Visions of Paradise

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Good Mountain

As the book’s title indicates, the stories in One Million A.D. edited by Gardner Dozois, are set in the far-future when human culture, and perhaps even human life itself, are considerably evolved from their current form. The far-future is not a common setting for most sf. Even prior to its “contemporization” of the past 20 years, most sf has been set in the near future when human culture could be extrapolated from modern life with one or two changes at most. The farther writers venture into the future, the more drastic the changes, and the less recognizable the culture becomes. Thus, the stories themselves become harder to write, since the more drastic the changes the more the writer must explain to the reader, thus making the trap of expository lumps and telling-rather-than-showing more inviting. The best writers of far future sf such as Jack Vance in his Dying Earth series and Greg Benford in his Galactic Cluster series not only avoid this trap, but somehow embrace its possibilities.

The opening novella in the book was "Good Mountain” by Robert Reed, who is one of the most reliable writers of short science fiction of the past few decades. Nearly all of his stories are worthwhile reading, many of them are among the best of their given year, and he has produced a small handful of genuine masterpieces (highlighted in my mind by “The Utility Man” and “The Remoras”). I think it is safe to say that “Good Mountain” belongs in that select list of great Robert Reed stories.

In Reed’s imagined future, humans live on a decidedly un-Earthlike world in which continents drift, forming and breaking apart regularly as islands clash and separate. The continents are inhabited by humans, giant worms which are used as transportation much like trains with people riding inside them, and mockeymen who are bred as servants.

As the story opens, the continent on which it is set is in dire peril as huge fissures emitting geysers of poisonous flammable gas are opening. The gas and subsequent fires are spreading rapidly across the continent, consuming everything in their path, and killing everybody living along the way. Many people are trying to survive with the help of gas masks, apparently a traditional safety device for humans on that world, but the fires are foiling such attempts this time.

The protagonist Jopale and his mockeyman are fleeing on a worm to a far-distant shore where ships are waiting to take select rich people to near-legendary New Isles. They began their journey soon after the first fissures opened when all life on the continent did not seem imperiled, but as they travel, the conflagration is following them, and what began as almost a quixotic flight has become a desperation attempt to survive.

Reed does a spectacular job of blending the sense of wonder of his exotic world, the personalities of the refugees, tidbits about the world’s background, and the gradually-developing thriller aspect of the story. The two most interesting characters are Brace, the worm’s caretaker, and Do-Ane, a female scientist who has been studying a mysterious mountain buried beneath their destination of Good Mountain, which she and her colleagues believe might be the remnants of an ancient spaceship which brought humans to their world, a spaceship which she hints might be a place of security for the refugees.

In my opinion, “Good Mountain” contains all the elements of great science fiction, and if this is any indication of the thrills awaiting me in my search for new sense of wonder, it should be a hell of a journey ahead.