BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Anthology of six original novellas exploring the theme of dangerous planets.
PROS: Five stories good or better.
CONS: One mediocre story
BOTTOM LINE: A very good collection of stories.
Forbidden Planets, edited by Marvin Kaye and published by The Science Fiction Book Club, offers six original novellas that play with the theme of dangerous worlds to varying degrees. (I might mention here that Allen M. Steele cheats a little by setting his story on a not-quite-forbidden colony world, but his transgression can be forgiven as his story is quite enjoyable.) It still surprises me how, given a similar theme, different writers can come up with stories so varied in content and wonder. (See also other original SFBC titles as Between Worlds, Down These Dark Spaceways and One Million A.D. as well as Space Soldiers and Armageddons.) I suppose it shouldn’t be so astonishing given the broad theme that tends to unite anthology stories; nonetheless I remain pleasantly surprised. There are no retreads here.
There’s not a single bad story in the whole bunch, although I did find one story to be hovering within the region of mediocrity. The two standout stories were “JQ211F, And Holding” by Nancy Kress and “Kaminsky at War” by Jack McDevitt. Three of the stories were set in already existing universes which were either nice to revisit (in the case of the Steele’s Coyote and Reed’s Marrow universes) or experience for the first time (Foster’s Commonwealth universe).
Reviewlettes of the stories follow.
STORIES IN THIS ANTHOLOGY:
- “Mid-Death” [Commonwealth] by Alan Dean Foster [2006 novella]
- Synopsis: Company hunter Urbinski searches for missing researcher Thom Olin on the dangerous jungle planet Midworld.
- Review: The setup of this story is like something out of an old sci-fi flick that skirts the line of cheap horror movie, but darn it, it works. The jungle planet of Midworld is covered with thousand-meter-high forests and untold number of unknown animal and plant life. One traverses the planet not by walking on the ground, which is too dangerous and probably too wet, but by walking and climbing along meters-wide tree branches. Of course, our stalwart team of company heroes, led by the disbelieving-but-careful Urbinski, underestimates the danger but learn that the planet’s reputation is well-earned. There’s something new to discover at nearly every turn, maintaining an almost continuous sense of wonder and a decent amount of suspense, too. Foster’s straightforward writing moves the story along at the brisk pace it should, introducing new wonders and dangers on just about every page, although there was (probably necessarily) a few too many descriptions of the jungle’s less-interesting (read: safe) foliage.
- Note: Set in Foster’s Commonwealth universe on Midworld, the same setting as his novels Midworld (1975) and Mid-Flinx (1995).
- “Walking Star” [Coyote] by Allen M. Steele [2006 novella]
- Synopsis: On the frontier planet of Coyote, a rich businessman hires guide Sawyer Lee to find an ex-employee (Joseph Walking Star Cassidy) who became involved with drugs and disappeared.
- Review: This interesting and immersive story initially seems unassuming, but it takes a turn towards the mysterious when the story evolves from a search in the wild frontier to discovering exactly what sort of business Walking Star Cassidy is up to – the repercussions of which threaten to change life on the frontier planet. This is the third Coyote story I’ve read (see “The Madwoman of Shuttlefield” and “The Days Between“) and the third time I’ve been impressed with the appeal of these stories that are set in a relatively low-tech planet. It may be time to read the books, which are comprised of these stories and more.
- Note: Set in Steele’s Coyote universe, the same setting as the novels Coyote, Coyote Rising, and Coyote Frontier.
- “JQ211F, And Holding” by Nancy Kress [2006 novella]
- Synopsis: A small military ship carries researchers to the planet named JQ211F, which one biologist theorizes is the location of the origin of life.
- Review: This story was enjoyable on a few different levels, the most superficial of which is an enjoyable adventure story filled with discovery and wonder. At a deeper level is a religion vs. science theme that would feel right at home in Gardner Dozois’ anthology from last year, Galileo’s Children. One Christian member of the team, Carin, dubs JQ211F “Hell”. There are several discussions about God and belief that contradict Paul, the biologist whose theory is that the planet is the source of life-evolving spores which allow panspermia. Meanwhile, Captain McAuliffe, the by-the-book Navy man, makes the scientific team’s job about as difficult as can be. Throw in a little Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and you have the makings of a really good story.
- “Rococo” [Great Ship] by Robert Reed [2006 novella]
- Synopsis: The Scypha, a totipotent alien race who have left their home world named Chaos, offer humanity three habitable worlds to call their own in exchange for berth on the Great Ship. But before that happens, Aasleen, an engineer on the Great Ship, must find out why her xenobiologist brother stole a ship and crash-landed on Chaos.
- Review: For all its potential to wow – an interesting alien biology that involves millions of cells coming together in any shape to form an alien entity; the history of the Great Ship and its engineer; the strained relationship of Aasleen and her family; the mystery of Rococo’s disappearance; a hostile planet peppered with meteors – I did not find this story very engaging. The story jumps between Aasleen’s history of how she came to be a board the ship followed by the arrival of brother she never met, and her mission to find him and bring him to justice for stepping onto the quarantined planet named Chaos. The most engaging part of the story for me was the mystery of why Rococo is doing this. He obviously knows something we don’t and the fun is in discovering what that is.
- Note: Set in Reed’s Marrow universe from the books Marrow and The Well of Stars.
- “Kaminsky at War” by Jack McDevitt [2006 novella]
- Synopsis: Anthropologist Arthur Kaminsky disobeys the law of non-interference with alien species when he witnesses violence fist-hand.
- Review: This is a compelling story about making choices and conviction. Kaminsky uses his high-tech lightbender to remain invisible to the inhabitants of the low-tech world of Nok. When he witnesses unprovoked violence, he is stirred to action – against strict and clear orders of non-interference – and wages a one-man war against the Nok while reluctantly aided by his lander’s AI. Kaminsky’s conviction to “do the right thing” is so heartfelt that he sometimes takes unrealistic chances to prove his point. But aside from that, this was a page-turning story that, in some ways, reads like a fable.
- “No Place Like Home” by Julie E. Czerneda [2006 novella]
- Synopsis: The Umlari, who have been traveling space for generations looking for their planet of origin through the use of artificial bodies called avatars, may have finally found their home. But with the discovery of the planet comes the unfortunate understanding of their lost history.
- Review: As might be expected from a writer with a biology background, the portrayal of the aliens leans heavily on that science. The Umlari are painstakingly detailed in description and customs – perhaps maybe a bit too much as it slightly weighed down the story. However, there’s plenty of other stuff that holds one’s interest: the lost history of the space faring race and their desire to know their past; the three-sided mating relationships; the science of the avatars and how they are used by the planet-walkers among them to explore planets; avatar designer Nevarr’s experiment in which lead Planet Walker Drewe experiences a virtual death; and a conclusion that is both surprising and poignant. Good stuff.