Oyster Boy Review 16  
  Winter 2002
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Common Ectoids of Arizona

Laurel Savino

The introduction to Stepan Chapman's chapbook Common Ectoids of Arizona begins by comparing his enthusiasm for "the Unseen" with bird watching. I think he's referring to how hard it is to see birds in the wild, how quickly they move and how they take off, frustrating attempts to get a good look.

It doesn't seem quite fair, because anyone can go bird watching, but only Chapman, and his "enthusiasts of the Unseen" can catch a glimpse of ectoplasmic entities. But, he insists, they deserve the same attention.

Which he pays them. His book is a field guide for spiritualist tourists in Arizona, a sketchbook of field observations of "complex liminal creatures, neither flesh nor concept," noting both phenotypes and behaviors.

The line drawings are deft and sketchy. Deep perspective offers a little drama and he includes an impressive variety of cacti in his ectoblast ecology. The ectoids' faces, when they have them, are expressive, whether beatific or startled or sexually knowing. His creatures sometimes sport familiar human body parts—there are a lot of naked breasts on the females of the species—and most have at least one human facial feature like eyes, though they may take up most of the face or sit perched on eye-stalks. When they don't feature human sex organs or giant gnashing teeth, there's sometimes a charming Dr. Seuss quality, especially among creatures that are fleet in movement with a kind of head-held-high spring to their step. There's also a bit of Suessy parading on a variety of vehicles and steeds.

Ectoid behaviors include mating dances and glowing in the dark and flashing like lightning when startled. Some impersonate humans until they give themselves away by doing things that aren't possible for us, like walking up walls. Others are observed going about their particular business. They don't look like us, but often our concerns are the same.

Teenage Ocatilloids watch a movie at the drive-in. Mexican Glyphoids "seeking a better life for their children" hitchhike into Arizona from Nogales. A couple of Ectobugs catch an after hours strip show performed by a glow-in-the-dark girl. Her sex organs are right where they would be were she human, but her limbs wind around into long tentacles.

Chapman's observations take special note of ectoids in polluted environments. While some display mutations caused by pollution, many thrive on toxins and seek out situations where they are likely to encounter them in gas stations, airport runways, and copper mines. Like us, Chapman wants us to know, some ectoids benefit from the production of toxic pollution while others pay a high price for it.

This selfish tendency may be a thread in Chapman's fiction. Winner of the science fiction Philip K. Dick Memorial Award for his novel The Troika, he is also the author of a story called "The One-Armed Elek," in which a shaman from an Inuit-like culture confronts his village with the blame of a crushing famine. Arrogance and violence among villagers, it seems, have angered their goddess, who punishes them with hunger. The elek's message enrages the village leader, who rips off his arm. Later, the severed hand strangles the elek in his sleep.

This parallel of his characters' shortsighted behavior with ours runs throughout Common Ectoids of Arizona and there is a whiff of self-defensiveness from the messenger. Beneath the groovy 1960s-style cartoons there is both a relentless hippie whimsy and an insistence on the possibility of an unseen fauna. He ends his introduction with a challenge to the reader, defying "uninformed persons of a skeptical bent [who] sometimes accuse me of inventing these strange creatures." This seems a bit cranky for such a slender fancy. It's a little passive-aggressive to criticize those who can't see invisible beings for not believing, like the former lord of Riverdance who insisted that anyone saying they didn't like his brand of neotraditional Irish dance had to be lying.

But some of Common Ectoids is touching, like the invisible (even to Chapman) ectoid of the "elderly widower phenotype," apparent only from his hat, suit, shoes and cane, who haunts a cemetery. Like Dick's androids (also inorganic but rich in concept), Chapman's ectoids can't help but remember.