Tag Archives: short stories

Robinson falls short in attempt to remake history

History is a particle accelerator. Energies are not always normal. We live in a condition of asymptotic freedom, and every history is possible.

Title: Remaking History and Other Stories
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Year: 1991
Rating: 1/5 stars

remakinghistoryIf you were to pick up a book by a known science fiction writer (Kim Stanley Robinson), from a known science fiction publisher (Tor), and with a title like Remaking History, would it not be reasonable to have some expectation of what you’d find in it? As for me, I somehow expected this to be a collection of alternate history stories, with maybe some time travel in the mix as well; that doesn’t seem like such a leap, does it? If you would make that leap, however, like I did, you’d be wrong. Not a single story in this volume fits that description in any strict sense. Of course, the author can’t really be blamed for my faulty assumption, so it’s not for that reason that I consider this collection a letdown. No, my disappointment has more to do with the fact that few of these stories entertained me much, or had much of importance to say; or that, when they did have something to say, the commentary was housed within narratives so dull I couldn’t be bothered to care. I was also, I admit, a little put off to find that about a third of the stories are not even science fiction, but what can only be considered “mainstream.”

There is a “core” group of four stories that deal with history and at least partially justify the book’s title. “A History of the Twentieth Century, with Illustrations” seems to make the altogether underwhelming point that history may be portrayed in a more optimistic or pessimistic light depending on the life circumstances and mood of the historian writing the account. Yeah…. and? In “Remaking History,” a small group of filmmakers living in a future Lunar colony debate the Great Man Theory of History; the debate is short, shallow, and leaves much to be desired. “Vinland the Dream” deals with the topic of historical hoaxes, and asks if it truly matters what “really happened,” or if, rather, we should just view history as a “story.” Put me down as being in the former camp — I do care what really happened. The fourth story is more of an essay, titled “A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions.” It’s the source of the quote at the top of this review, and it explores the intersection of quantum mechanics, chaos theory, and approaches to historical interpretation. It’s one of the more interesting parts of the book, actually.

Besides that essay, there were really only two stories I cared for at all. “Before I Wake” tackles the problem of a changing environment — an electromagnetic anomaly that blurs and mixes our waking and dreaming states — and asks if humanity would be able to adapt to it. (Bonus tip: read this story when you’re really, really tired for a trippier experience!) And “The Translator” is a hilarious story about the headaches and dangers involved in communicating with aliens.

I’m afraid I only have negative comments for the rest of the stories, so I’ll only mention a few of the more unsatisfactory ones. “Rainbow Bridge” falls prey to the all-too-common fantasy that Native Americans possess some sort of mystical powers or special wisdom, which is, of course, complete nonsense. “Glacier” paints a picture of a near-future world in which North America is becoming covered once again in ice — at a rate not too much slower than the weather disasters in the movie The Day After Tommorrow, apparently. The story focuses on the social impact, but gives no explanation for why American cities are being overtaken by glaciers in a period of just a few years. The remaining stories weren’t quite that annoying, but were, to varying degrees, simply boring.

Three out of fifteen is not too good. I guess I’ll have to put Robinson into that category of authors whose books I like, but whose short stories I don’t. Oh well, live and learn.

13 tales of caution, karma, and revenge, from Brunner

brunnerforwardFrom This Day Forward (1972) features thirteen stories showcasing John Brunner’s discerning style and wit. Correction: twelve stories and a poem. If there is a general theme running through this volume, it is that of poetic justice. Karma. Bad choices and mistakes coming back to haunt you. Evil or unethical people getting their just deserts, their comeuppance, their due. As a word of advice on avoiding such situations and keeping an eye on where we’re headed, Brunner offers this anonymous quote: It behooves us all to be interested in the future, because that’s where we’re going to spend the rest of our lives. Words of wisdom, indeed.

“The Biggest Game” is about a gigolo con-man on the hunt for his next rich widow target; but the tables are turned when the hunter becomes the hunted. “The Trouble I See” presents a man who has a special skill to sense danger to himself and uses it to manipulate others and become wealthy. Eventually, though, he is fooled by his own talent. In “Factsheet Six” a clairvoyant takes his revenge on a rapacious businessman whose unethical products caused the death of his family.

