BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Fifteen short stories including the 1984 Hugo Award winning novella “Cascade Point”.
PROS: Thematic unity amid a startling diversity of sub-genre; skillful world-building that harmonizes well with the short story format.
CONS: The opening story was not as strong as subsequent offerings; some stories relied too heavily on genre-convention.
BOTTOM LINE: A collection that will surprise new readers and delight current fans.
Timothy Zahn wants new readers to know that is he is much more than Star Wars – and he most certainly achieves this with a prodigious display of diversity. In a new collection of fifteen short stories from early on in his writing career, we see hints of what’s to come in the future. But this anthology is by no means a ‘here’s how I found my footing’ sort of book.
Here’s where all those hundreds of sub-genre titles scattered across science fiction articles and reviews come in handy.
The book opens with a space opera (not the strongest story) serving to introduce two of Zahn’s best attributes as a writer: his ability to build abounding worlds under the time constraints of the short story, and his pacing technique. In “The Price of Survival” we enter not only a world of colonized space, technology, and interstellar travel, but a subtly multicultural one too. Zahn’s use of names and neologism – Woodcock, Du Bellay, Nordli, Orofa, Van Maanen, Sk’cee – are purposefully lacking any linguistic pattern which gives us a textual universe of multiple languages and cultures effectively with no need for an exposition. This kind of technique is perfect for the short story. Why waste time telling us about the world when you can convey it stylistically?
The remainder of the stories range drastically in both style and genre, and yet there is a synthesis which draws this diversity together in several themes expanding across the entire collection. Corruption, survival, politics, ethics, suspicion, and the misuse of power are key here. As the title of the first story suggests, many characters are also met with life or death situations. These circumstances are often used in short fiction as an unimaginative way to provide suspense in the text. However I am not cynical in this instance. Zahn offers these moments in a wholly unique way. By unique, I am not referring to the structural features of the language – tension is often conveyed through sentence structure and just the right amount of punctuation – rather it is within the worlds themselves that tension and intrigue manifest.
Urban fantasy makes its way into the collection in “Trollbridge”, “The President’s Doll”, and “The Ring”, broken up by what I would term ethical and political science fiction in “The Final Report on the Lifetime Experiment”, “Old-boy Network”, and “Proof”. These two genres are done well, particularly the latter science fictional offerings. Here is where Zahn surprises the reader. He taps into the most relevant and controversial issues in our most immediate present, leaving the reader wondering if this was written yesterday. And he does so in earnest. Science Fiction is one of the few genres that is able to experiment with possible worlds, dropping the ‘novum’ onto a seemingly realistic world and watching it work. The way that telepathy and the abortion question come together in “The Final Report on the Lifetime Experiment” is remarkable. Zahn shows here that fiction is still absolutely relevant in his objective weighing of both sides of the argument, without providing a strict ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer on the part of the narrator. He is diplomatic here, but certainly not so in his critique of crony capitalism, big money, and Wall Street in “Old-Boy Network” and “The Ring” – a subject only very recently brought to the forefront of American politics and the minds of its citizens. This was perfect timing for Zahn to publish his collection, and will resonate with his audience on a deeper level now than when the stories were first written.
However, there are some stories that are harder to define, and in some ways are more compelling because of it. “Protocol” is one such obstacle in a reviewer’s desire to categorize. By far one of the strongest stories in the book, not only does it elicit fear, it gives us a short glimpse into an absolutely fascinating world, and I am grateful to Zahn for a peek into it. I was left filled with ideas of my own, not because of the ambiguity often found in short stories, but more because the world was so unique I knew there was so much more that could happen there. A similar experience can be found in “Hitmen – See Murders”. The ending is dissatisfying in its abruptness – we are taken out of the world almost as soon as we are immersed into it.
The composition and order of the book not only makes for an unpredictable read, but an immersive expedition. A reader can be drawn back from a far reaching fantastical world of goblins and spirits, into a world closer to our own, but just the right distance away to keep us safely absorbed in the textual universe.