In a generally positive review of Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners, New York Times reviewer Michael Knight complains that Link is “a hard writer to put your finger on”:
Take “Some Zombie Contingency Plans.” It’s about a recently released convict who drives around the suburbs looking for parties to crash because he’s lonely. There are zombies here, but are they real? The premise is fresh and the characters (the con, the girl whose party he crashes, her little brother who sleeps under the bed) are likable and Link puts a metafictional twist on the narrative voice (“This is a story about being lost in the woods,” she says), but the story doesn’t quite come together, and those zombies—are they supposed to be a metaphor?
Freshly back from Worldcon and full of the wine of skiffy goodness, SF writer Scott Westerfeld shoots flames from the top of his head:
Argh. Are those not of the Tribe really so dim-witted? Are our skiffy reading protocols really so hard to understand?
Allow me to explain, Mr. Non-sf-Reading Reviewer Man. Sure, zombies can “be a metaphor.” They can represent the oppressed, as in Land of the Dead, or humanity’s feral nature, as in 28 Days. Or racial politics or fear of contagion or even the consumer unconscious (Night of the Living Dead, Resident Evil, Dawn of the Dead). We could play this game all night.
But really, zombies are not “supposed to be metaphors.” They’re supposed to be friggin’ zombies. They follow the Zombie Rules: they rise from death to eat the flesh of the living, they shuffle in slow pursuit (or should, anyway), and most important, they multiply exponentially. They bring civilization down, taking all but the most resourceful, lucky and well-armed among us, whom they save for last. They make us the hunted; all of us.
That’s the stuff zombies are supposed to do. Yes, they make excellent symbols, and metaphors, and have kick-ass mythopoeic resonance to boot. But their main job is to follow genre conventions, to play with and expand the Zombie Rules, to make us begin to see the world as a place colored by our own zombie contingency plans. […]
Stories are the original virtual reality device; their internal rules spread out into reality around us like a bite-transmitted virus, slowly but inexorably consuming its flesh. They don’t just stand around “being metaphors” whose sole purpose is to represent things in the real world; they eat the real world.
This is the best expression I’ve seen lately of the gap between people who get fantastic fiction and people who don’t. It’s almost a secular version of Flannery O’Connor’s answer to someone who praised the “symbolism” of the Mass: “If it’s just a symbol, then the hell with it.” Greg Bear’s Blood Music isn’t an allegory about Overmind, it’s a story about humanity being literally transformed, by material means, into a new kind of life. Of course any work of fiction with more substance than a Kleenex can support a reading that teases out metaphors and symbolic resonances, but it’s critical to SF and fantasy that the fantastic elements are, first and foremost, real.
(You can read Kelly Link’s earlier collection Stranger Things Happen for free here. Then check out Magic for Beginners, which is worth it for the title piece alone, a story that illustrates Westerfeld’s final point above with amazing grace.)