"Modern science fiction," Isaac Asimov wrote, "is the only form of literature that consistently considers the nature of the changes that face us."
So should it be surprising that when local writers were asked to write alternate-reality stories about our town for City of Weird: 30 Otherworldly Portland Tales (Forest Avenue Press, 318 pages, $15.95), they often wrote about the price of rent, the fear of resident aliens from next door, the feeling that "Portland" is something passing into the mists?
Sometimes it's a laugh line—a comic by Jonathan Hill about Martians gentrifying at gunpoint. But more interesting is the sense of loss that pervades so many of the stories in this book, as in Stefanie Freele's "A Sky So Blue," in which the last fleck of blue is stolen from the Oregon sky, or Kirsten Larson's meditations on the "liquefaction zone" beneath our feet. In one of the collection's best pieces—"Vampire," a deadpan commentary on hipster aging by Justin Hocking—the "vampire seriously regrets not buying a house in Portland when real estate was affordable, back in 1896."
But City is a mostly breezy experience, with parodic monster attacks that turn out to have internet dating or Tumblr humblebrags as their true subject, and a healthy dose of tossed-off jokey schlock. But there's also an oddly lovely bit of myth creation by writer Rene Denfeld about the murderous Sturgeon Queen that stalks the Willamette—which becomes, in part, an elegy for the loss of cultural memory.
Oh, and there's a Polybius piece. Look it up.
The book's most fully realized story, perhaps, is a literal miniature ripped straight from Borges, in which an old man named Melquiades creates his own tiny version of Portland in the Shanghai tunnels for his own amusement—snatching Portlanders from the Salt & Straw lines to live in his little city, where the little citizens beg for craft beer and Stumptown coffee, and for Cheryl Strayed to join them. In a tiny city without power, he writes, the Bicycle Alliance is finally happy. "They keep talking about how we're not contributing to global warming," the narrator complains.
Meanwhile, in the year 30,000 B.C., a series of letters to The Oregonian—presumably, very heavy letters, made of stone—angrily decry the changes wrought by the invention of fire. "Fire's OK, I guess," Mark Russell writes in the voice of caveman Grub. "I just don't want it to change who we are. More than anything else, people need a place to fail gently. To me, that's what Portland is all about."
Fail gently, Portland. Fail weirder. Fail better.
SEE IT: Authors from City of Weird read at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St,, 503-228-4651, powells.com, at 7:30 pm Wednesday, Oct. 12, and Broadway Books, 1714 NE Broadway, 503-284-1726, broadwaybooks.net, at 7 pm Tuesday, Oct. 25. The Broadway reading will feature an octopus-shaped Voodoo doughnut.