mysterious voice starts talking to Villon via cell phone asking him to “Kill me . . . please . . .” Villon’s cynicism toward his job is summed up nicely when he is told about the legend of the giant statue: He reveals he “never figured out why people want to believe in the supernatural. It’s as if they find the existence of the irrational somehow reassuring.”
Here and throughout the book, Bisson maintains a lighthearted tone amidst the darker atmosphere very well, and his playful incorporation of real-world humdrum amidst the science-fiction mayhem offers a lens on contemporary society. Watch your heads!