The Washington Post
Book World Review

The "I" Factor

Ian Watson's ninth short-story collection, The Great Escape (Golden Gryphon, $23.95), reveals an author with a decidedly Anglo-European flair and signature style. His stories exhibit a cosmopolitanism, maturity, wit and existential depth not often associated with American writers who have emerged — however belatedly and distantly — from a pulp tradition. Reading Watson, one is put in mind of other sophisticated, quintessentially British writers such as Brian Aldiss, Christopher Priest and Keith Roberts, infused with a tincture of Stanislaw Lem.

Yet Watson's skills and affection for the virtues of the American mode of sf are such that he can pull off a pretty convincing Robert Heinlein-John Varley pastiche, as in "Ferryman," which tells of the heroic members of the Space Navy who guard our Solar System against an endless stream of invaders. But here's Watson's sly twist: The invaders are a fleet of alien coffins, aimed at our star for religious reasons!

Watson's introduction lays out his affection for strangeness over reassurance in fiction, and states several preferred theses and motifs, which duly show up in the stories (not, however, in a programmatic fashion, for Watson is above all concerned with narrative integrity, not didactic moralizing). Unsurprisingly for someone who worked hand-in-glove with Stanley Kubrick on the story of the film A.I., several of Watson's stories — "Three-Legged Dog," "Caucus Winter" and "Nanuculus" — focus on the exaltations and traps of artificial intelligence. But Watson is also a dab hand at pure fantasy, whether its's the cozy "The Last Beast Out of the Box" (which tells of the mentoring between an elderly female artist and a prodigious youngster) or the Miltonically majestic title piece (which takes place in Hell as the inferno undergoes a revolution).

Moreover, Watson is a laughing trickster. Try reading "What Actually Happened in Docklands" without chortling — particularly when you encounter the author's caricatures of various real-life sf personages (most centrally critic John Clute) battling an extradimensional incursion. "My Vampire Cake," about a vampire with a sweet tooth, boasts its share of chuckles as well. A large theme in this collection is the insubstantiality of the ego, the unreality of the construction each person labels "I." "Essentially memories are fictions," thinks the protagonist of "The Amber Room." But if your memories were as sharply composed and as engaging as Watson's stories, you'd be lucky indeed.

— Paul Di Filippo, Sunday, June 9, 2002, Page BW13

© 2002 The Washington Post Company


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