Review: 'Summerhill', by Kevin Frane
‘I tell you,’ the ankylosauromorphic cyborg said in its fluid, polished, robotic voice, ‘he’s got to be some sort of wolf. Just on two legs, is all.’
Summerhill kept his ears perked and his mouth shut. He lifted his own glass of golden, bubbling something-or-other to his lips and took a sip, his eyes meeting the little girl’s for a moment of grateful acknowledgment.
‘Oh, please. Have you ever SEEN a wolf?’ asked the Crown Prince of the Akashic Realm, lines of disapproval appearing on his otherwise smooth, pale blue face. He and Summerhill had met earlier in the evening; the two shared a taste for fizzy beverages. ‘He’s far too small, and the colors are all wrong.’
The girl quietly begged pardon and broke away from the group. As she left, she offered Summerhill a tiny wave with her slender fingers, along with one final smile of sympathy and encouragement.
A being that looked like a pinkish cloud of gas with a self-contained thunderstorm rumbling all through itself chimed in. ‘No, I saw a wolf here aboard the ship just this morning.’ Blue tendrils of electricity crackled over its wispy form as it somehow created the sounds of speech. ‘He didn’t look anything like this.’ (p. 2)
Warning: Your copy of Summerhill is not defective. It really does start with Chapter 2. Chapter 1 starts on page 14.
Summerhill, who may be a dog, is aboard the interdimensional luxury liner S.S. Nusquam. He is:
… a colorful fellow, at least by the standards he’d known before coming aboard. He looked much like a dog, a wolf-like dog that was on the small side or perhaps a coyote-like dog that was on the large side; or maybe something in between. His fur had hues of yellow and red, though in most places those colors blended to form a more appropriately canine brown, or cream, or cinnamon or deep reddish-black. The gray of his eyes matched the gray of the sky of the world from which he’d come, which he’d lately taken to thinking may not have been a coincidence. (p. 6)
Summerhill had been the only inhabitant for all of his life of the World of the Pale Gray Sky, although its being filled with empty skyscrapers and empty supermarkets filled with food that never spoiled hinted that there had once been other inhabitants. He eventually got bored of being all alone, so he set off to explore it. Just before walking off it into space, he met a duplicate of himself who warned him, “‘Find Katharine. Make sure you stick with her and everything will be fine.’” (p. 20) So he walks off into interstellar space, where he runs into and sneaks aboard the S.S. Nusquam with its bizarre passengers and crew, and finds Katherine, a human woman from New Zealand who promptly has him arrested by two robots. So much for sticking with her!
By this time it is clear that Summerhill is not your usual anthropomorphic s-f novel. I was strongly reminded of Robert A. Heinlein’s short stories “By His Bootstraps” and “--All You Zombies--“, two complex time-travel/paradox tales in which all of the characters turn out to be the same character, time-traveling back & forth and meeting himself at different ages.
Bringing the bowl to his muzzle, he opened his mouth and extended his tongue –
-- and then spotted a small note left sitting on the platter.
It had been hidden underneath the bowl of stew, the paper having curled and warped somewhat due to the heat. There was writing on it, and before he even tried to read it, Summerhill recognized the handwriting as his own.
He didn’t know when he’d ever seen himself write anything, but he recognized his handwriting all the same. The words appeared to have been hastily scribbled, too. (pgs. 37-38)
I am also reminded of another s-f thriller where, at one point, the hero shouts frustratedly to anyone who will listen, “I DON’T UNDERSTAND ANYTHING THAT’S GOING ON!” Summerhill is much more blasé about it. He metaphorically just relaxes and enjoys the scenery while he and Katherine are running from the ominous Consortium, robots with rayguns, and whatever else is chasing them. And the scenery is very exotic.
The lifeboat had crashed onto what appeared to be the surface of an enormous coral reef. Giant polyps sported a rainbow of tentacles of varying sizes. Conical sponges formed miniature forests, anchored to the reef’s calcium exoskeleton at narrow points that looked like they might break off with even the slightest nudge. Blazing red tendrils fanned out like massive antlers that belonged on the head of a great hoofed animal.
‘Okay,’ Summerhill said, drawing a deep breath to calm himself, ‘if we just crashed, then WHERE did we crash?’
Katherine stared out the window for a while longer, transfixed by the view outside. […] … she turned to look at him and said, ‘I think we’ve struck a nevereef.’
Summerhill raised an eyebrow. ‘Should I know what that is?’
‘I’m sketchy on most of the details myself,’ Katharine said. ‘I mean, some of the sailors mention them from time to time. They’re some kind of navigational hazard that the ship has to avoid when sailing the gulf between realities, but I don’t know much about them beyond that.’ She nodded toward the viewing port. ‘I’m actually kind of surprised that it even looks like a reef, to be honest.’ (pgs. 47-48)
From reef to forest to swamp, the landscape keeps changing. Katharine grows increasingly worried and despondent as they go on but do not seem to make any progress; but Summerhill remains serene.
Katharine started to lag behind again. ‘Mr. Summerhill, I don’t mean to sound negative, but what if there isn’t a way out of this place? What if it comes down to the two of us needing to survive down here?’
‘There’s a way out,’ Summerhill insisted. He’d come close to snapping at her, but caught himself at the last moment. None of this was her fault. ‘There’s got to be. I just know it.’
‘Oh, hey, something else you just know. There’s a surprise. And just what makes you say that this time?’
Summerhill whirled around and leveled his narrow snout at Katharine’s face with a snarl. ‘Because I’m meant for something important!’ (p. 78)
And so he is, but they undergo a lot more befuddlement before they get there:
She [Katherine] pushed the door open, started to step in through it, then stopped with a quick gasp before jerking back and slipping back around the corner. Summerhill tried to sneak a peek in through the door as it swung closed, but he didn’t see anything special. ‘What’s wrong?’ he asked. ‘Security?’
Katherine’s face was almost white; and she had a distant, hollow look in her eyes. ‘No,’ she said, her voice dry. ‘I’M in there.’ (pgs. 93-94)