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The Good New Stuff edited by Gardner Dozois, St. Martin's Press/Griffin, 1999, 458 pages, $15.95
A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge, Tor, 1999, 606 pages, $27.95
This might come as a surprise to readers who have been following my commentary in these pages over the years, but I'm a dedicated devotee of adventure fiction. That's right: the stuff of full-blooded action, colorful settings, and breakneck pacing, heavy on the plot and light on the more cerebral literary concerns. Of course, like many readers, that's the stuff on which I cut my teeth---Robert Louis Stevenson, Alexandre Dumas, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert E. Howard, Edmond Hamilton. And I've never lost my taste for it. Images from Carl Stephenson's "Leiningen versus the Ants" and Jack London's "To Build a Fire" will live vividly in my memory forever.
I might argue that more complex and ambitious fiction---say, Don DeLillo's Underworld, an intricate literary masterpiece---ultimately offers greater pleasure (not to mention insight, wisdom, etc.) than a simpler page-turner, however well-crafted, but I'd be the last to deny the power of a good adventure story, or to suggest that the adventure story isn't a legitimate and enriching form of literature. Its pleasures should not be considered guilty. On the other hand, I will admit that I'm among those who think "they don't write 'em like they used to." Often when the mood is upon me for a gripping plot of intrigue and suspense, I can't find anything contemporary to satisfy it. Frequently the prose is just too ham-handed, the plotting too predictable, the characters too bland (or the storytelling not good enough to hold me despite such deficiencies). A couple of recent examples come to mind: Wilbur Smith's The Seventh Scroll and Walt Becker's Link, both of which should have pleased me a lot more than they did, given the provocative archaeological premises with which they started. The veteran Smith performs better than first-timer Becker, but they both fall back too often on lazy contrivances and naked clich‚ when just a touch of original thought would have made a tremendous difference. Robert E. Howard or F. Marion Crawford could out-write either of these guys on a bad day.
So now Gardner Dozois, an editor not to be ignored, presents two volumes of what he dubs "Adventure SF in the Grand Tradition," one volume drawing on the period from the late '40s through the very early '70s---The Good Old Stuff---and the other picking up in the late '70s and carrying us through to the present---The Good New Stuff. I could hardly pass up the chance to revisit beloved classics and to discover some recent examples which I might have missed. Dozois's trusted guidance might be just the thing to show me that adventure fiction "in the grand tradition" is alive and well in our time. The stories in The Good Old Stuff, with few exceptions, hold up very well to reading (or rereading) decades after they were first written. James H. Schmitz's "The Second Night of Summer," H. Beam Piper's "Gunpowder God," Fritz Leiber's "Moon Duel"---they've each got that gripping narrative tension which, more than any other single quality, defines adventure fiction. Jack Vance's "The New Prime," C. M. Kornbluth's "That Share of Glory," Cordwainer Smith's "Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons"---they all share the intergalactic scope and exotic scenery which Dozois identifies as a vital characteristic of SF adventures in particular. Dozois hasn't chosen the best-known stories by most of these authors---in many cases he hasn't even chosen their best stories, period---but in some ways his preference for less-familiar stories serves to back up his point: The adventure fiction from the old pulps isn't memorable only for its very best examples, but even for some of its second-string material. Sure, there's a lot in those thousands of yellowing pages that's not worth looking at again, but surely Leigh Brackett's "The Last Days of Shandrakar" should be remembered along with her more famous Eric John Stark stories.
Not every story here holds up as well as every other, though, and I can't say I'm convinced when Dozois claims that he would buy every one of these stories today if it came across his desk. Some of the concepts and phrases in A. E. van Vogt's "The Rull" are rather creaky (which is hardly a surprise), and the futurific corruptions of place names in Poul Anderson's "The Sky People" recall the awkward gestures of Star Trek ("from Awaii to his own N'Zealann and west to Mlaya"). More significantly, as Dozois himself notes, some of these stories display the "frothingly xenophobic" attitudes prevalent at the time---could a story like Murray Leinster's "Exploration Team," in which human colonizers gleefully set out to exterminate the troublesome local fauna, really be published today? I'd hope not. (At the very least, the issues of conservation and ecological instability would have to be raised in such a story these days, but they aren't in Leinster's.)
