A couple of big names this time: The Collected Stories of Greg Bear and The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge. This review was first published in the New York Review of Science Fiction 172, December 2002.
Poets have been doing this for decades. Regularly, their careers will be punctuated with the publication of a Collected Poems, in which the traditional slim volumes are gathered into something satisfyingly thick, and the volume might be regularly updated as more slim volumes follow or as juvenilia is posthumously discovered. Somehow, the idea crossed over to science fiction in the late 1980s when the Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick appeared. This was a posthumous effort, bringing together all his short fiction, without exception, arranged chronologically and completed with detailed notes. This rather austere (if invaluable) academic aura is there also in the Collected Stories of Theodore Sturgeon that followed, if anything a more pedantic exercise in that the early volumes in particular were crowded with stories that had never been published before, most of them deservedly so, and that could have been of interest only to the obsessive completist. More recently, a volume of Collected Stories has ceased to wait on death, with huge books from both Arthur C. Clarke and J.G. Ballard. Even here, the Collected Stories present a summing up of an entire career, for both are at or near the ends of their writing lives; Clarke has hardly written any short fiction in the last decade, and Ballard accompanied his volume with the announcement that he would write no more short stories. These two books, therefore, continued the pattern of the Dick and Sturgeon enterprises: they sum up a career by bringing together all published work, arranged chronologically, a boon for the academic, the fan, and the publishing industry alike.
But now the pattern has been comprehensively broken by these two volumes from Vinge and Bear. Neither author is dead nor at the end of his career. The Vinge volume, indeed, includes one new story written specially for it (‘Fast Times at Fairmont High’, which has recently gone on to win a Hugo Award), demonstrating quite decisively that he is still writing new short stories. So neither volume can be assumed to sum up a career. The stories are not arranged chronologically. Bear has gathered his stories in a rough thematic pattern, while the arrangement of Vinge’s stories seems to be entirely random. Above all, neither collection is complete. Vinge omits what is probably his most famous story, ‘True Names’ (it was the title piece of another book published by Tor almost simultaneously with this), and also ‘Grimm’s Story’ on the rather specious grounds that it formed the core of his novel Grimm’s World (although ‘The Barbarian Princess’, which was at the heart of the later expansion of that novel, Tatya Grimm’s World, is included here). Bear admits to excluding his first published story, and also ‘Mandala’ which went on to form part of his novel Strength of Stones (though ‘Blood Music’, the starting point for the novel of the same name, leads off this collection). Others may be missing – I have not attempted a survey of all his published work to check this fact – but I suspect a writer as prolific as Bear would have amassed rather more than the 24 stories gathered here.
In short, and despite the titles, neither volume can honestly be described as The Collected Stories. They are not – as the Collected Stories of Dick and Sturgeon and Clarke and Ballard clearly are – valuable historical documents in the long story of science fiction. They are, rather, partial views of history filtered through what the authors will, and will not, let us see. This is a disappointment because the contributions of both Bear and Vinge to our genre deserve better than this, and we deserve better of them.
So, having put aside the nonsense that these are ‘Collected’ stories, what is there to be said about these collections? As it turns out, quite a lot. These are good short story collections, which makes the smoke and mirrors of the titles so irritating.
The covers of the two books are remarkably similar: the title set against a starry abyss. This, clearly, is how we are meant to see the two authors, as writers whose work inhabits space, as explorers of the hardest, most far-reaching continua of science fiction. Certainly this is how they have made their names at novel length, Bear in the huge, lumbering trilogy of Eon, Eternity and Legacy, Vinge in the pairing of A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky. But neither writer seems quite at home transplanting that same wide landscape into a short story. Oh, there are stories here that take us out to that final frontier, but somehow they seem longer than they need to be and less consequential than they ought to be. Vinge’s ‘The Blabber’, for instance, is what he describes as ‘a test flight into the universe of my Zones of Thought novels.’ It tells of a youth with a strange pet stuck on a planet in the slow zone, longing for the adventure of going out to the Beyond. And, as long as the story is about the youth and his pet and his longings, it is a wonderful, humane story. But when he does get his chance to get out, it comes as a result of derring-do, wild coincidence, and a rather hackneyed variation on the old theme of the lonely youth really being a prince in disguise. In other words, a little over half way through a beautifully paced, carefully realized story, Vinge suddenly jams his foot onto the accelerator and dispenses with sense in order to provide us with wild adventure among the stars.
