Visions of Paradise

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Forbidden Planets (ed. by Peter Crowther)

Ironically, I am reviewing a book with the same title Forbidden Planets as a book I reviewed here last Dec 2. Where the former book was the latest SFBC original theme anthology of 6 novellas, this book is the latest theme anthology edited by Peter Crowther. Crowther is one of the finest editors working in the f&sf field currently. He first achieved fame editing a series of original novella chapbooks for PS Publishing–several of which have been gathered in book form with titles such as Cities and Futures before moving onto the quarterly prozine Postscripts and a wider range of books, including single author collections and novels.

Simultaneously, he has edited an annual series of original theme anthologies for DAW Books with titles Moon Shot, Mars Probe, Constellations and now Forbidden Planets. The previous collections have all garnered positive reviews, and provided more than their fair share of recommended short fiction.

The premise of this collection is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1956 movie Forbidden Planets. My initial thought reading the book was bemusement that nearly all the authors in the book expressed considerable fondness for the movie, going so far as to credit it as a major influence on them as sf writers. Certainly Forbidden Planet was one of the more interesting sf movies of the 1950s, perhaps one of only two that broke the mold of sf movies as either horror or thriller movies with as much depth as the first thin sheet of winter ice on a pond (the other such movie being The Day The Earth Stood Still). But as science fiction, the movie was little more than a typical Analog-style planetary mystery in which a group of spacemen land on some forgotten planet and spend 30 pages trying to decipher exactly what-the-heck is happening here?

By comparison, 2006 is also the 50th anniversary of Alfred Bester’s landmark novel The Stars My Destination in its original serialization in Galaxy, but I have not seen any tributes to that fabulous novel. Now granted, I am prejudiced since Alfred Bester was one of my favorite sf writers during my personal “Golden Age” in the 1960s, and The Stars My Destination is still one of my all-time favorite novels, but does the movie Forbidden Planets really deserve memorialization with two 50th anniversary collections while The Stars My Destination deserves none?

Anyway, putting aside that quibble, I found the overall quality of the anthology Forbidden Planets worthwhile reading, if several of the stories had little, if anything, to do with the source material.

The first two stories I read were two of the better stories, not surprisingly since they were written by two of sf’s current superstars: “Dreamers’ Lake,” by Stephen Baxter, and “Tiger, Burning,” by Alastair Reynolds. While both authors are considered writers of “New Space Opera,” their stories are very different in both intent and execution. Reynolds is perhaps the finest creator of wondrous future, and his stories generally push the very limits of technological development. “Tiger, Burning” uses the relatively new science of branes (which, as simply as possible, are parallel universes to our own which occasionally brush against our universe, causing “big bangs”) and how humans might possibly explore and settle them in the future. Like much of his fiction, the story is primarily a mystery.

Baxter, on the other hand, does not use technological ideas quite as cutting-edge as Reynolds does, but his storytelling is more involving and his stories tend to examine big philosophical ideas which leave both the characters and the reader deep in thought. “Dreamers’ Lake” is concerned with non-thinking life forms which still have feelings, and how this impacts on a group of scientists visiting a world all of whose lifeforms are soon to be demolished by a crashing meteor. Both stories were interesting, although they suffered slightly compared to the collections both authors have released recently.

Matthew Hughes’ “Passion Ploy” is a typical Hughes story, a lighthearted Vancean adventure about a con artist trying to carry out a sale which causes ramifications far beyond his control. The underlying theme of the story is greed and its occasional unintentional effects. Good, light fun.

Jay Lake’s “Lehr, Rex,” a rather cheesy title blatantly pointing at Shakespeare and the movie Forbidden Planet, tells an interesting planetary adventure about a space captain named Lehr who fancies himself king of a planet occupied by his crew. It reminds me of an old A. Bertram Chandler story, and competes fairly well on that basis.

Paul McAuley’s “Dust,” is a story about an attempted rescue of stranded explorers on an inhospitable planet which turns into a trap. I was not impressed by the ending, too much about inevitability rather than anything resolved by the actions of the protagonists, but otherwise the story was interesting.

Ian McDonald is one of the finest writers of contemporary sf, but occasionally he stumbles when his playful language and love of exoticism overwhelm the story itself. In such stories I find myself reading sentences and descriptions written in such a pell-mell manner that the story, whatever it might be, gets totally lost. That was my opinion of “Kyle Meets the River,” which was enjoyable reading but, ultimately, enjoyable words about nothing much at all.

The final story in the book is a novelet “Me⋅Topia,” by Adam Roberts, which has some very strange premises: a group of neanderthal scientists in a spacecraft abruptly crash on the surface of a planet which seemingly appeared out of nowhere directly in front of their ship. The scientists behave in a totally non-scientific manner while periodically reminding themselves that they are scientists in spite of being neanderthals (evolved neanderthals who apparently have anxiety about not being truly intelligent, something I cannot imagine modern humans ever doing), and the world has a sun which rises in the west and sets in the east, while the night stars do not move at all.

All these strangenesses give the story a sense of not being taken seriously by the author, but in fact it is a gripping scientific mystery which was probably the most interesting story in the book overall. It does reach a conclusion, albeit a not very scientific one, and raises a few questions about the nature of modern humans.

Overall, Forbidden Planets resembled a good issue of a prozine. I think what held it back from being truly outstanding was the lack of a single top-notch story, but overall it was a typical Peter Crowther quality anthology, which I recommend. So where is the memorial to The Stars My Destination?


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