Locus Magazine Review

. . . Ian Watson has been playing with [speculations on transcendence, perception, and the nature of consciousness] since the beginning of his career, which just caught the trailing edge of the New Wave back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Watson is best known these days for his involvement in developing a good part of the screen story for Kubrick's A.I. — presumably, the part that comes after the portion based on Brian Aldiss's original story and he hasn't been at all shy about reminding us of this in a series of essays and articles over the past couple of years; he reminds us of it again in the introduction to his new collection The Great Escape, which includes 19 stories originally published between 1995 and 2000. It would be interesting to try to track traces of Watson's sensibility in that film as it finally emerged from Steven Spielberg's shop, especially since on the evidence of the stories here, Watson seems to have as much, if not more, in common with Spielberg than with Kubrick. When he deals with families, for example (as he often does), he sometimes slides into a deeply-felt but mournful kind of sentimentality, such as in "The Last Beast Out of the Box," which concerns an asthmatic girl cured of her affliction after she meets an old woman who teaches her that animals painted on a magical wooden box come to life; as the girl matures, she learns that "people live as long as they're loved." "The Boy Who Lost an Hour, the Girl Who Lost Her Life" begins with a charming conceit — a young boy is terrified that if he fails to set his clock forward during the fall time change he will end up in a separate world from everyone else — but carries its mock-innocent tone a tad too far, and introduces a sad dead girl to boot. In the witty and far less sentimental "A Day Without Dad," aging parents survive after their bodies are gone by co-inhabiting the brains of various family members. But perhaps the most fully-realized of these family tales is "The China Cottage," in which the discovery of a piece of cheap Japanese china in the home of the protagonist's late mother leads to a years-long quest for more such chinaware, which becomes as well a quest for the lost parent.

In a more formalistic sense, the collection also finds Watson exploring various ways of recombining genre materials. "Three-Legged Dog" is a kind of murder mystery/VR/ghost story, in which a poet killed in a car crash posthumously discovers that her husband rehearsed the crash with computer simulations in order to murder her — but now her mind has been somehow uploaded into the "instrumentality," permitting her to haunt him. In "The Shape of Murder," one of the two most comical pieces in the book, a Poirot-style detective solves a complex crime aboard a spaceship. The vampire tale gets a culinary twist in "My Vampire Cake," in which a pastry chef is commissioned to create a cake for a centuries-old vampire who, having been killed by drowning in chocolate, lusts not after blood so much as a good dessert. The urban legend, which by now has been so consistently borrowed by horror writers as to constitute a fictional subgenre by itself, provides the basis for "Tulips from Amsterdam," in which a young woman named Tulip recounts to a professor a horror tale involving Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson in which she herself — not a friend of a friend — is the protagonist. Legendary material of a different sort shapes "The Amber Room," an odd but startlingly inventive tale in which a hang glider searches the Carpathians for a legendary room, once the property of Peter the Great, made entirely of amber. And the homunculus tale gets a nanotech treatment in "Nanunculus," a tale of intelligent nanobots that doesn't really go much further than what its title implies. Finally, there's even a touch of theological fantasy in "The Great Escape," which takes place among angels working in Hell, and in "Such Dedication," in which a narrator believing himself to be the brother of Jesus volunteers for an interstellar flight, only to face a jarring self-discovery at the end.

Of the remaining stories, "What Actually Happened in Docklands" is something of an anomaly, a comical roman clef set in what is clearly the 1997 World Fantasy Convention in London, featuring almost aggressively transparent caricatures of a well-known English/Canadian critic and a major British fantasy writer. The tale is slight, but adds to the small but growing number of con narratives (which someone will no doubt unnecessarily anthologize one of these days) and helps to re-establish Watson's longstanding links to the SF community. But there's enough solid SF in the book to do this anyway: "Ferryman" is a darkly witty alien-contact tale in which most of the aliens are already dead and in coffins (the title refers to the space workers who transport the coffins to a "graveyard"), and "When Thought-Mail Failed" begins by echoing Forster's "The Machine Stops" by depicting a future in which solar flares disrupt the worldwide net that connects everyone's mind, forcing them to learn again how to communicate face-to-face. (The narrator, in an interesting twist, finds an unexpected way to take advantage of this situation.) "Caucus Winter" begins with a promising dystopian premise — American white supremacists get hold of a quantum computer which enables them to take over communications and weapons systems worldwide — but ends with a rather facile Forbin Project denouement.

Still, this tale of emergent AI reflects Watson's ongoing preoccupation with transformations of consciousness, a theme that is reflected even more directly in "Ahead!" in which humans who opt for potential immortality by having their heads severed and preserved find themselves inheriting a lifeless world transformed by nanotech into a featureless sphere dotted with monuments, and who seek a new kind of life among the stars. It's one of the most imagistically powerful stories in the book, recalling the vivid surrealism of such earlier Watson tales as "Slow Birds" and The Garden of Earthly Delights. A similar effect is achieved in "Early, in the Evening," an almost Lafferty-like tale in which each day recapitulates 800 years of history, with medieval foraging in the mornings, industrialization in the afternoons, and TV at night. With these tales we begin to get a sense of what has long made Watson's imagination unique in the field, and of the power of his visual imagery. But the most profound tale of transformed consciousness in the book hardly features any such imagistic bells and whistles at all: "The Descent" is a deceptively quiet tale in which a comet grazes the Earth, causing no particular physical change but awakening the population to some inchoate change in their perceptions (no one dreams anymore, for example) that seems to portend something vast and numinous. Understated but sharply observed, the story is enough to suggest that what Watson may be really seeking to portray, despite his acerbic treatments of religion and religious belief, is some sort of grace.

— Gary K. Wolfe, Locus, May 2002


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