Locus Magazine Review

The Cuckoo’s Boys, Robert Reed (Golden Gryphon 1-930846-37-1, $24.95, 315pp, hc) November 2005. Cover by Edward Miller.

Robert Reed is probably the most prolific short story writer in the SF field — Jay Lake is his only real challenger — and he sets a high standard even so, again and again coming up with startling concepts, surprising and trenchant angles of vision, and well-observed, gritty nuggets of psychological understanding. This makes it surprising that The Cuckoo's Boys is only his second story collection: so many excellent Reed tales remain in the limbo of transient magazine publication; yet by the same token Reed and his editors at Golden Gryphon Press have enjoyed exceptional latitude of selection, and the 12 pieces in this volume are all highly original and very capably achieved.

Reed's best known fictional venue, the Great Ship, a planet-sized vessel on a galactic Grand Tour spanning millennia, is host to two striking entries, "Night of Time," which explores the complicated memories of an ancient alien and his yet more antediluvian companion, and "River of the Queen," an intensely inventive essay in xenology, a human couple confronting the biological and cultural secrets of one of the countless sentient species inhabiting the near-infinite caverns within the Ship. The bleak evolutionary poetry of these stories extends to "Coelecanths," a vision of humans adapting to countless ecological niches, microscopic and otherwise, a prospect of pride or of deep humiliation for the species, depending on which flawed narrative viewpoint you prefer; a similar dizzying diversity of scale attends "Winemaster," which contemplates people shrunken to infinitesimal size finding assistance in their struggle for survival from beings of inconceivable magnitude, Lilliput and Brobdingnag in alliance against vigilante hicks of ordinary stature. Some of Reed's best effects, in fact, stem from such intrusions of deep perspective — vertiginous expanses of space or time — into ordinary lives; a fine example is "One Last Game," in which a set of middle-class families holidaying by a lake faces a visitation from the future, raising awkward questions regarding the tenability of free will.

In like vein, Reed is especially adept at converting the cliché of first contact into stories of intimate human significance. In "On the Brink of That Bright New World," friendly alien signals are received, but the disappointing, indeed depressing, aftermath proclaims that earthly life proceeds on its sordid way regardless. Indulging the same mood, "Savior" depicts a military hero who destroyed attacking extraterrestrials years ago becoming a disgraced, persecuted figure, his celebrity turned to dust, the trammels of conventional politics reviling his decisiveness as unjustified aggression. Considering the chestnut of alien abduction in "Abducted Souls," a novelette appearing here for the first time, Reed implies both the intractable enigma of the phenomenon if it objectively exists at all, and the deep psychological inadequacy of those who, without proper evidence, insist anyway that it does. Not that aliens need to be invoked to draw out our perplexities and illusions, when we can display them just as well on our own: "The Children's Crusade" portrays an entire generation being gulled by a lie, yet finding an odd fulfillment even in its untruth; "She Sees My Monsters Now" sets out the means by which an innately murderous criminal, imprisoned as such, can spread his contagion to sympathetic souls outside; and "First Tuesday" delivers effective political satire in its tale of a future US president visiting every home in the nation in simulated person. "The Cuckoo's Boys" itself, drawing on Reed's own experience as a mentor to gifted teenagers, ponders very intelligently the dilemma of teachers who pass on their own philosophies to students they would rather see become entirely individual; a plague of clones serves as an exceptionally apt metaphor.

Cuckoo's Boys reaffirms SF's function as a thoughtful and paradigm-subverting literary form, able to interrogate the immediacies of life as fluently as theoretically more focused "mundane" writing. Reed is not a comforting author, but the morals he draws are telling and necessary. In a somewhat stern manner, The Cuckoo's Boys is one of the strongest genre collections of the year.

— Nick Gevers, Locus, November 2005


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