Two of the best stories are “Wasted On the Young” and “Judas.” The former presents a future social system in which the young, up until age 30, are allowed to live at society’s expense, charging any extravagance they desire to the state, after which they must repay that luxury with years of service. One young man thinks he can outsmart the system, living a life of such utter gluttony and overindulgence that he accumulates a service-debt of 300 years. He believes the state will never be able to collect on this debt, but he turns out to be wrong about that. “Judas” is an excellent story built on two concepts. One is over-reliance on technology and, in fact, the worshiping of technology to the extent that it becomes a god; the other is the lengths people will go to in order to hang on to their beliefs, even in the face of evidence against those beliefs.

“Even Chance” points out that just as it might matter to the crew of a plane where they get shot down during a war, the outcome of an alien crash-landing might also be highly dependent on the location of that landing. “Planetfall” is a boy-meets-girl story with two young people from different cultures (one Earth-based, one space-based) who each think the other’s culture is the answer to their dreams; but after learning more about each other, they realize those dreams are far too simplistic.

There are a few more stories that I didn’t care for all that much: one about intrigue in ancient Rome, one about reincarnation, one about fairies with a warning for humanity, one about a Viet-Cong terrorist in New York. And then there’s the poem at the end, which also didn’t impress me at all — or maybe I just couldn’t figure out what it was all about.

All in all, a successful story collection, meaning I liked at least half of the stories.

The two Vernor Vinges (the short and the long of it)

vingestoriesI have read several of Vernor Vinge’s novels and found their quality to range anywhere from “good” to “outstanding.” Indeed, over the time period I read those books, I’ve come to regard him as a solid and reliable author, perhaps even a growing favorite. So it seemed like a no-brainer to get this 2001 volume, The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge, containing nearly every story he had published up to that time. After all, if he’s that great a writer, how could I go wrong? Surely there must be some decent stories, and maybe some real gems, residing inside this 464-page tome of tales, right? Well, umm, as it turns out…… no, not really. I honestly can’t think of another story collection or anthology that I was more thoroughly unimpressed with than this one. And I take no pleasure in saying this, believe me.

The thing is, I know Vinge can write, damn it; A Fire Upon the Deep is one of the finest space operas ever written, if you ask me, and his other novels aren’t too shabby either. That’s why I’m at a total loss in explaining or understanding this. When it comes to short stories, it’s as if every ounce of writing talent Vinge possesses flew out the window. I mean, a lot of these stories are downright ineptly written, and I can’t figure how they ever got published (a few were even bought by Campbell, which surprises me). It strikes me that with Vinge’s writing, the rule is: the longer the better. There’s a clear (at least clear to me) rise in the quality level as he goes from short story to novelette/novella to medium-length novel to longer novel. And so, the longer pieces of this collection, those around novella length, are the best of the lot — although I cautiously use “best” as a relative term.

The single piece that was of any interest to me was “The Blabber.” This is one of those longer stories I mentioned, and it was Vinge’s first foray into his “Zones of Thought” universe, the setting for A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky. It was written before either of those novels, although the events take place in a later time. While not that great a story in its own right, it was interesting to read the first instantiation of some of the ideas and characters that I would later fall in love with in Fire.

Similarly, this collection also contains Vinge’s novella “Fast Times at Fairmont High,” the first example of the near-future world that would later become the basis for Rainbows End. The same technological and social extrapolations are present, and for that this novella deserves some credit. However, “Fast Times,” unlike Rainbows End, fails to place those extrapolations in the context of anything approaching an interesting plot, and it ends up being just a day in the life of some junior high school kids, a showcase for their technological savvy. My advice: skip the story, read the book.

There were a couple more “from the same world” stories. One was “The Ungoverned,” set in the world of The Peace War. I thought that novel was pretty good; I thought this story was a complete waste of the paper it’s printed on. And “The Barbarian Princess” is a companion to Grimm’s World. I haven’t read that one, so I admit I skimmed over this story pretty quickly, but nothing about it inspired the barest flicker of my interest.