Bear also takes us into the universe of his books, in this instance a couple of pendants to his ‘Thistledown’ novels. The earlier of these, from 1978, is ‘The Wind from a Burning Woman’, a thin story which sets the scene for the fat novels that follow. Here he creates the overly simplistic political dichotomy between the pro-technological ‘Geshels’, who are in uneasy partnership with the dominant anti-technological ‘Naderites’. (The vilification of the Naderites is distastefully knee-jerk, and one wonders why so many otherwise smart science fiction writers feel that single-issue politics is a realistic vision of the near future.) This depthless applecart is upset by an hysterically overblown act of vengeance when a lone woman manages to set an asteroid-cum-abandoned spaceship heading directly toward Earth. That this could be a serious plan by somebody who is carefully presented as ‘not mad’, and that even a super-competent heroine could achieve this alone and without anyone spotting anything anywhere along the line, beggars belief. Bear clearly likes this story (it was the title piece for his first collection), but it is a skimpy and rather careless piece of work. More than twenty years later, he bracketed the Thistledown novels with another story, ‘The Way of All Ghosts’, which used the now well-ploughed ground of the Way as the setting for a tribute to William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land. This is a more careful, more mature work, but because the setting is by now overly familiar to author and readers alike, there is a sense that he doesn’t have to try too hard, that he is relying on that familiarity to do much of the work for him. The story only comes alive when there is an intrusion into this safe world of something strange, inhuman, and overwhelming, something whose crystallizing encroachment on all in its path bears a curious resemblance to the inhuman intrusion of ‘Blood Music’. Here there is real vigour in describing the alien, nightmare landscape that is produced, but alas the same vigour does not extend into the story, which is wound up with a careless perfunctoriness: after spending many pages telling us all about the huge, implacable, undefeatable horror that must be faced, Bear has his protagonists win through on one brief little expedition in which they must face no personal threat.
This is a characteristic that recurs throughout Bear’s collection. It is perhaps best exemplified by the novella ‘Heads’. I remember reviewing ‘Heads’ very critically when it first came out as a separate book, but as I was rereading the story here I wondered what had driven me to that dyspeptic response. Here was a complex story of the pernicious influence of religion on politics (and throughout this collection it is noticeable that religion is dealt with more passionately, seriously and convincingly than politics), a damning satire on L. Ron Hubbard and his ilk, all set against a background of research into very low temperatures on the Moon. The story was sharp, convincing, well-paced, involving, and so it continued for most of its nearly 100 pages; not the best work of science fiction ever written but serious, thoughtful, to be applauded. Then, just when I had come to assume that my initial response to the story was as wrong-headed as I have ever been, the human issues at the forefront of the story were pushed into the background, and the science fiction toys that had provided an excuse for the story abruptly became the story. The real, complex matter of the story was neatly tidied away with a click of the fingers, while the functional and uninspiring science behind it all was brought forward to provide a mad, otiose climax. Drama had been remade as melodrama, and the hard work of the body of the story was thrown away in an ill-considered ending. Bear’s strengths lie in the scene rather than the plot, which may be why he is drawn more to novels (and long novels at that), where there is room for ever more complex scene setting and deficiencies of plot can be more easily disguised.
Vinge also has a tendency, occasionally, to rush his endings. ‘Bookworm, Run!’, a Flowers for Algernon-type story of a super-intelligent, science fiction-loving chimp who escapes from a military institution, is always a little too self-indulgent and knowing to be a really good story. Nevertheless, he manages a degree of pathos and drama that carries the tale well enough until the appearance of clumsy Soviet agents turns the whole thing into incompetent farce. But this is something of an exception; in the main he manages to integrate a reasonably controlled plot into most of his stories so that the ending tends to arrive as a satisfactory conclusion rather than an unsettling change of pace, though often this can be at the expense of making the fiction seem very old-fashioned. ‘The Whirligig of Time’ was first published in 1974, but the sly little story of an American survivor generations in the future getting revenge on the imperial Russians who defeated his country feels like it belongs in the 1950s. And ‘The Ungoverned’, set in a balkanized America where the tough, self-reliant, almost anarchist inhabitants of a western state defeat a fascist invasion from south of the border by the use of nuclear weapons is a stereotype of the competent, he-man American sci-fi of yore, when terrible weapons were fine so long as they’re used by the good guys. There seem to be a lot of nuclear weapons in Vinge’s collection, and though he doesn’t shy away from saying how nasty they are, he seems to be quite sanguine about their use. I suspect he would not be comfortable with the description ‘right wing’ (at least, not in the way that Bear probably would), but his attitudes on this issue clearly run straight down the line of gung-ho American science fiction of the past.
