I’m experiencing a bit of a science fiction and/or fantasy craving at the moment (escapism, me want escapism!), but since I’m choosy there isn’t much to borrow at the library. As far as I know – and continuing my reasoning I therefore borrowed this collection of short stories. Admittedly, mostly because Ursula LeGuin has one in it, but I also thought that maybe I’d get a line on a new author I might like.
There is an awful lot of absolute shite out there in the world of print, and while I’d refuse to concede that there is more of it in the genres of sci-fi or fantasy, there is certainly plenty. Considering how charmingly imaginative and thought-provoking science-fiction can be, how it can really say something about humanity, it might be considered ironic or inevitable or maybe just curious that the flip side is some of the most boring, mind-numbingly dull texts ever produced by our species. Especially if they’re pretentious. Honor Harrington is dull, but not really pretentious, so I can’t really get passionately hateful and irked over her. The ones that think they’re speaking Wise Words however – ooooooo it’s so terrible I can hardly stand it. I can’t stand it, as a matter of fact, I gave myself leave to not read at least three of these stories to the end. This is a big deal for me. I usually finish things. I finished the Honor Harrington novel, remember, even though I did skim the whole end.
The idea of the collection is that authors who had in a series of books created a universe of their own, would be asked to write a short story to more fully explore something they couldn’t find room for in their novels. An aspect of the culture, a different perspective, a period of time that hasn’t been mentioned – things like that. Fantastic idea, really!
At first I thought I’d already read this collection, because I have read LeGuin’s contribution. Which was, of course, a disappointment (not the story of course, that I’d read it, I mean). It’s Old Music and the Slave Women, about the Hainish ambassador of the Ekumen on a planet where white people are slaves and black masters. As the revolts spread and the established government totters, he gets arrested, taken to a country estate, and there “mistakenly” treated like a member of the serving caste would be. It is a bit obvious in the how it treats the slave theme (what with the switching of skin colour, like), but it’s still very good. I get the feeling that LeGuin writes these stories as much for herself, to explore humanity’s cruelty and try to understand it.
I was also impressed by a story by Nancy Kress called Sleeping Dogs. Connecting to those great American working-class, depression, poverty stories that I really like, it’s about people more than technology. I wonder if she manages to get that across in her series about the genetically modified humans who don’t need to sleep, or if that aspect gets lost when they’re all rich and powerful? Maybe this story, about the dirt-poor young woman who wants revenge for the death of her little sister, is an exception?
Frederik Pohl’s The Boy Who Would Live Forever isn’t terrible either. I liked the originality of the hero being an American who has grown up in (a future) Istanbul, and feeling more Turkish maybe than American. There aren’t a lot of Turks in science-fiction. Not a very diverse genre, really. Despite the alien presence.
The editor, Robert Silverberg, contributes with a story called Roma Eterna, and I’m not ever going to touch his books again ever never no way. God, the DULLNESS. I could feel the death throes of my brain cells while reading (I didn’t finish it). Also, surely alternate history scenarios are more fantasy than science fiction? The idea of Silverberg’s Roma Eterna reality is that the Jews never left Egypt, Jesus never existed, nor therefore Christianity, Rome remained pagan. The Empire of Rome doesn’t crumble away but stays a super-power. Nice idea in theory, maybe. I’ve had more fun reading manuals, to be honest.
Dan Simmon’s Orphans of the Helix was not perfect, but did come close to that feeling I want from science-fiction that something else, a different world, is being merely described (nicked that from LeGuin). A Separate War by Joe Haldeman too, but it disappointed at the end.
On the whole this collection must be directed to the die-hard fans, the ones who read all twelve books of a series and want more. LeGuin’s short story feels the most misplaced, because all her novels stand alone, and are only nominally part of a series. She doesn’t even stick to any rules she makes within the secondary universe if she doesn’t want to. Well, I'm labeling this "reading tips" because you never know.