And none of the rest of these numerous stories did anything for me either. A story should have at least one thing going for it, whether it’s character development, or an exciting plot, or a fascinating idea to explore. Most of these stories failed on all counts, consisting of characters I didn’t care about, engaged in events that seemed ridiculous, in the service of ideas I thought were dull and uninspiring.

So, great novels and lousy short stories, from the same author? Can someone explain this to me? Are there really two Vinges, one doing the short writing and the other the longer projects? Did we gain an extra Vinge from some alternate universe, like in that old Star Trek episode with the evil Spock? If so, I hope the one writing the novels sticks around a long time, because I’ll keep on reading those. But I think I’m done with the short stuff.

Tenn again — The Wooden Star

woodenstarThe last time I read a story collection by William Tenn (The Square Root of Man), I said I wasn’t exactly wowed, and the author himself admitted those stories were some of his earliest and least impressive. After finishing a second collection, The Wooden Star, I’m happy to say the quality level is quite a bit higher this time around. Some of the stories in this volume — not all, mind you, but some of them — are real pearls of satirical genius, showing a writer at the top of his game. All of the stories here, even the ones I didn’t necessarily like, are built around some core observation on mankind’s more foolish and short-sighted behavioral traits. Tenn paints a target on humanity’s idiocies and lets loose his barbed arrows, hitting the bulls-eye roughly half the time, with the rest of the shots being a bit more scattered.

There are a couple of intriguing time travel stories here. “The Brooklyn Project” takes the view, widely known from Bradbury’s famous story “A Sound of Thunder,” that even the tiniest, most insignificant change in the past can reshape the present. And thus, an arrogant government official, providing commentary to the press about the first (military-controlled) time time travel experiment, assures everyone, with a smug “trust us, we’re the government” attitude, that nothing could possibly go wrong — which, of course, turns out to be not quite accurate. In “It Ends with a Flicker,” a man is sent into the past to change a certain event in order to avert a disaster. Turns out, though, that this changed event causes a different disaster in the new, changed timeline. So a man from the new timeline goes back to change that event, resulting in — yeah, you guessed it — the original timeline with its original disaster. Reality becomes a ping-pong ball bounced back and forth between these two men who each think their own problems are the most serious imaginable.

Two other stories take place in post-apocalyptic worlds in which society takes some strange and unexpected turns. “Null-P” explores what happens when “normal” and “average” become the new social ideals and are taken to an extreme. When a man who just happens to be the statistical average in all characteristics (IQ, age, height, income, everything) is elected President for just that reason, he sets the world on course to learn a hard lesson: that to give up striving to be the best has some serious consequences. “Eastward Ho!” is a hilarious story that exactly reverses the roles, in a rebuilding post-war world, between American Indians and the White Man. Manifest Destiny is turned on its head as the Indians, using all the same justifications and promises previously used on them, slowly and inexorably push the remnants of the U.S. government eastward, into an ever-shrinking territory, until finally the last few whites are forced to flee by ship, sailing to Europe in search of a new home.

And then there are the aliens. “The Deserter” is a humorous and yet scathing look at military thinking, set in the context of a war between Earth and beings from Jupiter. In “Betelguese Bridge,” alien con-men (con-creatures?) exploit mankind’s willingness to be deceived. In “Will You Walk A Little Faster,” aliens who want our planet when we’re gone decide to let human psychology do the work for them, pitting individual short-term interest against long-term species survival; and individual greed promptly dooms humanity. “Lisbon Cubed” pokes fun at the spy networks of our various intelligence agencies by presenting aliens who do it on a far grander scale, but still fall prey to a “cloak and dagger for its own sake” mentality.

“The Masculinist Revolt” takes on the “war of the sexes,” the nature of movements and counter-movements, political grandstanding, and the intersection of all of those in the ever-fickle arena of public opinion. For some reason it didn’t appeal to me much, although Tenn claims it as one of his favorites. “Generation of Noah” concerns a family preparing for nuclear war and a father’s disciplinary treatment of his children in order to make them ready; it strikes me as the weakest story in this collection. “Dark Star” is about a man who decides to pass on the chance to become one of history’s most remembered names, so that he may start a family instead; I found it only mildly interesting.

