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Mere
Robert Reed
Golden Gryphon, 55 pages

Mere
Robert Reed
Robert Reed was born, raised and currently is the only SWFA member living in Nebraska. He was the gold-prize winner in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest in 1986 for his story "Mudpuppies" (under the pen-name Robert Touzalin). His first two novels, The Leeshore and The Hormone Jungle, appeared in 1987. These were followed by Black Milk (1990), Down the Bright Way (1991), The Remarkables (1992), Beyond the Veil of Stars (1994), An Exaltation of Larks (1995), and Beneath the Gated Sky (1997). He is also a writer of a great deal of short fiction, including the recent "Marrow," one of Locus's selections for the top 10 stories of 1997. His short fiction has twice been nominated for the Hugo Award. He has had numerous short stories published in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and other major magazines. Reed has also been working for several years on a science fiction thriller which he likens to "Jurassic Park meets Dances With Wolves."

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Coelacanths
SF Site Review: Marrow
SF Site Review: The Dragons of Springplace
SF Site Review: An Exaltation of Larks

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Matthew Cheney

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Robert Reed's imagination is so fecund, his writings so fueled by tremendously strange and vivid visions of distant futures and strange forms of life, that each story benefits from our memories of the wonders Reed has delivered in the past, so that with the first paragraph of each new tale, our readerly desires are funnelled down into a single yearning to know what marvels await us this time.

Therefore, I present to you the opening paragraph of Mere, a 13,000-word novella published as a limited-edition chapbook by Golden Gryphon Press:

She should have been born with a fuller, richer name -- a loving name bestowed by helplessly adoring parents -- and she should have grown up happy and smug inside their loving grasp. Blessed with her native talents as well as their considerable wealth, all things good would have seemed inevitable. And like anyone born to means, the girl would have eventually fallen a little short of her family's lofty ambitions. Adulthood would have meant long years of trusted pleasures punctuated by tame adventures and the occasional romance. That woman probably would have become a delightfully ordinary soul, raising her own little family, or perhaps even a series of families; and as the eons mounted, the happy creature would have achieved the heavenly state that comes to the typical immortal: Entire centuries of life would gradually escape her grasp, her mind having reached its natural limits, her snug and ordinary and generally untested existence shared with faces very much like hers and stories that were as eternal and as bland as her own little self.
While the prose here is competent enough (though the repetition of the phrase "her own little" seems careless), anybody who spends much time on a first reading looking closely at the words is missing the point and the possible pleasures. This is science fiction as if the boom of the 50s never busted, as if Galaxy magazine under the stewardship of H.L. Gold had exerted a greater influence on the field than did Harlan Ellison or Michael Moorcock, Star Wars or The Matrix. This is gutsy, wide-angle extrapolation mixed with sensitivity and humanism, a modern artifact from the H.G. Wells wing of the SF party.

The idyllic vision of the first paragraph is not the fate of the protagonist, though, the title character named for an adjective by the creatures whose planet she lands on after thousands of years spent in the womb of the wounded Great Ship that once carried her parents and other rich immortals on a millennium-long tour of the galaxy. If you've read Reed before, you've probably encountered his Great Ship, the mysterious remnant of a lost culture, an important prop in a series of stories he has been writing for over a decade, a series that includes his novel Marrow and the upcoming The Well of Stars (many of the stories in the series are available in the Golden Gryphon collection The Dragons of Springplace). In the afterword to Mere, Reed says that Mere herself will play an important role in The Well of Stars, and this seems clear from the ending of the novella, which is not so much a conclusion as a transition to a different tale.

Despite being a common trope of SF, immortality is a difficult subject, because if the story covers the long, long years of the immortal's life, details are likely to dissipate, emotion may be lulled into ennui, and the story might more sigh than arc. Mortality is a writer's best friend; it paints purpose onto certain moments, distinguishing them in the caravan of days that make up a life. On the other hand, immortality can solve many logical problems (think of how extended lifespans allowed Kim Stanley Robinson to keep his characters continuous through the Mars trilogy), and it offers a way to ground a vast story within the experience of one protagonist.

Mere both benefits and suffers from the title character's inability to die. When it comes to millennium-spanning concepts, Reed is simply one of the best writers currently at work, and Mere's immortality plays to this strength, because through the course of the story we see entire civilizations rise and fall. The problem is that see is the wrong verb -- the incidents move along so rapidly that at best we glimpse these planet-shattering events.

For all its imaginative zest, then, Mere reads like a treatment for a movie -- a good, detailed, and compelling treatment, indeed, but it lacks weight and heft, its scenes are more summary than drama, more promise than consummation. As a prologue to a novel, it might have been satisfying, but as a story published as its own book with its own cover and its own retail price, I couldn't help but feel that, by the end, mere was, alas, an appropriate adjective for the book itself.

Copyright © 2005 Matthew Cheney

Matthew Cheney teaches at the New Hampton School and has published in English Journal, Failbetter.com, Ideomancer, and Locus, among other places. He writes regularly about science fiction on his weblog, The Mumpsimus.


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