“Black Queen White. White Queen Black.”: Caitlin R Kiernan’s Black Helicopters

The novella Black Helicopters has an intriguing publication history. It first appeared as a companion piece to Subterranean Press’ limited edition release of the author’s The Ape’s Wife and Other Stories back in 2013. It subsequently saw nomination for the World Fantasy Award. After Tor.com released Agents of Dreamland in 2017, they showed interest in issuing a more widely available edition of Black Helicopters. The author then revised the Award-nominated work, adding in five chapters (one of which, the author admits in the Afterword to the 2018 edition, did not occur to them until after writing Agents of Dreamland). The Tor.com edition, therefore, is the author’s preferred text, and it has become the second volume in the Tinfoil Dossier. A third entry is coming in October 2020, dubbed The Tindalos Asset. Will there be more? I suspect so. This is not a series per se. It is a collection of documents that fit together to form a larger whole, a collection of materials that allow readers (and critics) to enjoy applying a little apophenia (recognizing patterns where some or none might exist), as we parse out the actual underlying story while enjoying the gloom-and-doom moodiness of the author’s exceptional prose. So, this book was originally written as a standalone text, then got pulled into a series as the second volume. Black Helicopters raises a lot of questions, but it does not offer easy answers—either easy to hear or easy to discern. It’s a complicated volume stretching across several timelines and characters, a book that is easy to get lost in. It’s also a well written exploration of the languages people speak while they are working with colleagues.

Agents of Dreamland is a puzzle of sorts, a collection of documents that might have come from a single source. It expects quite a bit from its readers, giving us a weird look into the shady world of spycraft as it relates to cosmic events. It hung on the work of three characters: an agent known as The Signalman, a mysterious woman called Immacolata Sexton, and Chloe, a free-floating personality who came unstuck from the material world as well as time, following some nasty ritualistic goings conducted by Arizona-based suicide cult, The Children of the Next Level.

Similarly, Black Helicopters is also a puzzle. It too reads like a dossier of information, crazy amounts of even crazier intelligence, which the reader is expected to put together. The big difference here is that the material comes from at least two or three different organizations, dubbed “X and Y and the Albany spooks” (27) and possibly additional intelligence from independent operators. Are any of these individuals related to the first novella? Maybe. We see Signalman again for a brief chapter, though his appearance does not seem initially significant—however, some of his thoughts echo with those found throughout the book, making him perhaps a Signal-Receiving-Man for a heretofore unknown power.

The timeline is even more complex here, forming some kind of cohesive pattern that requires some revisiting to make sense of, necessitating (or at least rewarding) multiple readings. Some of this story is from 2012, three years prior to the main course of events in Agents, when a mysterious Egyptian woman met up with a pair of agents defecting from another organization. It also revolves around a pair of albino twins, unbound by time or psychic limitations. There is a cryptic message running through white noise channels, “Black queen white. White queen black.” (20) Does this relate to the “X-ers” and their mystery twins? Is it a portent of something potent and nasty incoming? Is it an in-joke between sisters? Is it chess talk? The novella explores the concept through multiple periods of history, from a near past perched on the even of apocalypse, to a cyberpunk near future, to a flooded far future, which draws some correlation with J. G. Ballard’s Drowned World.

And then there is weird, cataclysmic events happening in Deer Isle, Maine, after some cosmic event occurs, turning the ocean water into something delightfully repulsive. One of the sisters (strung out on hard drugs prescribed by the mysterious shrink Doc Twisby) and a smooth killer known as Sixty-Six (a nod to Barbara Feldon’s Agent 99 from that old espionage comedy show Get Smart?) are on hand to deal with the menace it sometimes disgorges:

The sea is the color of semen. The sea is the consistency of jizz. The scrotum-tightening sea. It smells like sewage. It steams and disgorges demons. “Demons,” with scary quotes. All but shapeless shapes that burst when shot or cut, their constituent molecules thereafter slithering back into the semen sea to reassemble and gather themselves for a new assault. Sixty-Six calls them shoggoths, a word she’s taken from old horror stories, turns out. I don’t care what the fuck they are.

Black Helicopters, 73

There’s a lot going on in this world. A. Lot.

From a structural perspective, Black Helicopters begins in roughly the same manner as Agents. The first Tinfoil Dossier novella opened with The Signalman waiting for a contact to meet him in a coffeeshop in Arizona. Black Helicopters instead opens with Ptolema (aka the Egyptian) meeting up with a couple of unidentified agents from the other side. She is here not to welcome them to their new home, but to give them some intel and set them loose on a mission. Her team does not yet trust them and wants to test them. What they find may well spell their doom. Ptolema is accustomed to these black bag type games. She’s been doing them long enough, and yet the two new agents get under her skin by being perpetually late. It’s a bizarre game wherein players assert who is dominant.

From here, the books take great departures from one another, in terms of intent.

Whereas the previous book enjoyed playing with the ideas about how we process disparate information, interpolating through incomplete sets, Black Helicopters is far more interested in how communication itself works. Every job has its specialized language of jargon and verbal shorthand. Black Helicopters explores multiple careers and personality types through the language they use. This is a novella that is all but begging for an audiobook edition. I would love to hear the cadence of these different voices speaking aloud. Also, there’s a chapter where the dialogue is entirely in French (translated in an Appendix, which is cheekily given the title Appendix 9 though there are no appendices 1-8 to be found). Is this self-indulgent? An argument can be made to that effect, sure. Is this being done for a purpose? I am betting on yes, and I believe that purpose is the same as what motivates the Near Future Jive of the cyberpunk chapters, it’s a way to appreciate the way people communicate when they are among peers.

