Sunday, December 15, 2019

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Robert Charles Wilson

Robert Charles Wilson turns 66 today. He's been one of the most consistently interesting SF novelists for over three decades, and he won the Hugo for Best Novel for Spin (2005). He's also won a Philip K. Dick Award, and a Campbell, and a few Auroras. Besides Spin I particularly liked his novel Darwinia (1998). He hasn't written as much short fiction, but that he has written has also been very impressive. Here's a set of my reviews of his short fiction.

From my summary of Original Anthologies from 2000

Of the novelettes, my clear favorite was "The Dryad's Wedding" by Robert Charles Wilson, from Star Colonies.  This is a sequel to his 1999 short novel Bios.  It deals with the colonization of the very "hostile" world featured in the novel, a couple of centuries later, and a young woman who has died and been revived.  She begins to sense the world trying to communicate with her -- Wilson's explanation for this is a bit mystical, definitely building on the mystical ending to Bios, but philosophically interesting.  And the resolution to the story is honest and sad.

Locus, March 2006

And the best story in FutureShocks is Robert Charles Wilson’s thought-provoking “The Cartesian Theater”, which finds a very appropriate way of speculating about machine rights, human identity, even the idea of a soul, in a well-framed and well-told story of a man in an ambiguously prosperous future telling his dead grandfather about a disgusting but legal staging of a simulated (or was it?) death.

Locus, January 2007

Robert Charles Wilson, in Julian: A Christmas Story, does very interesting work with what is again familiar material. In a way this is a story I’ve read, in one form or another, in many 50s magazines: a post-holocaust story, with an anti-science religious/political ruling party controlling the remnants of civilization, as a young man with heretical (i.e. pro-scientific) ideas bids to challenge the new orthodoxy. But the holocaust here is not nuclear but rather environmental, and the new political order is reflective of our contemporary politics. And the characters – primarily the narrator Adam and his aristo friend Julian, two boys about to be embroiled in an apparently ongoing war – are elegantly depicted. I’m not sure if this is the beginning of a longer story – I’d be glad to read it if so – or if the full “story” here is the subtly limned background and nicely hinted future – either way it is a wholly satisfying novella. [Indeed it did become a novel, and my review of that is posted at the link below:

Review of Julian Comstock]

Review of Fast Forward 1 (Locus, February 2007)

More solid work includes Robert Charles Wilson’s “YFL-500”, in which a not very successful artist who does not dream finds a way to create a great work of art when he gets access to another person’s dream (in a sense). Then he tracks down that person – leading to a wry ending. I particularly liked the nature of the art genre described.

Locus, April 2009

And then to Other Earths and Robert Charles Wilson, who offers a grim look at race relations in a US in which the Civil War was avoided, in “The Peaceable Land; or, The Unbearable Vision of Harriet Beecher Stowe”. A white photographer accompanies a black historian trying to document the terrible events at a sort of work camp for freed black men that to us resembles the Nazi work camps. Wilson is as ever convincing and oblique, not settling for showing simply the horrible alternative history but showing us in the characters of the leads the way changed history affected real people.

Locus, January 2013

Finally, Gardner Dozois offers a first rate new anthology in audio form: Rip-Off!. The conceit is that each story begins with a famous first line, and goes on from there, presumably riffing on the story it's “ripping off”. The best two stories open and close the book. Robert Charles Wilson's “Fireborn” is based on a Carl Sandburg story. It's pastoral in mood, about a Onyx and Jasper, two “commoners” who encounter a fireborn “skydancer” – a woman who has lived multiple lives, trying to earn “transit to the Eye of the Moon”. The story slowly reveals the nature of the “fireborn”, and the ambitions of Onyx and Jasper, as Jasper is lured to become an apprentice to the skydancer. This is excellent “posthuman” SF in which the posthumans are just as human as the “commoners”.

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