Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Birthday Review: Short Stories by Robert Reed

Robert Reed, who was born 9 October 1956, is remarkably good, and remarkably prolific. He is the author who has appeared most often in my Best of the Year collections. And I've reviewed a whole lot of his stories. The following selection is a quite limited selection of my Locus reviews. Happy Birthday, Mr. Reed!

(Locus, May 2003)

The other Reed present (in the May F&SF) is Robert, and he too is in top form with "555", a first rate story about a meek individual who turns out to be a minor character in a computer generated entertainment, some variety of soap opera. Her show is in ratings trouble, and a writer comes to her with a tempting offer that might mean more screen time for her. But what does she really want? And want can she, a computer program, want? Reed's answer is nicely surprising.

(Locus, October 2004)

Best of all in the October-November F&SF is Robert Reed's "Opal Ball", which extrapolates the recent idea of using wagering pools for collective predictions. In this future, for many people, especially the Players who have built a reputation based on their successful wagers, many aspects of life are predicated on the results of wagering pools. The protagonist meets a woman and falls in love -- but the consensus of the betting population is that they are not right for one another. Reed's exploration of the human reaction to this is perceptive and believable.

(Locus, October 2005)

I saw two very strong stories in the September Asimov’s. Robert Reed’s "Finished" is, with much Reed, a careful reconsideration of a fairly familiar idea, but it is so well done and the characters are so well captured that it seems new. The title refers to an elective treatment to essentially upload one’s mind into an improved body. But the mind is now on a computer of sorts, and people don’t seem to change and grow anymore -- or so the critics claim. The narrator is a "Finished" man who has an affair with a younger woman who has not had the treatment, and the story of their relationship, and a slight ending twist, illuminate the questions Reed has raised.


(Locus, April 2006)

Two of the shorter pieces in the June Asimov's stand out. Robert Reed’s "Eight Episodes" is about a cult TV show that tells a rather dry scientific story, of the discovery of a tiny spaceship in a Permian era rock sample. The spaceship has a sort of message for humanity, a message which concerns, it turns out, the Fermi Paradox. And the story manages some of the same power as Ian R. MacLeod’s classic "New Light on the Drake Equation" in its evocation of lost SFnal dreams, and its reminder that there are still dreams to dream.

In the anthology One Million A. D., I also liked Robert Reed’s "Good Mountain", particularly for the odd nature of its setting: a continent made of wood, which appears to be in danger of burning. A man fleeing the destruction of his home for a potentially safe haven encounters a strange woman who is head for "Good Mountain", which she says is a very large structure of metal (very rare on this planet). All this is familiar enough in SF terms, but Reed takes the story in a surprising direction at the end.

(Locus, September 2006)

The other novella (in the October/November Asimov's), Robert Reed’s "A Billion Eves", is even better. At first the story seems perhaps an alternate history about a society oppressing women, and indeed gender issues are important. But things are not quite what they seem. Kala is a young woman on an oddly different Earth, and we follow her life for several years. Women seem in constant threat of kidnap, for reasons we slowly learn: a device called the "ripper" allows one-way travel to parallel Earths, each with slightly different geological/ecological histories. Apparently a man called the "First Father" used a ripper to kidnap an entire sorority and start a colony on an empty Earth. And over millennia new colonies have been founded: sometimes by single men kidnapping groups of women, more usually (perhaps) by voluntary groups of couples. The idea of opening new worlds is the foundation of most religions on Kala’s world, and many people hope to become colonists. Kala’s brother is a charismatic and intelligent young man, a natural "Father", but their family’s lives are changed when he rescues Kala from a kidnap attempt, and his sent to jail for his vengeful actions. Kala herself becomes a sort of forester, interested in preserving the native ecology of her world, which is at risk because of multiple imports from the sequence of Earths that preceded it. Reed develops Kala’s life, and her brother’s, in a different direction, questioning the morality of the ecological alteration of other worlds by each new colony. It’s a thoughtful and exciting story.

(Locus, April 2008)

Robert Reed is one of those writers who is a consolidator of ideas. He is continually re-examining familiar SF notions from more contemporary perspectives, or simply from different angles. "Five Thrillers" (F&SF, April) is quite explicitly a re-examination of frankly pulpish ideas. Joe Carroway is a genetically gifted young man. We meet him first during a space disaster, as he comes up with a solution to save the entire crew, except for one man -- one significantly unique man. Each "thriller" follows Carroway through a remarkable -- and morally quite ambiguous -- career. The various crises are perhaps familiar but very well narrated, with both SFnal and political savvy, leading to a quite spectacular ending.

(Locus, June 2008)

In the June F&SF Robert Reed’s "Character Flu" is a nice, very short, bit of speculation about the dangers of a certain type of brain enhancement. One of Reed’s strengths in his short fiction is to know exactly how long a story should be, and this one is perfectly sized: establishing the central idea, then closing the trap it sets just as the reader realizes what’s coming.

(Locus, December 2012)

F&SF's year-end issue also has a strong long novella, "Katabasis", by Robert Reed. This is another of his Great Ship stories. Katabasis is a tour guide on a high gravity environment in the Ship, leading tourists on a very difficult trek. She rejects the request of one man, Varid, act as his guide, then agrees to guide recurring characters Perri and Quee Lee -- and finds her party joined by Varid. Their particular journey, which turns out to be very hard, is contrasted with the long past journey of Katabasis' people across their strange planet (and then eventually to the Ship), as well as the different but tragic history of Varid. Both Sfnally fascinating and a powerful study of two damaged beings in Katabasis and Varid.

(Locus, January 2014)

The best story here (in Carbide Tipped Pens), I think because for me it does the best job of evoking the "sense of wonder" that remains crucial to SF, is "Every Hill Ends With Sky", by Robert Reed, in which a maverick scientist develops a simulation of the likely development of life in the Solar System, looking for potentialities of exotic life forms that we might have missed, and finds something unexpected. This is seen from a perspective slightly in the future, as her daughter struggles to survive in a post-Apocalyptic world, where her mother's discover may or may not offer strange hope.

(Locus, December 2016)

Another webzine I’ve needed to catch up with is Daily Science Fiction. This site features a story each weekday, and many of the stories are quite short. The quality is variable, but there is some very good work here. For instance, Robert Reed’s "How to Listen to Music", something of a morality tale, about a future much like the present, but in which, secretly, thousands of AI-linked humans control the world, looking for entertainment by finding special experiences of ordinary people -- such as a dying woman remembering a long ago pop song. Nothing really wrong there, eh? But Reed allows us to follow the implications of such entertainment in a pretty scary direction.


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