Locus Magazine Review

That question of the sense of place . . . raises the larger question of how real-world landscapes serve to shape fiction which is largely about unreal landscapes. When we think of famous literary real estate—Hardy's Wessex, Joyce's Dublin, Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, Joyce Carol Oates's upstate New York—there isn't a great deal of drift between observation and creation. Faulkner's Mississippi might be suffused with the eerie glow of myth, but hill by hill it's not too different from the real-life Lafayette County. For obvious reasons, there are few SF writers this closely associated with a particular sense of place—the rural midwest of Bradbury and Simak comes to mind, perhaps, though Bradbury's nostalgia-drenched Waukegan is more a product of his fantasy and mainstream fiction than of his SF, and Simak's backyards were little more than staging areas for his galactic epics. Yet it seems likely that these authors helped define a kind of midwestern school of SF, just as Asimov, Pohl, and others helped define an urbanized New York school of SF. There must be a strong pull toward some kind of regionalism, because several recent anthologies have focused on SF in Texas, Florida, and the Mormon corridor, as well Australia . . . and Canada (yet another Canadian anthology is due out next month). But in SF, of course, there is apt to be a radical disjuncture between the observed landscape and the imagined one, and it becomes a bit trickier to identify regional markers.

Which brings us to the case of Robert Reed, who in a recent Locus interview described himself as probably the only SF writer in Lincoln, Nebraska, and whose last two novels seem almost intentionally to embody this disjuncture: both An Exaltation of Larks and Beyond the Veil of Stars begin their narratives with a fully-textured sense of middle American terra firma, then shift radically into unfamiliar vistas. The single most striking image Reed has ever come up with—turning the night sky into a reflection of the earth below in An Exaltation of Larks—almost seems to symbolize the familiar defamiliarization that is the SF writer's dilemma with landscape. Reed has one of the truly original imaginations among the newer generation of SF writers, and his unique vision is often expressed more powerfully in his short fiction than in his novels—so the publication of The Dragons of Springplace, a collection of eleven mostly longish stories, might go a long way toward giving us a sense of Reed's true importance—and toward understanding, in the literal sense, where he is coming from, even though he doesn't offer much friendly help along the way (the collection has no introduction, preface, or individual story notes, presumably in an insistence to let the stories speak for themselves). Such notes might have helped in another way: though many of these stories are individually powerful, the collection seems to lack a clear shape to contextualize the stories—and without this, a lot of Reed's short fiction can be a bit much at once.

But back to the question of Reed's regionalism, if there is any. Nebraska, or course, is mostly famous for having not much of anything in it, and both of the first two stories here feature immense, surrealistic glass plains across which characters must trek in order to gain salvation or obtain important secrets. In "The Dragons of Springplace," the plain is created as part of an elaborate series of barriers to keep distant future generations from inadvertently unearthing nuclear waste; in"Waging Good," the plain is created on the moon as the result of weapons used in a war between the moon and the earth. A glass plain is a pretty wonderful image, but is it a psychic reduction of NORAD Nebraska, almost empty but still a potential target for nuclear destruction? By the time we get to the collection's third story, we're on much firmer geographic ground: "To Church with Mr. Multhiford" is literally about cornfields, about the crop ring hoaxes, about a farmer weirdly obsessed with corn, and about what corn itself seems to be thinking about—all without a single overt echo of Jesse Weston or Sir James Frazer. It is, perhaps, the book's one semi-official Nebraska story, and it does achieve a genuine and convincing sense of place. That same sense of place comes through in "The Shape of Everything," in which an aging astronomer—famous for his insight that the universe's largest structures appear to be the work of a vast, primordial intelligence—recalls a boyhood experience at summer camp that helped lead to his inspiration.