But, of course, politics aren’t really Vinge’s concern. When politics intrude in his stories, as in Bear’s, it tends to be in a simplistic, cartoonish way. No, Vinge’s underlying concern, the mantra that is repeated hypnotically in his story introductions even if it is not there overtly in the story, is the Singularity or, as he will sometimes have it, the Technological Singularity. He even summons this mystic wish-object in talking about so unpromising a story as ‘The Ungoverned’, explaining that ‘such a war could postpone the Technological Singularity and leave the world intelligible to us mere humans’. It is unclear whether this vision was always there or whether it has been grafted on to the stories in retrospect to make it seem as if they work holistically toward a single aim. Either way, the most notable thing about this collection is that he never once tackles the Singularity head-on in any of these stories, and indeed the prose becomes freer, the stories better, the more he moves away from the idea. (Curiously it is Bear, who never once mentions the Singularity in more than 650 pages except in relation to a black hole, who comes closest to portraying Vinge’s abiding notion in a story called ‘Judgement Engine’. This is one of those stories that writers portraying the distant future occasionally fall victim to: an attempt to convey a future so distant, so alien, that we don’t really have the words or the concepts to portray it. Such stories are either a breathtaking triumph or an incoherent mess; suffice it to say that this is the worst story in the book.)
The best stories in the Vinge collection are those least concerned with technology. He is particularly good when the focus of the story is on the culture he portrays rather than the machinery it employs. His first sale, ‘Apartness’ from 1964, which, as the title might suggest, plays with the notion of apartheid, was a stunning debut. It is a world in which, following some apocalypse, the cultures of the Southern Hemisphere are dominant; and it is about what happens when a remnant of despised Afrikaanerdom is discovered hiding away in Antarctica. He followed this up a few years later with ‘Conquest by Default’, set in the same world but this time considering the cultural consequences of contact with aliens. These are subtle, humane stories which, though they are from early in his career, are still among the best pieces in the book.
Vinge is so associated with hard science fiction, with modern space opera, that it is surprising that his very best stories are those which are closest to fantasy. There is a science fictional rationale and, in the end, science fiction technology in both ‘The Peddler’s Apprentice’ (written with Joan D. Vinge), and ‘The Barbarian Princess’, but the setting, manners and voice of both stories is actually much closer to fantasy. ‘The Peddler’s Apprentice’ tells of a young boy’s journey from an isolated mountain community to the big city in the company of a man who appears to do magic. Interestingly, as Vinge describes the process, the early part of the story with its medieval setting, casual brutality and apparent magic was his work, but the latter part, which presents an advanced technological explanation for all the wonders, was the work of his then-wife. A revealing division of labour. ‘The Barbarian Princess’, which was written to form part of Tatja Grimm’s World, is set on an intriguing world where a publisher endlessly sails from remote port to remote port producing fantasy magazines. In one port they discover that a religious sect believes in the literal truth of their most hackneyed stories, and only the appearance of Tatja Grimm dressed as the heroine of the stories saves the day, leaving us with tantalizing questions about what is real after all. Together, these stories reveal Vinge to be adept at plot and colour, at creating strange yet coherent realms. But one story, ‘Gemstone’, a fantasy that could, with little change, be a mainstream coming of age tale set in the 1950s, reveals an unexpected delicacy of touch and characterisation. One could wish that Vinge might abandon wide-screen science fiction for this small-scale wonder more often.
Vinge’s handling of character in ‘Gemstone’ comes as something of a surprise, but Bear seems to be able to produce convincing characters any time he isn’t turning on the science fictional special effects. ‘Sisters’, for instance, a perceptive look at the consequences of allowing the genetic modification of children which predates and is more effective than Gattaca, starts unpromisingly but builds into a powerful character study. The Nebula Award winner ‘Hardfought’, one of the increasingly rare instances when the voters don’t seem to have got it wrong, starts flashily and occasionally tries too hard to get across the strange and alien, but it works as well as it does because when the story settles down Bear allows the character of the human and alien protagonists to emerge, and it is by understanding them as people that we can appreciate the tragedy of the war he describes.
Just as with Vinge, it is in fantasy that, unexpectedly, Bear seems to emerge at his best: ‘Richie by the Sea’, his one venture into horror, is an unnerving tale of a strange child who visits a young couple in their seaside home, a story which works because of the simple humanity with which Bear portrays even the inhuman child. ‘Webster’, the story of a lonely woman who conjures a man out of her dictionary, is a wish-fulfilment story that is disturbingly full of betrayals and disappointments. ‘Sleepside Story’ deliberately sets out to subvert fantasy clichés, and though that tends to give it an overly familiar feel, it still works well. And then there is ‘The White Horse Child’. Time and again in his story introductions (much longer and generally more revealing and hence more interesting than the rather perfunctory introductions Vinge gives his stories), Bear reveals how serious he is about his craft, how much he thinks about the technical aspects of what he is doing, but none of these introductions says as much about writing, or says it as eloquently, as this simple fable.
Both authors offer plenty of stories that are complex in their structure, intricate in their plotting, appropriately strange in their presentation of alien landscapes, characters and wonders; yet both writers are at their best when at their simplest.