Katharine Kerr
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Freeze Frames

Tor Books, © 1995, ISBN #0-812-55173-7
Reviewed September 1996

Freeze Frames is a collection of short stories masquerading as a novel. Of its six chapters, three are fairly meaty short stories which are very loosely linked, while the first is a vague prologue and the last two a perplexing epilogue. In that regard, it's a disappointing book, purporting to be something it's not. On the other hand, several of the chapters are rather good.

The book focuses on Maggie Corey, who appears first as a flower child in 1960s San Francisco, and her descendants over the next 150 years or so. The first chapter, entitled "Dr. Lucky", introduces Nick Harrison, who possesses great power in the form of de-aging the title character (John "Dr. Lucky" Wagner) about 20 years, and who seems to be manipulating the characters to his own ends (he matches Wagner and Maggie so that they produce a daughter). Although it is suggested that he is the Devil, I was left with the strong feeling that he was in fact from the future.

Unfortunately, Harrison's presence in the book is a jarring reminder that the book isn't really a novel: He appears in several later chapters, sometimes accompanied by a rabbi apparently representing good to Harrison's evil (though Harrison never really comes across as evil, per se). But there's never any explanation of why Harrison bothered to involve himself with Maggie and her descendants, and neither he nor the Rabbi seem to serve any purpose in the context of the whole book (though they are key within the bounds of one chapter, "Resurrection").

The second chapter, "The Stargazer", introduces another thread: Aliens. It takes place in the near future, when the US is having an energy (and apparently economic) crisis. A young woman, Leslie, is dealing with the effects of her late mother, who apparently committed suicide. Her mother had, at the last, believed that she was being psychically contacted by aliens, and Leslie comes to believe the same of herself as the story goes on. It's left open whether this contact was really occurring, or whether Leslie - who seems to have severe anorexia and is clearly under a lot of stress - is going around the bend.

In the last two chapters, though, the aliens do come to Earth, and convert to Catholicism. These last two chapters were completely perplexing to me and seemed to serve no purpose either in the context of the book as a whole, or even within their own bounds. When I finished the book, my feeling was that I was missing something fundamental to the story, and I immediately wondered if the book was some sort of allegory that I just couldn't 'get'. If so, it's got me completely stumped.

It's the third and fourth chapters, though, which are the least connected to the others, which are the centerpiece of the book. "Asylum" involves Maggie's daughter Janet finding herself in exile in Great Britain when a military coup brings down the US government and installs a Christian junta. In my opinion, this is the book's best story. It does a good job of illustrating what it might be like to be an American in exile: Janet's reaction to realizing that she's been declared an enemy of the state (because of her liberal political views), and what that means to her. Her efforts to gain asylum in Britain (the nuts-and-bolts of which are very well described), and the help her friends give her.

"Asylum" is additionally effective due to Kerr's subtle efforts to portray the way the world is changing over the decades: The energy problems in "The Stargazer", and here, the rising oceans, necessitating great dams along the Thames.

The fourth chapter, "Resurrection", focuses on Janet's granddaughter Tiffany Owens, who was in combat in the Middle East near the end of the 21st century, and is recovering from war wounds (including dying on the table twice). Tiffany finds that the world isn't quite what she thinks it should be, although she chalks up her scrambled memories to brain damage which makes her forget or misremember details (for instance, was there a drug store or a laundromat on the corner?). This is the chapter in which Harrison and the Rabbi show up, claiming that Tiffany actually belongs in an alternate universe, that she ended up in this one accidentally, and they offer her the choice of returning where they say she belongs.

"Resurrection", which has been published in book form separately, is where Kerr most ably displays the internal consistency of her universe, showing how it's evolved since Janet's time. And as in "Asylum", we're given a good look at Tiffany's reactions to the world around her, and the events that confront her.

Freeze Frames is written in such a literate style (at times, Kerr almost seems overwhelmed by her own writing ability) that it's hard to believe it doesn't have more of an overall meaning to it. If it had been, I think, a little more forthright about what it really was - not a novel - then I think it would have been more satisfying.

hits since 13 August 2000.

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