Visions of Paradise

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Between Worlds

Between Worlds, edited by Robert Silverberg has the premise of futuristic sf with characters “between worlds” both physically and emotionally. While not all the stories satisfy that premise strictly, they are all good enough to be at least interesting, with some quite good indeed.

Silverberg’s own “The Colonel Returns to Space” tells the story of a retired hero of the Imperium who devoted his life to dealing with problems arising from the imperium’s total control over its member worlds. After decades of success, and subsequent fame, he is finally living in a pleasant and well-deserved retirement until an official of the imperium arrives to tell him that his most hated enemy, his former protegé who turned against him and almost killed him, is not dead as has been believed for many years, but alive and fomenting a rebellion on a world which is attempting to secede from the imperium.

The official insists that only the colonel is able to deal with his former protegé, and while he resists at first, his long unfinished dealings with the man who has been his supposed-dead enemy far longer than he had been his protegé convince him to accept the assignment and do what he can.

Silverberg tends to write two types of stories: well-plotted tales concerning historical trends, and character studies of people seeking emotional or spiritual relief. This story has elements of the latter as it moves steadily towards a classic confrontation of two long-time enemies, but it is primarily the former type as it examines the relationship between the two men and spends much of its time concerned with how the colonel will coerce his former protegé into giving up his intended rebellion.

This is an enjoyable and thoughtful story, containing scattered elements of vintage Silverberg, and ending in an unexpected, yet satisfactory denouement.

Interestingly, the book’s first three stories cover similar hard-science scenarios far away in both time and space. The running theme through the stories is visiting the galactic core (in two of them) and virtual uploads of human beings in all three. The stories treat these similarities in different manners though, and all are mostly successful overall.

Stephen Baxter’s “Between Worlds” takes place after a galactic war when a virtual representation of a thousand year old messiah becomes a negotiator with a war refugee who sneaked a bomb onto a spacecraft, demanding that she be returned to her homeworld to see a daughter who, according to all records, never existed. Baxter ranks with Alastair Reynolds as the best storytellers among the newer hard-science writers, and this is a strong story by him. The story contains enough strangeness to feel futuristic, particularly spiked, intelligent ships such as the strangely-named Ask Politely, climaxed by the huge swarming of ships.

The characters are also fascinating, especially the virtual Poole and Futurity’s Dream, the religious acolyte who is the main viewpoint character of the story. Like the Silverberg story, the climax is both unexpected but believable.

Nancy Kress’ “Shiva in Shadow” tells the story of a ship’s crew of two scientist and a captain-nurturer studying the core of the galaxy while releasing a probe into the core containing uploads of all three of them. The story is told in alternating sequences of the three humans on the ship and the three uploads on the probe. Kress does a fine job developing the characters of both two groups, as they grow in parallel yet different manners as the stress of their studies progresses. From a literary point of view, this was the finest story in the book.

I have never been a huge fan of the fiction of James Patrick Kelly, considering him a journeyman writer who borrows from current trends rather than adding much to them. “The Wreck of the Godspeed” tells the story of a group of pilgrims on a ship whose intelligence seems to be breaking down, and they fear that it will never permit them to return home when their tour is finished. This is a bit of a subtle, psychological horror story, which is mostly effective in its emotional impact.

Mike Resnick’s “Keepsakes” has the most fascinating premise of any story in the book. A mysterious race of aliens known as the Space Gypsies periodically contact humans in trouble, always offering to solve their problem at a really low financial cost, but also demanding a small keepsake in each instance, which they will select after they complete their job. The keepsake always turns out to be something of such high emotional value that the person is highly distraught, sometimes to the point of being shattered for life. The protagonist is a government agent seeking out these aliens who so far have avoided all authorities. Unfortunately, the story is mostly a glib detective story, nearly all surface with only occasional attempts at any depth. That’s too bad, since a story whose primary focus is emotional depth should have contained some of that depth as well. Too bad.

The best story in the book is Walter Jon Williams’ “Investments,” a political drama involving an interesting cast of characters which develops into a rousing adventure. Lord Martinez is a member of a heredity peer group who is given his first political posting on a world which he realizes before he arrives is a hotbed of corruption. Meanwhile, his junior officer Severin is not a peer but became an officer during a long war which was apparently detailed in Williams’ Dread Empire’s Fall trilogy. Severin is a member of the common people who, as an officer, is neither fish nor fowl, forced to live as a commoner while serving with the peers.

When Martinez goes to his posting, Severin is piloting another spaceship which mysteriously finds itself under attack from what turns out to be a pulsar, whose waves will next reach Martinez’ posting and destroy most of that world, including all its inhabitants. The struggle to save the world is exciting, although the solution to the corruption problem is a bit too easy. Still this was a strong story overall, which convinced me I should read the entire Dread Empire’s Fall trilogy.

Interestingly, the best 2004 novella I had read prior to this collection was Walter Jon Williams’ “The Tang Dynasty Underwater Pyramid,” giving him perhaps the two best novellas of that year.