Rating 4 stars
David Hartley’s collection Fauna gathers together twelve short stories that explore the relationship between humanity and the rest of the living world while also imagining a variety of futures that have tilted in favour of one side over the other.
The opening story, ‘Broadcast of the Foxes’, is surreal and subtly terrifying. It involves a shape-shifting fox and its mate who are as kindly cruel as the shape-shifting foxes of Japanese folklore. The pair terrorise a man who is desperate to communicate his situation to the world but can’t make a connection. It’s a hallucination of modern life, full of paranoia and the reductive effects of television and social media.
‘Shooting an Elephant’ is theatre on the page. The absurdity of the situation – acrobats performing as animals for customers to mime a safari hunt to – becomes deadly serious, and the protagonist fits the identikit profile of a mass shooter. Everything is pretend until the moment when it isn’t.
Technology and our enthrallment to it is a thread that runs through the collection. ‘Come See the Whale’ skewers the notion that technology and what we can do with it is always good. ‘Betamorphosis’ is inspired by a successful Kickstarter project to fund a citizen science app ‘RoboRoach’ and riffs on Gregor Samsa’s experience in Kafka’s novella, marrying it to Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. In ‘Hutched’, a rabbit hacks the technology of its all-singing, all-dancing living quarters to escape the family that doesn’t interact with it.
Alongside the technology good or bad theme is an allied theme of humanity’s impact on the natural world. It’s there in ‘Come See the Whale’ in the suggestion that a VR tank housing a sperm whale is far better for the whale than sorting out the mess humanity has made of the oceans, and there in the wounded god of the sea who becomes bycatch, in the story of the same name, for a crew of tuna fishers. In another tale, ‘Flock’, the last dodo on Earth takes measures to ensure its survival by kidnapping a human to act as companion and protector against those who come to hunt it, while ‘Tyson/Dog’ tells the story of how Man sometimes brutalises its Best Friend for sport, with dire consequences.
As with the appearance of Poseidon in a trawler net, some of the stories weave ancient mythologies into their narratives. ‘A Time Before Horses’ focuses on a bogeyman and has three time crossing horses, connected by the mysterious force Equus, attempt to explain what this creature is. One claims a link back to the mythology of dragons, another peddles superstition, while the third spins a story about a futuristic cyborg. It’s up to the reader to decide which is true.
My favourite of this mythological ilk, and of the whole collection, was ‘A Place to Dump Guinea Pigs’, in which the Ferryman at the River Styx takes a beautiful revenge on the man who arrives with a bag of unwanted pets and, unfamiliar with the mythology of the place he’s stumbled on, negotiates passage to the midway point of the river. All turns out well for Ferryman and guinea pigs, but the man’s fate gives new meaning to the phrase “a special place in Hell”. The whole piece is supremely funny.
These are inventive stories told with a wry, quirky humour that encourage the reader to think about the different ways we as humans relate to the creatures that we share the planet with, and the ways in which we often fall short of treating them with respect, never mind care. The allegorical ‘A Panda Appeared in Our Street’ hints at the uncomfortable bedfellows that panda conservation programmes and pandas as entertainment make, and the final story ‘Bug-Eyed’ condemns us for the way we treat the insect world that is a vital part of our ecosystem.
The collection is a discomfiting read and won’t be for everyone, but if you enjoy surreal dystopian fiction that has parallels with the queasily normal abnormalities contained in Annabel Banks‘s short fiction, the abstractions that leak through Ben Marcus‘s pen, or the tangents to reality drawn by Carmen Maria Machado, then this is the book for you. If those literary names mean little to you, there’s a Terry Gilliamesque bent to Hartley’s imagination, simultaneously funny and grotesque.