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The Perseids and Other Stories
Robert Charles Wilson
Tor Books, 224 pages

Stephan Martiniere
The Perseids and Other Stories
Robert Charles Wilson
From his first novel, A Hidden Place (1986), through to his latest, Robert Charles Wilson has written a number of entertaining books. They include Darwinia (1998), Memory Wire (1987), Gypsies (1989), The Divide (1990), A Bridge of Years (1991), The Harvest (1992) and Mysterium (1994) -- the latter winning the Philip K. Dick Award. Most reviewers compare his work to that of Clifford Simak.

Robert Charles Wilson Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Bios
SF Site Review: Bios
SF Site Review: Darwinia
Robert Charles Wilson Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Nick Gevers

The Perseids is a welcome surprise. Not only is it a first collection from a writer hitherto known almost exclusively as a novelist; it is also gripping, endlessly fecund of concept, and consistently well written, unlike Wilson's recent novel Bios, which seemed so determined to be bathetically bad that it ended up stomping on itself. However brilliant the effect of that self-immolation was in retrospect, Bios could only discourage the reader. But The Perseids restores lost confidence; it is as literate and startling as Wilson's earlier Darwinia.

The nine stories in The Perseids, three of which are originals, are all located, or at least rooted, in Wilson's city of residence, Toronto. All feature intrusions into the quotidian world by strange forces, strange beings, strange understandings, the malevolence of which is sometimes a matter of opinion. This is Lovecraft territory, of course: a spookily evoked venue is haunted by agencies that watch us, covet us, grasp us, and (possibly) love us; and in a spirit of fatalism, curiosity, or bravado, we (through our literary representatives) respond to their otherworldly beckonings. Sometimes our surrender is complete, sometimes it shifts to defiance; but the sense always accrues that we inhabit a flimsy film of ordinariness atop an immense chthonic gulf of weirdness. Lovecraftian indeed; but Wilson is a much better and more original writer than Lovecraft, and he easily transcends the horrific facility of his model.

Wilson's tales are intensely logical constructions. Each carefully lays down a groundwork of ideas, many of them superficially of some scientific respectability; these simmer away in the protagonist's (and the reader's) mind until they combine in a visionary denouement invariably contradictory of mundane appearances. But those mundane appearances are always well drawn: Wilson also sets out the everyday lives of his characters with sympathetic precision, so that their personal crises -- psychiatric, romantic, social, ideological, economic -- feed into their stories' climaxes as appropriately and inevitably as any supernatural element. There is perhaps a component of classical tragedy here: when transformation or alienation befalls, the subject's personality has clearly invited it. Thus The Perseids' ostensibly bewildering variety of occult hypotheses: each character builds his or her own Heaven or Hell, and others' beliefs be damned.

For the others' beliefs are of some relevance: the stories in The Perseids are linked. A character from one may easily figure in another, and most have some acquaintance with an antiquarian bookshop called "Finders," whose owner, Oscar Ziegler, is in some fashion immortal, and whose stock can include some very odd items indeed. In "The Fields of Abraham," Ziegler is the chess partner of a young immigrant prior to World War I, and diabolical manoeuvrings on the board are the symbolic core of another, oddly similar but very much deeper, variety of exchange. Ziegler (or is it Ziegler?) features again in the Hugo-nominated "Divided By Infinity," feeding its narrator a curious many-worlds existential dogma, the truth of which is borne out about as dismayingly as is possible. And Ziegler's eventual death provides another character, the aging hippie Deirdre Frank, with an unexpected inheritance, Finders itself; in "Pearl Baby," the bookshop consequently plays host to a bizarre reconciliation of the biological and mineral domains. Deirdre had earlier tried to moderate Ziegler's impact on Bill Keller in "Divided By Infinity," and was also protective towards those who in "The Inner Inner City" had been enticed by a demonic challenge (again evocative of chess) to invent their own religions...

Other episodes are more isolated, with Finders a subliminal linking thread; but they are all of a piece. In "The Perseids," a cult of evolutionary transcendence (reminiscent, like Bios, of the works of James Tiptree, Jr.) deflects a natural loner away from love and ever deeper into his labyrinth of solitude; "The Observer" resolves the issue of alien abduction in a manner at once nostalgic and satirical; "Protocols of Consumption" is a model of Horror as That Which Must Be Accepted; "Plato's Mirror" supposes, very darkly, that some of us are more ready to penetrate the Veil of Maya than others; and "Ulysses Sees the Moon in the Bedroom Window," perhaps the subtlest piece in The Perseids, deftly puts its narrator, and the entire human species, in their (confined) places. Magisterial tales, all.

In a year abounding in good story collections, The Perseids is yet another strong vindication of the short form. With nine devastating epiphanies in 224 pages, it outscores countless books far longer.

Copyright © 2000 Nick Gevers

Since completing a Ph.D. on uses of history in SF, Nick Gevers has become a moderately prolific reviewer and interviewer in the field of speculative fiction. He has published in INTERZONE, NOVA EXPRESS, the NEW YORK REVIEW OF SF, and GALAXIES; much of his work is available at INFINITY PLUS, of which he is Associate Editor. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

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