Visions of Paradise

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Forbidden Planets (ed. by Marvin Kaye)

In his editorial for Forbidden Planets, editor Marvin Kaye mentions that this is the 27th anthology he has edited for the Science Fiction Book Club since 1970, but this is the first one of his I have bought for a simple reason: all the previous ones were fantasy. This book is the latest collection in the series of books of original novellas published by the SFBC. Previously I have bought–and enjoyed–Robert Silverberg’s Between Worlds, Mike Resnick’s Down These Dark Spaceways, and Gardner Dozois’ One Million A.D. Each of the previous volumes have featured one or two exceptional stories, with the others all ranging between good and very good. I had no reason to expect this volume would be any less interesting, nor was I disappointed.

It seems inevitable that a Robert Reed novella would be one of the highlights of the book, since his masterful “Good Mountain” was the best story in One Million A.D. and his “Camouflage” was one of the highlights of Down These Dark Spaceways. Reading a Robert Reed story is virtually a guarantee that you will get a creative, thoughtful, well-plotted story, often a memorable one as well. How he keeps turning out such a constant stream of top-notch stories is amazing to me, as is the fact that he has never received a major award for any of his stories. He has not even had as many nominees as many lesser writers: 5 Hugo nominations, and a single Nebula nomination, 2 John W. Campbell finalists, and a single World Fantasy nomination. He has done better with the Locus poll, making the final list 40 times, but even there he has been underrated since he has never finished higher than one 5th place finish.

So I guess it is not surprising that Reed’s “Rococo” was one of the high points of Forbidden Planets. It was a Great Ship story–which is where Reed does some of his very best stuff, such as the unfairly unawarded “Marrow” and “The Remoras”–but instead of being set exclusively on the Great Ship, this is a story concerned with its discovery and one of the alien races which petition for space on the ship. It tells the story of a woman Aasleen and her brother Rococo who is beloved by everybody on the Great Ship, until he abruptly and mysteriously tries to land on a forbidden world and she is sent to bring him back. The plot itself is interesting, but the story’s strength is the alien world Chaos and its various races, particularly the Scypha. Reed fans will not be disappointed by this story.

Jack McDevitt has also appeared in several of these SFBC volumes but, unlike Reed, he has not done his very best stuff in them. “Kaminsky at War” is a story which questions the Prime Directive of much classic SF, including the various Star Trek series. Kaminsky is an anthropologist on a space ship studying a world inhabited by particularly violent natives. The comparisons to 20th and 21st century humans are fairly obvious in the story. After observing a particularly brutal slaughter, Kaminsky can no longer accept the Protocol and sets out to do whatever he can to end the slaughter. The story is interesting reading, but it is primarily a wish fulfilment story, with a wish fulfilment ending, and is ultimately less successful than other stories in the book.

Julie Czerneda has gotten popular in recent years with several series of biologically-based sf adventures, none of which I have read. But her overall popularity among both readers and critics have interested me, so I was glad to see her story “No Place Like Home” here. It tells the story of a humanoid race who have lived in spacecraft for so many generations they have no knowledge of their legendary homeworld. So their craft travel from world to world seeking their homeworld. Rather than send boarding parties to the planet, the ships contain a group of “walkers” who travel to the planet vicariously through a link with cloned Avatars. The story is told through the point of view of Walker Drewe who grows interested in the technology behind the creation of the Avatars, so that she and the reader learn the biology behind it simultaneously.

One story I did not like at all was Alan Dean Foster’s “Midworld.” The introduction describes Midworld as so full of dangerous life-forms that no one in her or his right mind would ever venture to explore it.” So the first eight pages of the story consist of a team of 4 men who come to Midworld to seek a missing scientist on its surface discussing the planet with an expert on the planet’s dangers. Those 8 pages consist of the 4 men ridiculing the expert while struggling to repress their laughter at his warnings about the planet’s dangers. The remaining 37 pages of the story consist of those 4 men traversing the planet as one-by-one the planet’s indigenous lifeforms kill them. That’s it. There is some attempt at sense of wonder at the planet’s vegetation and subhuman lifeforms, but not a very successful attempt. I’m not sure what the purpose of this story was.

Comparing Foster’s story with Nancy Kress’ “JQ211F and Holding” only illuminates the weaknesses of Foster’s story more. Kress creates a world even more inhospitable than Foster’s, one that has been recently discovered by a scientist who has proven without shadow of a doubt that the world is the source of all life in the galaxy, life which then spread via panspermia to other worlds. Another scientist on the small ship is a devout Christian who believes the world is Hell. The story combines the scientists’ search for primordial life on the world with the Christian who seeks her own unannounced agenda there. This is a typically-strong Kress story, albeit one which does not stand up to deep philosophical thought.

Not surprisingly, Allan Steele’s “Walking Star” is a very traditional story about a field guide on a somewhat-hostile world–although nowhere near as hostile as Kress’ and Foster’s worlds–who is hired by a rich man to seek one of his former employees and close friend who has abandoned his job apparently under the spell of a strong native drug. Typical of stories of the 50s era, the missing man harbors deeper secrets than mere drugs, so the story packs an unexpected, and somewhat dire, ending. Pleasant reading although less-thought-provoking than Kress’ story.

Overall, this is a slightly weaker volume than either Silverberg’s Between Worlds or Dozois’ One Million A.D. I would rate one story as superb (Reed’s “Rococo”), two better-than-average (Kress and Czerneda) and two worthwhile (McDevitt and Steele). That’s not a bad percentage.


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