|Future on Ice|
|edited by Orson Scott Card|
|Tor Books, 432 pages|
|A review by Rich Horton
It's not clear to me whether Card meant the titles of the anthologies to reflect the nature of the stories within, but these 18 may, perhaps, have a cooler effect than the "hotter" stories in the earlier anthology. And, perhaps, it's no coincidence that this book includes a story called "Snow," while Future on Fire included "Fire Zone Emerald" and "I Am the Burning Bush."
My favourite story here, and in my opinion one of the best SF stories of all time, is Nancy Kress' "Out of All Them Bright Stars" (winner of the 1985 Nebula for Best Short Story). This quiet, quiet, story, about a waitress in a diner and her encounter with an alien, illustrates as clearly as I can imagine the use of SF to examine human nature. It's a story that simply wouldn't work without being SF, without aliens, or without the implication of star travel, but its theme is all about what's within us. Lovely writing, perfect characters: it's one of those stories that just stops me dead and makes me think for some time after I finish it.
Several other stories included won major SF awards. Among them, I think Greg Bear's "Blood Music" (winner of both Hugo and Nebula for Best Novelette), a truly terrifying story about the consequences of engineering bacteria-sized microchips and using them to maintain the body's health, holds up best. In this story, Bear took his idea and ran with it to the fullest extent, facing every implication. A story that is similarly chilling in implication, John Varley's novella "Press Enter " (also winner of both the Hugo and Nebula), doesn't seem to hold up quite as well. His central notion of computers linking up and taking over really isn't very new (cf. Ellison's "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" for just one example), and his mechanism, while well-depicted and creepy, doesn't convince. (The idea is still being used, in one form or another, and a much newer example which convinced me a lot more is in Ken MacLeod's novel The Star Fraction (1995).) Nor does the (well-depicted and engaging) love story quite convince. But, the story is still a great read.
Also among my personal favourite 80s stories are "Speech Sounds" by Octavia Butler, "Snow" by John Crowley, and "The Pure Product" by John Kessel. The first is a moving story of life in near-future Los Angeles, after a plague has destroyed the speech centers of everyone. The horror of the loss of communication with other people is very well portrayed. "Snow" is a beautiful fable about memory and love. A woman of the jet set records incidents from her life over many years, and her one-time gigolo/lover/husband plays them back after her death. But the technology only allows random access to these "memories", and the memories degrade over time. The effect is quiet and profound. "The Pure Product" is quite another thing. A man (apparently from the future) goes on a rampage through 80s North America. The story is fast moving and scary. At one level, it's a harder-edged take on the same theme as C.L. Moore's classic "Vintage Season," but at another level, we worry that the empathy-deficient people from the future are us.
Any anthology which aims to be "definitive" will surely include prominent stories like those mentioned above, and like George R.R. Martin's Nebula winner "Portraits of His Children" and Isaac Asimov's well-known late story, "Robot Dreams". But I like an anthology to include some surprises, as well. S.C. Sykes has only published a couple of stories and one novel (Red Genesis (1991)) to my knowledge. "Rockabye Baby" is included here, and it's a fine story about a man who becomes paralyzed in an accident. He adjusts to his condition, and develops some unexpected facets. Then he has a chance to regain the use of his limbs, but at a surprising (and logical) cost. The story worked very well for me right until the end, where I thought there were a few missteps, but the central dilemma is brilliantly presented.
Another writer who hasn't published a whole lot (only one novel, (Station Gehenna (1982)), is Canadian Andrew Weiner. His quirky short stories, however, appeared with some regularity throughout the 80s, and Card has chosen the intriguing "Klein's Machine" for this book. It's about a science fiction fan who becomes obsessed with the idea of time travel, finally convincing himself that he has travelled far into the future. Upon his return, a psychiatrist cures him, and he becomes "normal." Ultimately, it's a meta-fiction meditation on what makes SF readers dream.Card also chooses stories by Lisa Goldstein, Gregory Benford, David Zindell, C. J. Cherryh, Walter Jon Williams, Karen Joy Fowler, Lewis Shiner, and himself. Probably the only story in the book which doesn't quite seem to me to belong is Asimov's slight, gimmicky, "Robot Dreams." Of course, one could quibble about some other choices: likely, I'd have taken Fowler's "The Faithful Companion at Forty" or "Game Night at the Fox and Goose" over Card's pick of "Face Value," and I'd have taken Card's own utterly wonderful Foundation story "The Originist" over "The Fringe," but in neither case has he chosen a bad story. This anthology eminently succeeds in presenting a selection which represents the short SF of the 1980s at its best, and at its widest variety.
Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.
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