Ursula K. Le Guin isn't a name one would generally associate with adventure fiction, and "Semley's Necklace," the story that represents her in The Good Old Stuff, is by no means her best work, but Le Guin's presence in this book, as well as that of Brian W. Aldiss, Roger Zelazny, and James Tiptree, Jr., backs up another of Dozois's points: SF adventure was never the province only of minor writers, but has frequently drawn the attention of some of SF's most talented. What Dozois doesn't say, but which his selections make clear, is that the lasting enjoyability of the stories in The Good Old Stuff derives in large part from the fact that their authors were serious writers---not hacks, and not slumming, but drawn by the audacious sweep and thrill of adventure stories to try their own hands at them. While Le Guin and Zelazny and the other authors here frequently produced deeper and more complex stories, their adventure pieces benefit tremendously from the sheer intelligence and mastery of craft that they brought to the game. Every one of these stories, from van Vogt's "The Rull" through Anderson's "The Sky People" and Tiptree's "Mother in the Sky with Diamonds," embodies some idea, some philosophy, some way of seeing the world, which lends the action a crucial measure of additional weight. These aren't cookie-cutter stories just going through the motions to fill up space and meet a certain word-count; there's genuine passion, thought, and interest on display, and that's the element which, above all, makes a story worth reading and rereading.
So far, so good. Things change with The Good New Stuff. It's not that these stories are bad---most of them are quite good---but they could hardly seem more different from the "old" stuff if they were written in Esperanto. From George R.R. Martin's "The Way of Cross and Dragon" and Maureen F. McHugh's "The Missionary's Child" to Michael Swanwick's "The Blind Minotaur" and Tony Daniel's "A Dry, Quiet War," these stories emphasize the cerebral over the physical; when there's "action" at all, the heroes are reluctant and disenchanted; hardly any of these pieces feature the headlong pacing that's the hallmark of The Good Old Stuff. More than anything else, though, what's missing from these more recent stories is the innocence and naive enthusiasm of the old days. From van Vogt through Zelazny, all the stories in Dozois's previous volume share a common ignorance of the complicated consequences of real life; their verve and energy depend upon a faith in human predominance, enemies without virtue, simple answers to simple questions. Leinster's "Exploration Team" may illustrate this best, with its reckless extermination of alien wildlife, but even the Good Old stories with the most contemporary feel---such as James H. Schmitz's "The Second Day of Summer"---present scenarios without major doubts or uncertainties. The New Stuff, on the other hand, shares a sober and reflective tone, and centers itself on the very problems which the Old Stuff largely ignored. Tony Daniel's galactic soldiers terrorize civilians for pleasure; McHugh's backwater planet suffers the dislocations of colonialism from its contact with the higher-tech Cousins; in "Guest of Honor," Robert Reed's effete immortals deceive and kill their innocent, adventurous clones in order to absorb their memories. These stories often read like anti-adventures, deconstructions or critiques of the "old stuff"---not necessarily to denounce it, but to accommodate the adventure story to a modern sensibility.
The lead story in The Good New Stuff may exemplify the point. "Goodbye, Robinson Crusoe" by John Varley (note the title) shows us a centenarian man who has had himself infantilized, his memories suppressed and his body made prepubescent, in order to escape the stresses of his high-powered job. Piri spends his days in a recreated tropical paradise, frolicking with tamed sharks and having make-believe adventures with the Reef Pirates. But events in the outside world have taken a turn, and Piri's vacation has to be cut short; a psychiatrist comes in to rush Piri's reintegration as an adult. As he says his last goodbye to his paradise, Piri thinks, "Now I'm a grownup, and must go off to war." Childhood fancies have no place in the complicated adult world of interplanetary statecraft. "No place for Robinson Crusoe."
I don't think it's an accident that the period which intervenes between the latest story in The Good Old Stuff and the earliest story in The Good New Stuff corresponds to the collapse of the war in Vietnam and the Watergate crisis. Those events---along with the civil rights movement, the women's rights movement, an oil crisis, and a long recession---brought an end to the devil-may-care attitudes of the post-War decades. No serious writer after that time can ignore the horrors and costs of war, the need for tolerance among differing peoples (or species), the dangers of ecological imbalance. Thus these stories may draw on the "grand tradition" for their exotic settings and basic scenarios, but they cannot use that material in the same way. Even the least introspective stories here---Janet Kagan's "The Return of the Kangaroo Rex," G. David Nordley's "Poles Apart"---show the deep and unavoidable impact of today's cultural context: Kagan's story focuses on the perils of upsetting fragile ecosystems, and Nordley's concentrates on the noble but difficult challenge of maintaining inter-species harmony.