Overall this is a strong collection of stories, and I’d recommend it to anyone as a great introduction to Tenn’s writing.

A “best of” worthy of the name

bestofsilverbergI have been a fan of Silverberg for some time, but up until now I had never read any of his numerous story collections (although I had read an isolated story or two in various anthologies). And what can I say about The Best of Robert Silverberg except “damn, the man can write“? I very much enjoyed seven out of the ten stories included here, and 70% approval is an unprecedented situation for me and short stories. Of course, out of the hundreds of stories the man wrote, I’m sure there are quite a few I wouldn’t care for; but not many of them found their way into this volume. I guess there’s a reason it’s called “the best of…,” rather than “the mediocre of…” or some such.

This collection was published in 1976 and contains stories from the late 50’s through the early 70’s, presented in chronological order to show some of the evolution of the author’s style. Each story is also prefaced with Silverberg’s comments on the circumstances of the story’s creation or inspiration, containing numerous tidbits of fascinating information.

“Road to Nightfall” is a chilling look at the horrifying temptation of cannibalism in a nearly post-apocalyptic future world suffering from starvation.

“Warm Man” is a nicely structured tale about two people with different telepathic gifts, one a “sender” and the other a “receiver,” and the tragic results of them not recognizing each other’s powers until it’s too late.

The idea behind “To See the Invisible Man” came from a line in Jorge Luis Borges’ story “The Babylon Lottery”:

“Like all men in Babylon I have been a proconsul; like all, a slave . . . . During one lunar year, I have been declared invisible; I shrieked and was not heard, I stole my bread and was not decapitated.”

For Borges this was simply a bit of colorful background, but Silverberg took up this concept of social invisibility as a punishment and ran with it, resulting in what is easily my favorite story in this collection, and destined to be one of my favorites, period. It’s the tale of a man who is sentenced to invisibility for a year, and a keen exploration of the psychological effects that result: both the early sense of freedom from consequences (under penalty of law you must ignore an Invisible, even if he steals from you), and then later the piercing and maddening effects of total isolation (as, again, the Invisible is completely ignored by friends, family, strangers, everyone). Interestingly enough, the crime for which he merits this punishment is exactly the opposite of the main character’s crime in my favorite Silverberg novel, A Time of Changes (in the latter the “crime” is baring one’s soul to others; in the former it’s not doing so). The story was a joy to read because I felt so tuned in to this Invisible character. I would think to myself, hey, if I were in this situation, I’d try this….. and several paragraphs later, the character would do exactly this. Or I’d see a possible consequence of his actions that might not be obvious, and hope it wouldn’t be overlooked, and again, paragraphs later, that consequence would be acknowledged. It was almost as if the author was reading my mind. A fantastic story about an unusual punishment for a bizarre crime, and the relationship between society and the individual.

“The Sixth Palace” is a fairly straightforward adventure story, but one that is extremely well-told, and with a bit of Zen philosophy thrown in. There’s also a moral here: even when you think you’ve won, you can still lose by being too cocky.

“Flies” was Silverberg’s entry in Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthology; and I did not know this, but it was Silverberg who first suggested the idea for that anthology — if not the title — to Ellison. This is a rather shocking and disturbing story about a man who is altered by aliens who want to study humanity — except they make a slight error in their operation and erase his conscience.

“Hawksbill Station” again addresses crime and punishment and the psychological effects thereof, as political prisoners of a corrupt government are sent to a unique prison existing a billion years in the past.

“Passengers” is, on the surface, a story about incorporeal alien beings who invade our planet and frequently take over our bodies for their own use and amusement. A little deeper, it’s about not being afraid to connect with other people and seek happiness, even in a chaotic and unpredictable world, and about living life during the time you have available.

For whatever reason, these last three stories were the three I didn’t care for: “Nightwings” (alien invasion of a strange far-future Earth with a rigid class society), “Sundance” (a story about genocide, the despair of the victims, the guilt of the perpetrators, all set on an alien world), and “Good News from the Vatican” (about the first robot to become Pope; far too whimsical for my taste).

Bottom line: these are some of the BEST stories by one of science fiction’s BEST writers. Recommended? Definitely.