Whilst out shopping on a Saturday afternoon in Colchester recently I popped into a new Oxfam shop and was pleased find lurking on their shelves this volume. With a pile of unread books which is ever-lengthening, this is one book which I would probably have never got around to buying through the likes of Alibris, but finding it on the shelves is another matter. And having read only a couple of Dozois’ short stories and been impressed with them, and knowing that their is a novel-length interview of Dozois being prepared by Michael Swanwick, I decided to purchase the book and pop straight into the briefcase for commute-reading.
Robert Silverberg provides the introduction to the collection, a gracious introduction which mentions the early ‘thin’ Dozois (!) and the fact that his surname is pronounced ‘Do-zwah’, both interesting nuggests of information.
The first story in the collection is ‘Morning Child’, originally published in Omni in January 1984. This is one story I have read before, and can well-remember the reading of it, which is always a sign of a good story! The story bears re-reading, and to my mind is one of the few stories which does generate a sense of awe. The story, surrounding two survivors of a strife/war-torn USA, gradually unfolds, until the striking, memorably scene in which the true strangeness of the situation is revealed.
‘Dinner Party’, also from 1984, has a near-future strife-torn USA, a setting which many of the stories share. A GI is taken out to a meal by a high-ranking officer and his wife. The tension of the situation builds, until the reason for the meal is revealed.
‘Executive Clemency’, co-written by Jack C. Haldeman II, appeared originally in Omni in 1981. As with the first two stories, a somewhat strange situation is partially described, with someone who may be the President of the USA living in a house in which he appears to be a guest. Confused and disoriented, once again the story unfolds teasingly to deliver an interesting moral dilemma on the nature of guilt.
‘A Special Kind of Morning’, originally in the Silverberg-edited ‘New Dimensions I’ back in 1971, is one of the more well-known of Dozois short stories. Told, with utter believability, from the perspective of a far-future veteran, the narrative describes how, even in the face of more mechanised and arms-length warfare, the need for men to get their hands bloodied during combat will remain, and the challenge of facing up to the necessity of committing such brutal and intimate acts will remain.
The next story is IMHO the least successful of the collection. Co-written with Jack Dann, ‘Down Among the Dead Men’, from 1982, has as a setting a Nazi extermination camp. The difficulty for me with the story is that set against the absolute, mind-blowingly obscenity of what did happen a couple of generations ago (and continues to happen), a story about a vampire can appear to be shallow exploitation of that setting.
‘Solace’, from Omni 1990, is one of the more recent stories. The theme of guilt and antonement is covered again, this time with a PK Dick-ian take on the nature of reality. A short, effective piece.
‘Slow Dancing With Jesus’, from Penthouse (I only read it for the articles, dear) 1983, and co-written with Jack Dann, again doesn’t quite work for me. A short, short, with a young girl nervously awaiting a particularly special Prom date. Nicely wrought, but nothing special. Is the final sentence meant to be the whole purpose of the story?
‘The PeaceMaker’, from Asimovs, August 1983, returns to guilt (if by association) and atonement. A quite disturbing story about a young boy who is obviously with a strange cult – but just how strange, and exactly what his role is, are not revealed until the end. The sense of events happening around the main character is notable in this story, as in others.
‘One for the Road’, from Playboy, 1982, is, like the Penthouse story, fairly short and a fairly straightforward take on the theme of ‘what would you do if you knew the world was going to end’.
One of the longer stories in the collection, ‘Chains of the Sea’, from 1971, is one of the top stories. Silverberg singles out the high standard of the writing in the story, rightly enough. Two narratives intertwine, that of the aliens who land and the reactions to governments, humans, and the human-controlled (!) AI, and that of a young boy who has a ‘gift’ for seeing more around him than others. The tale of young Tommy is particularly well told, giving this reader concern for just how close the writer was to such events in his own childhood! The pacing of the story is excellent and the stories end together, neatly and elegantly and with no more informaition than is needed.
‘A Dream At Noonday’, from Orbit 7 1970, is not in anyway SF. What it is, as has been recognised widely, is simply a classic short story. To call it a classic piece of combat/Vietnam writing is to do it a dis-service. It is simply a standout story which I personally feel should be compulsory reading at school. Period.
‘Disciples’, from Penthouse 1981, is the best of the trio of stories from the more ‘mainstream’ sources. A panhandler touting that the End of the World is Nigh, sees his prediction come true. But only after a fashion.
‘Apres Moi’, from Omni 1990, is one of the weaker stories. Almost a play on words, but notable in that it brings together a lot of themes from the other stories. One (long) sentence in fact neatly sums up this: ‘..the water riots, the food wars, the deteriorating climate, the collapse of the economy, the brutal repressions and reactions of a disintegrating society struggling to keep control, the pogroms and purges and witch-hunts, the rise of the Chiliastic cults, air-vectored AIDS, the return of bubonic plague and cholera and smallpox, the rising sea-levels that slowly swallowed the old cities of the coastlines, the famines, the droughts, the coups and countercoups, the social turmoil that made the Great Depression of the 1930s look like a mild aberration’. Concern over the ecology, particularly rising sea levels, cold and wet and windy weather, walking barefoot and hungry, appear in several stories, giving the reader an insight into the mind of the writer which is quite rare. I was reminded of JG Ballard, in the way that his own personal experiences and concerns repeatedly appear in his fiction.
‘A Kingdom By The Sea’, from Orbit 10, 1972, closes the collection. A slaughter-house worker, who jobs it is to despatch the cattle upon arrival, very quickly falls apart and becomes disconnected from the reality of his situation. The sense of disconnection again is one that appears in other stories, and the reader is very adeptly brought into the mind of Mason. Good writing once again.
An excellent collection of stories. Little in the way of the standard SF tropes – all near-future tales showing an at times pessimistic view of where we are heading as a race and what that will mean for humanity as a whole and individuals on a personal level. Excellent writing and with only two or three exceptions, SF of the highest order. Now back to reading some more mundane short SF….