While some may mourn the passing of the old adventure ethos, it's unrealistic to expect anything else. Fiction, like all other cultural artifacts, emerges from its particular milieu with a distinct flavor and texture---how could it not? Writers don't float free above the social surf of their times---they're right there in the froth, along with their readers. The "good old stuff" was born in the unique historical environment of the post-War United States, and it shows. The "good new stuff" is growing in the soil of our confused, disillusioned post-Cold War world. They are bound to be different.
Which isn't to say that contemporary writers can't produce stories that keep the reader up all night, desperate to find out what happens, while paying the necessary attention to the complexities of today's sensibilities. Vernor Vinge's story in The Good New Stuff, "The Blabber," is one of the few in the volume to offer the action and pacing of the "old stuff" while maintaining a contemporary emotional tone. Vinge's latest novel, A Deepness in the Sky (a prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep), performs the same trick at considerably longer length. From the first line he plunges us headlong into a scenario with all the scope in time and space of a Cordwainer Smith story: "The manhunt extended across more than one hundred light-years and eight centuries." That's just the prologue; the story proper takes us to a very strange star system, whose sun stays "on" for only 35 years out of every 250; the rest of the time it's "off," cooled down and dim as a brown dwarf. During those dark years, the one planet of the OnOff system undergoes a harsh change of season, during which even its atmosphere freezes into snow. All the creatures of the planet have had to adapt to these long cold times with various forms of hibernation---including the intelligent arachnoid Spiders, who have managed nevertheless to build up a civilization of early-20th-century-level technology.
Two fleets come to the OnOff system at the same time. One are the Qeng Ho, representatives of a far-flung trading empire; the other call themselves "Emergents," and can scarcely disguise their totalitarian impulses toward conquest. Despite Qeng Ho precautions, the Emergents spring an ambush while the two parties are conducting joint reconnaissance of the planet, but the fighting cripples both sides so badly that neither can mount a return voyage until the Spiders have advanced enough to help rebuild their ships. Meanwhile, the Spiders are well on their way, even without the clandestine help of their alien visitors. Sherkaner Underhill, a kind of Spider Thomas Edison, sparks a tremendous burst of development when he suggests that Spiderkind can stay active and awake during the frozen Dark, with enough power---and proceeds to invent all the gadgets necessary to make it work.
That's just the beginning, and that's about all I'm going to say. Everything gets more complicated and taut as the trajectories of the two civilizations---starfarers and Spiders---move toward contact, or collision. What's most interesting about A Deepness in the Sky in this context---apart from Vinge's playful inventiveness and the pacing that keeps one on seat-edge--- is how Vinge's scenario neatly encapsulates the dichotomy in SF made clear in Dozois's anthologies. The complicated world of the Qeng Ho and the Emergents---with its tragedies and intrigue, its excruciating moral dilemmas, its utter lack of easy answers---reflects the contemporary shape of the SF adventure story. But within that context, through the Spiders, Vinge gives us a tale straight out of the "grand tradition"---the Spiders' plucky bootstrapping from primitive radio to nuclear power and space travel recalls any number of forward-thinking, can-do, gung-ho tales of the '50s. Alone, the Spiders' story would be too cute and contrived to countenance, but nested as it is in the context of a more complex and mature vision of a space- faring future, it becomes both guiltlessly enjoyable and subtly thought-provoking. In it we watch the shape of our recent history repeated, and whenever the thought nags that the Spiders are too anthropomorphic---not alien enough---Vinge reminds us that the narrative of the Spiders is the product of a human translator grasping to convey the essence of the tale through images a human mind would find comprehensible.
In the work of Vinge and others the "grand tradition" of SF adventure lives on---but in a starkly modified form. We cannot bring back the mentality of the '50s (even if we'd wish to do so), and we cannot expect today's SF to recreate the SF of the post-War period. Today's SF speaks, as it should, in today's idiom. Its stories are today's stories. It could hardly be otherwise.
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Copyright © 1998–2015 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide