Stories from the Steel Garden by Jesse Gordon. Review by Nickolas Cook
My first impression was that Jesse Gordon's newest novel, Stories from the Steel Garden, could be definitively stacked in the social science fiction category, an underused sub-genre, and one from which stems most classic science fiction. But upon completion, I found it, instead, to be part socio-political tract and part Quantum Physics exposition.
Stories from the Steel Garden tells the story of Richard Doroshenko, a young man coming of age in a government run work camp in the middle of a desolate desert. The camp is a forced primitive culture where the inhabitants, society's misfits, the poor, the imprisoned, the jobless, people without a hope for advancement in the city, are forced to work seven days a week, young and old alike, until they reach retirement age (until they can no longer be productive for the government) and then they're cut loose, to be taken care of by friends and relatives or to die of starvation.
Doroshenko has an amazing ability to make his stories come to life for his readers. Gordon uses this ability early on in the novel as metaphor for the art of storytelling and its place in culture. His powers of description are evident from page one, as surrounds his readers with the dichotomy of community and hopelessness. The author spends much time drowning his characters in a wash of government-sanctioned repression. As the camp's inhabitants become more and more restless with their situation, he sets the reader up for a righteous revolution. There is indeed a revolution, of sorts. But it's almost guaranteed not to be the type that the reader will expect. To many, Stories from the Steel Garden will appear to be a social revolutionary tract without the expected explosive revolution. What the reader will find is a quiet spiritual revolution, one that uses Quantum Physics as its savoir. If there's any complaint to be made against Stories from the Steel Garden it's that the revolution is sure to disappoint readers looking forward to violent retribution against the oppressors of the working class.
In a book such as this the author's politics can hardly be dismissed; they come through loud and clear. But strangely enough, Gordon later equates drug use and pedophiles with grown adults who use sex toys or enjoy pornography. This was confusing, to say the least, as the author seems to be saying throughout the novel that government control is a bad thing...unless you happen to like sex and drugs. He does not bother to delineate the different levels of either. To him, they appear to be of all the same degree of evil. Quite frankly, to this reviewer, it came off a bit judgmental.
Beyond that, however, Gordon is able to create some heartfelt characters (the crusty Ju Ju being my favorite). Unfortunately, much of the novel's denouement leaves them as little more than window dressing, or walk-ons meant to be used only for exposition and then to die. Ultimately, at best, this story becomes a one man revolution, and may leave some readers feeling as if they've eaten an incredibly rich piece of sweetness without any substance.