One of the reasons I believe Reed is a bit more successful in shorter forms is that it permits him greater focus, fewer narrative compromises, and less unwieldy plots. "The Utility Man," with its apparently autobiographical elements, is a simple and unpretentious story about community, and about how a maladjusted outsider in a factory, hoping to befriend aliens who begin working there, learns that he's pretty boring to them, too. Reed's aliens often seem to serve as such a test of character for human protagonists: in "Decency," a Marine guard who serves time in prison for the mercy killing of a suffering alien is later honored by the alien's advanced civilization for this single act of compassion. "Stride" is a story about running—and in fact may be the best SF story to date about running—because of its single-mindedness, the authenticity of its voice, and the almost understated use of its central SF conceit: a not-quite-human stranger from an alternate universe who challenges an aging runner to a near-mythic combat.

Reed is at his best, though, in the sort of large-concept novellas with characters and backstories complex enough to imply a whole novel. The real high points of the collection are the title story, in which the life of a rather unsympathetic sociopath named Daniel Costas is dominated by a huge nuclear waste disposal area—the glass plain mentioned above—which becomes a kind of epic landscape populated by genetically engineered guard dragons, human forms frozen in postures of agony, and a "Luddite zone" where technology won't work. (Since SF writers have actually been consulted on the problem of long-term nuclear waste disposal, one wonders what the reaction might have been had Reed shared his ideas at some seminar of NRC bureaucrats.) "Waging Good" is also about a rebellious figure—a young woman returning to the moon after spending years in exile on earth for having destroyed the last surviving samples of a species of insect; again what gives the tale resonance is the elaborate backstory of a war between earth and moon, the brief portrayal of the earth as a devastated third-world environment, and the moonscapes altered by the effects of the war. In "Guest of Honor," a society of jaded near-immortals creates "compilation persons"—clones who exist to provide vicarious experiences for the people whose minds are "compiled" in their brains, and whose memories of those experiences are then downloaded to the source personalities at the cost of the compiled person's individual existence.

What is rapidly becoming a trademark setting for Reed's best short fiction is the planet-sized, ancient, multicultural generation starship that shows up in stories like "The Remoras," "Chrysalis," and "Aeon's Child," and very nearly steals the show every time. The vastness of Reed's concept is most clearly laid out in "The Remoras," in which an ancient vessel roughly the size of a hollowed-out Jupiter, abandoned by its alien makers millions of years earlier and capable of carrying several hundred billion passengers, is refurbished into a kind of luxury cruise ship and sent on a half-million-year-long tour of the Milky Way. The Remoras of the title are workers on the ship's hull (hence the title, from the parasitic fish) whose exposure to radiation creates disfigurements and shortens life spans, making them outsiders in the decadent near-immortal culture of the ship's main population. "Aeon's Child," set on a very similar ship if not the same one entirely, tries to one-up its own central concept by introducing into this culture the eponymous child, found in a strange, organically grown spaceship, who turns out to be the offspring of a true "gaean," or planet-wide intelligence named Aeon, whose epic tragedy is that, after spending millions of years learning to communicate with its sister planet, it is stripped of resources by that planet's intelligence, called the Monster. In "Chrysalis," the ship—this time constructed by humans escaping a war some millions of years earlier—is known variously to its human and alien inhabitants as "the Web" or "Heaven," and is ruled judiciously by artificial intelligences called Artisans, one of which befriends a young girl named Sarrie. The plot involves Sarrie's discovery, years later, of human DNA—long thought extinct except for The Ship—on a distant planet of frozen oceans, but the story's truest fantasy may involve Sarrie's first profession as a novelist. Her final novel, we are told, was "an enormous plotless epic; it was consumed, and loved, by every sentient organic." Now there's a concept to boggle the mind—the apotheosis of plotlessness, the ultimate bliss of universal recognition. Alone there in Lincoln, with a Stapledon-sized imagination repeatedly constrained by the exigencies of plot and the limitations of a style often too pedestrian for its subject, Reed must at moments entertain such dreams.

—Gary K. Wolfe, Locus, March 1999


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