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The Robot's Twilight Companion
Tony Daniel
Golden Gryphon Press, 325 pages

The Robot's Twilight Companion
Tony Daniel
Tony Daniel grew up in Alabama and went to Washington University in St. Louis. There he studied English and got an M.A., then to L.A. for USC film school. He dropped out to become a writer. Later, he lived on Vashon Island, near Seattle, for a few years. After spending a year in Praha, Eastern Europe, he moved back to assorted places in the U.S. -- California, New York, Alabama then New York again. He has written a number of novels including Ascension and Warpath.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Earthling

Past Feature Reviews
A review by John O'Neill

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I'm told your typical web surfer lingers on an average page for somewhere between 8 and 12 seconds. So in those crucial moments before many of you surf over to the Star Trek section, let me drive home my central point: The Robot's Twilight Companion is one of the best books I read last year, and the most original short fiction collection I've stumbled across in a long time.

The Robot's Twilight Companion is a collection of nine stories and novellas, all originally published in Asimov's Science Fiction magazine between 1992 and 1999. They include the Hugo nominee "Life on the Moon," the title story and the basis for the novel Earthling and the near-masterpiece "A Dry Quiet War," a tale of warfare and loss at the end of time.

The book opens with "Life on the Moon," the tale of Henry Colterman, a poet who loses his wife to the moon when she accepts the position of chief lunar architect. Like "Aconcagua," the story of a die-hard mountain climber who discovers more than he bargained for in a near-disastrous solo expedition, "Life on the Moon" is only peripherally science fiction, dealing more with relationships -- and the sudden end of relationships -- than with the usual trappings of SF. There's a similar theme in "Radio Praha," in which a KGB agent in Prague discovers the skilled artisans of a dying profession -- vacuum tube manufacturers -- have transcended not only their art, but quite possibly the laws of physics; and in "Black Canoes," where a woman who can traverse dimensions discovers that her role in the universe has changed dramatically.

As enjoyable as these tidbits are, for me the jewels of the collection are the longer pieces, including especially "A Dry, Quiet War," "Mystery Box," and the dense and enigmatic "Grist." While they're not all linked, most share a powerful connecting vision of a gradually transformed humanity -- an ambitious, baffling, and (how to say this delicately?) only partially comprehensible vision of a human race radically changed by nanotechnology and collective consciousness. This is what a trip to the future should feel like: packed with strange wonders, only a handful of which are easily grasped, but all of which hint at a vast, unfolding destiny for the human race.

Take "Grist" for example. It opens with Father Andre Sud having coffee in a diner when he is visited by his mentor, Cardinal Filmbuff, who has had a vision in which the fate of the universe has suddenly accelerated in a new direction, and Sud is smack dab in the crossroads. Where do these visions come from, exactly?

"The man who sat across from Andre was only the aspect -- the human portion -- of a vast collective of personalities. They were all unified by the central being; the man before him was no more a puppet than was his enthalpic computing analog soaking up energy on Mercury, or the nodes of specialized grist spread across human space decoding variations in antiparticle spins as they made their way backward in time.

"I was on the team that designed him, Andre thought. Of course, that was back when I was a graduate student. Before I Walked on the Moon."

I don't know about you, but I would've killed to have a thesis project like that.

As in the best SF, much of the momentum behind Daniel's tales is the mystery, untangling just What the Hell it All Means. In the linked tales "Death of Reason," "Grist" and "Mystery Box," the mysteries include the exact nature of the main characters -- many of whom turn out to be LAPs (Large Arrays of Personalities), collective nodes, manifolds, or some combo thereof. Some of these questions remain largely unexplored, for Daniel is a master at revealing just enough to advance the plot -- a plot which includes a centuries-old dictator with designs on the entire solar system, a renegade LAP, and the creation of the nanotech wonder grist itself -- but not enough to diminish the majesty and mystery of the future.

In "A Dry, Quiet War," Henry Bone returns from the War at the end of Time to live his final years on his rural home planet of Ferro. But he's not the only veteran to return to this timeline: a group of cybernetically enhanced soldiers -- some human, some not -- have made the billion-year journey as well, only they're not looking for peace and quiet. Like a classic western, "A Dry, Quiet War" is filled with the tension of the inevitable confrontation. But the stakes are far higher than anyone on Ferro could imagine, for the War at the end of Time breeds peculiar veterans indeed, and the mysterious Henry Bone may be much more than he appears.

In the title story, "The Robot's Twilight Companion," the gentle drilling robot Orf -- left to rust in a field after a malfunction -- is salvaged for a scientific drilling expedition into the heart of the earth. But Orf has slowly attained sentience during his long sabbatical, and while his human companions need sleep he occupies his time with novels and poetry... until a powerful eco-faction seizes control of a substantial chunk of the pacific northwest and shows up to shut down an experiment they do not understand.

The late Terry Carr, editor of The Year's Best SF series for almost two decades, often used to rank stories based on the richness of their ideas. The best short stories, he noted, were those packed with enough ideas to fuel a novel. I think Carr would have ranked Tony Daniel's stories very high indeed. As mentioned, "The Robot's Twilight Companion" has already spawned the novel Earthling and "Grist" and "Mystery Box" are reportedly part of the upcoming Metaplanetary from Avon. And, in appropriately mysterious fashion, Daniel has another novel in the works, this one listed by Amazon.com simply as Untitled #2 Sequel Novel (Avon, December 2000).

Guess which one I'm looking forward to most.

Copyright © 2000 by John O'Neill

John O'Neill is the founder of the SF Site.


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