This is the first anthology I’ve read in which almost all the stories have been of a consistently high standard. I’ve been reading a lot of sci-fi novels recently and I’d been thinking about branching out into short stories when I spotted this in the library and plucked it from the shelf (all hail libraries!) It turned out this was the perfect place to start. The stories were so good and many of them so complex that I felt I couldn’t simply devour the whole book at once; I needed room to breathe and consider each small explosion of a story before being bowled over by another.
The omnibus opens with Sole Solution, a piece of flash fiction from Eric Frank Russell that follows the thoughts of a god who is lonely, trapped and bored, so they dream up a solution and declare: “Let there be light”. And there was light. And, of course, humans – I was amused that Aldiss chose Ward Moore’s Lot as the second story in the anthology, as the connection between the two creates a kind of tongue-in-cheek dark humour. Despite the fact that it isn’t hard science fiction, this tale of family dysfunction in the early days of an apocalypse isn’t a story that eases the reader in gently. Lot drips misanthropy and disgust and the ending suggests a possible relationship scenario that is left to the reader to fill in, making them (me) feel responsible for the dark places this story has taken them to (I later found out that Moore wrote a sequel – Lot’s Daughter – and it did go in the direction expected).
The fault I found with some of the stories in this omnibus is that the narratives were often constructed around a punchline, which had me arching my eyebrow and saying, “Ha! Very clever/amusing/ironic” etc. These stories lacked depth and left me feeling a little disappointed. But I think the problem here is expectation. There’s actually nothing wrong with these punchline stories; they’re often entertaining, and that’s fine. They reminded me of The Twilight Zone and EC comics, which I love. But I didn’t want pulpy entertainment from this omnibus; I wanted depth, grand themes, well-crafted writing. And I wanted to be surprised.
Grandpa and An Alien Agony (The Streets of Ashkelon)
Despite having elements of what I’m critiquing, two particular highlights were Grandpa and An Alien Agony (also published under the title The Streets of Ashkelon).
Grandpa by James H Schmitz was a delight with its description of alien flora and fauna; I was utterly riveted and convinced. The story follows Cord, a fifteen-year-old research student who lives on an alien planet that’s been colonised by humans for four Earth-years. Cord is castigated by a fellow student, Grayan, for not following protocol and going off on his own research interests; of course, Cord’s extra-curricular interests come to serve a purpose later in the story.
Cord, Grayan and the rest of the research team are going on a tour of the Bay Farms and they catch a ‘raft’ to get there. The rafts they use aren’t a human construction, but something alive – “plant animals of some sort”. The rafts are described as being like lily pads, but twenty-five feet across with “the upper section of a big grey-green pineapple growing from the centre of each.” ‘Grandpa’ is the name given to one of the largest rafts they regularly use and it’s Grandpa the team use on this expedition, despite Cord’s warnings when he notices Grandpa has changed. Things go wrong, and I won’t spoil it by saying how. The jeopardy is deftly dealt with and the reader is caught up in Cord’s predicament. While for some astute readers it may give away too early what’s happened, I like that the solution to the problem is nicely foreshadowed at the beginning of the story. Even if you do figure it out, I don’t think it in any way spoils this well-crafted piece.
Despite its faults, I loved Harry Harrison’s An Alien Agony (aka The Streets of Ashkelon – I much prefer this less melodramatic title). The protagonist is trader John Garth, who lives on Wesker’s World. The Weskers are the indigenous population, little amphibians who are very literal and logical. Garth has been there a year when a priest arrives to tell the Weskers about Christianity. Garth is no hero – he’s exploiting the Weskers, but after a year in their company, he feels for them and is horrified at the thought of them being corrupted by religion: “They are the only primitive people I have ever encountered that are completely free of superstition and appear to be much happier and sane because of it. I just wanted to keep them that way.”
I won’t go into the plot further than that, but I will point out the very obvious parallel to Michel Faber’s wonderful The Book of Strange New Things; there’s a similar premise and themes, but they take different directions and very much compliment each other.
Unfortunately, Harrison doesn’t give the story and the characters room to breathe and grow – he’s too busy racing to the punchline. This is a real shame, as I love the premise. Despite this, the story still works and the ending is very effective.
Story of Your Life
If you read just one story from this brilliant collection, then it should be Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, a stunning piece of work up there with David Foster Wallace’s Incarnations of Burned Children and Pamela Zoline’s Heat Death of the Universe.
The story alternates between two threads. In the first, the protagonist – linguist Dr Louise Banks – is recounting the story of her daughter’s life. The second is an account of Banks’ experience as she tries to interpret an alien language. The aliens – heptapods – communicate via ‘looking glasses’ placed around the earth and the story unfolds as Banks works with the military and physicists to find out what they want.
As a writer, I’m obviously interested in language, but even then I might not be convinced if you told me I should read a story about a linguist going through the laborious task of trying to figure out an alien language. On top of that, there’s quite a bit on physics, particularly Fermat’s principle. But it’s as gripping as any adventure story, and it works brilliantly interspersed with the story of her daughter, particularly when it becomes apparent how this part ties in with the interpretation of the alien language.
As Banks relates the joys and the trials of bringing up a child, the defamiliarising technique of telling the story of her daughter’s life as if the events haven’t yet happened is very powerful: “I remember one afternoon when you are five years old… I remember once when we’ll be driving to the mall…” But what are these future ‘memories’? Is she relating the past? Has she lived this already? Can she see the future?
Story of Your Life achieves a defamiliarising effect on another level too – by showing us aliens who don’t communicate the way we do, and who have a different ontology, suggests that our world and the way we experience it is a construction, a construction made via language (see the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis). Our taken for granted ‘truths’ are suddenly called into question.
Story of Your Life is a fascinating slow-burner that’s both a cerebral and an emotional journey. It’s a truly stunning, well-crafted piece of work and I’m very much looking forward to Villeneuve’s film version – it seems like a difficult story to translate to the screen, but I trust the man who made Enemy.
Swarm, Blood Music, and Friends in Need
I’ve highlighted my favourites, but other stories worth a mention are Swarm, Blood Music, and Friends in Need. Once you get past the clunky dialogue and info dumping of the first few pages, Bruce Sterling’s Swarm is a great read and I especially love the body horror (of course). Greg Bear’s Blood Music offers up more delicious body horror, but of a very different kind (and reminded me a little of Besson’s Lucy). Eliza Blair’s Friends in Need examines our relationship with pets and brilliantly defamiliarises language (reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange and Random Acts of Senseless Violence): “Sally desleeps and jumps, jounces, jiggles into her clothes. Today is a special day. Today is a prettyful day. She trambles through the porto and outdowns the steps.”
My journey into science fiction has been a real eye-opener and it’s made me realise that there’s some brilliant, complex stories in the sci-fi world that people are missing out on because of genre snobbery. If you’re one of those people who won’t go near sci-fi, dipping into the delights of this book is a good place to start. At the very least you’ll be entertained, but I’m pretty certain the brilliance of these stories will make you fizz like Lucy – hold onto your teeth, you’re in for a helluva ride.