That the whole thing also reads quite appropriately as a sometimes ludicrous and sometimes chilling rant from a paranoid (applying that whole Tinfoil element from the Tinfoil Dossier series title) only gives the novella even more immediacy. The chapters play well as an assembly of thoughts from an unnamed character who is suffering schizophrenia, possibly after stealing a glimpse behind the veil of ignorance covering and protecting pathetic humanity from the real forces at play in the universe. Then again, don’t people immersed in a culture that applies acronyms for everything (e.g., the military in general or NASA in particular) or careers that use outré terminology for day-to-day interactions with peers (any STEM path) sound a little crazy?

Essentially, the gist here is that everyone speaks private languages and just about everyone is multilingual when it comes to different peer groups one is a part of. Sometimes we share meanings and dialects when we want to communicate outside our circles, but oftentimes we sound like foreigners to those who don’t share our experiences.

This exploration is also a literary tip of the hat to some of the more brilliant language smiths like Anthony Burgess, whose NADSAT language gives A Clockwork Orange a bizarre life all its own, as well as fantasists like Tolkien, who crafted multiple languages for their various non-human characters. Some do it well, some do it poorly, and Kiernan’s effort is certainly intriguing, though I do not know if I am fully convinced. It works for me, for the most part, but even in my head, I have a shitty accent on my French, so how am I to pick up the lyricism of those sequences? And some of this stuff smacks of Willliam S. Burrough’s cut up technique, wherein he would type a page and then fold it in on itself to reveal new interactions and imagery from repositioned words arranged into no-longer-linear paragraphs and passages. I will not lie: There is a temptation to skim when encountering such things. Thus, I would appreciate an audio version read by someone who can do these parts justice. After all, listening to Burroughs reading his own works is profoundly enlightening, opening avenues I did not appreciate from text alone. I suspect the same would be true here.

And if that weren’t enough, the chapter titles themselves are designed for maximizing mood. Many of them reference song titles from obscure bands. A few of them employ phraseology to impart a specific notion or mood. The chapter titled “Golgotha Tenement Blues” might not necessarily benefit from a listen to that particular Machines of Loving Grace song (for the curious unfamiliar, it appeared on The Crow soundtrack), but it was nevertheless rumbling along in my headspace while I read. Hell, the title of the book is a favorite image of paranoiacs, the preferred transportation for big time conspirators, particularly ones that involve covering up of alien influence here on earth.

Of course, I am probably among the minority of readers who see exposure to this and don’t get annoyed. Once upon a time, Trista and I took a vacation in Japan (actually multiple vacations). Now my spoken Japanese is limited, and my level of understanding of the written language is non-existent. Luckily some dear friends of ours living there played tour guide. As a natural problem solver, my instinct is to contribute when faced with a situation where we are lost or at a loss for where to go next. When we were in Okinawa, the smaller islands of Iriomote and Ishigaki (beautiful islands, both), or even mainland, I found myself at a loss for contributing a damned thing of use. Instead, I had to convince myself to sit back and let the whole experience wash over me, carrying me along. I picked up a few things on the journey, but one of the keys was a survival mechanism to do your best and enjoy full submersion in a setting that is at once familiar yet different in no small measure. Kiernan’s novella might convince some readers that they are drowning in bafflement. Others will enjoy the chance to immerse in Kiernan’s unique worlds. To be honest, I waffled between the two camps depending on how sleepy I was at the time of reading. However, for the most part I enjoyed the immersive quality of the entertainment.

As with folks who are new to a book who find themselves overwhelmed and baffled, I offer the same advice I do to first time readers of such works as the aforementioned A Clockwork Orange: push on, do your best with the many languages on display, allow yourself to catch fragments of meaning and potent images here and there. Then, better armed, give the book a second read and watch the pieces fall into better alignment. There are still mysteries in the text, to be sure, but that’s part of the fun.

Also, it does not hurt to be well read and know a thing or two about chess.

Kiernan’s text is downright playful when it comes to making literary references. They abound here. Charles Fort, A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh (which made an appearance in the previous work, if memory serves me correctly, mostly in the form of the “Tiddley-pom” song serving to that text what the phrase “And so it goes” serves to Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five), Lewis Carrol, and a surprise appearance by one of my favorite books of all time, Watership Down. Must one catch all the allusions? Not really. They are one more set of language to appreciate. A subliminal subtext. However, they also add depth to characters and layers to the proceedings.

Black Helicopters is the sort of book that will not win over everyone. It’s a weird novella in addition to being Weird fiction. However, it is a cleverly constructed puzzle box, which shows an ear for the way people talk, an eye for telling details, and a mind that cannot be constrained by the expectations of either genres or casual readers.

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Caitlin R. Kiernan’s Black Helicopters is available in eBook and paperback editions from the fine folks at Tor.com.

Next up, we will look at a brand new Tor.com novella length work. This month sees release of Stephen Graham Jones’ Night of the Mannequins. Grab a copy today. It’s available in eBook and paperback editions.

WORKS CITED

Kiernan, Caitlin R. Black Helicopters: Author’s Definitive Edition. Tor.com: 2019

“‘Black Queen White. White Queen Black’: Caitlin R. Kiernan’s Black Helicopters” is copyright © 2020 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Cover image and quotes taken from the Tor.com paperback edition, released 2019.

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