Zebrowski, George. Swift Thoughts, Introduction by Gregory Benford. Urbana, IL: Golden Gryphon Press, 2002. 311 pages, cloth, $24.95. ISBN: 1- 930846-08-8.
Lecturing a glassy-eyed class, "the old sci-fi writer" proclaims that "[f]or most of human history our tales were about what was, and what is. A genuine state- change, a quantum leap, occurred when we began to story-up about what might be." The important question, he argues, "is what should we become" (300). In this thoughtful and engaging collection of stories, George Zebrowski uses a variety of familiar SF tropes — first contact, Artificial Intelligence, cloning, alternative history, postapocalypse — to explore the pressures that our pasts bring to bear on our futures. His narrative styles are wide-ranging; the collection includes bitter humor, horror building gradually, exposition punctuated by fantastic images, and philosophic inquiry that supports rather than occludes engaging story telling. At the heart of most of these stories lies a passionate conviction that achieving a truly promising future depends upon an honest, if painful, confrontation with the past.
In his introduction to the collection, Gregory Benford calls George Zebrowski "our most European science fiction writer," and identifies Stanislaw Lem as his chief literary influence (ix). Perhaps this helps explain Zebrowski's interest in the legacies of history, rare in mainstream American culture. In a commentary following the alternative history "Lenin in Odessa," Zebrowski laments that an early reviewer couldn't recognize the ways in which Josef Stalin's narrative of his efforts to help a British agent assassinate Lenin diverts from Russian history. Like "The Number of the Sand" and "Let Time Shape," two stories connected with his 1998 novel Brute Orbits, "Lenin in Odessa" explores the ways changes in significant episodes might affect broader history, with rather chilling conclusions. In "The Eichmann Variations," a finalist for the Nebula in 1984, the architect of Hitler's "final solution" watches as Israel systematically executes ten clones an hour, building the count toward six million. A spokesman admits that Eichmann's guilt "cannot be duplicated, but it is passed on. The new generations of Germans are not guilty, but they inherit past crimes socially, like it or not" (28).
For Zebrowski, this motif is not merely a political one; he is clearly interested in the very personal and private tensions evoked as his characters are forced to apprehend their pasts. I found "In the Distance, and Ahead in Time" to be particularly compelling. A brother and sister living in an outpost colony precariously perched amid a jungle planet are given the opportunity to leave their hardscrabble existence to voyage among the stars. The human presence on this planet is a threat to incipient intelligence, but for Alan, the brother, the invitation to join the spacefarers constitutes a denial of all the work and all the suffering that has gone into the foundation of the colony. Realizing that his sister Gemma is considering the offer to leave the colony, Alan asserts "[y]ou just don't care about all the effort that's gone into this place. [...] You don't care for the hard work I'm putting in, or your own ... and you don't care that you're wasting the lives of our parents and grandparents" (202). If the story ultimately endorses Gemma's decision to leave the colony as a positive assertion of responsibility and hope, it is also honest enough to be sensitive to her bittersweet memories of "the thousands of jars of preserves she had set up over the years, the countless meals she had cooked" (214) and the pain she feels leaving her brother behind.
Perhaps the most entertaining appearance of this motif comes in "Stooges," in which Curly Howard reappears on earth, first as a single manifestation and then in destructive multitudes. What better way for aliens to make contact than by materializing a representative, plucked from television data beamed out from earth? The image of Carl Sagan and Robert Jastrow masquerading as Moe and Larry to facilitate Curly's appearance on Carson's Tonight Show is simply delightful. The inclusion of Sagan here may be a reference to a similar device in Contact, in which alien signals return an early television broadcast of Hitler; surely Curly Howard would be the preferable representative of early twentieth century history.
As this brief account of a small selection of the stories collected in Swift Thoughts indicates, Zebrowski commands an impressive range of narrative styles. His narrators include Josef Stalin and Adolf Eichmann, immortals confronting those who have chosen to die, and young men choosing their destinies. One criticism may be that Zebrowski's protagonists are almost entirely male. Other than Gemma of "In the Distance, and Ahead in Time," the only other prominent female character of the collection is Mira of "Angie," who is losing her relationship with the AI she has raised from infancy. Only a few other stories feature women in significant roles of any kind.
In contrast with this limitation, one of the chief pleasures of Swift Thoughts is Zebrowski's ability to manipulate point of view and exposition so that the reader is consistently engaged in the character's journey of discovery. "Starcrossed," for example, begins with a familiar SF trope, an interstellar probe with an organic brain, but the process by which MOB discovers identity and even love is graceful and poignant. The stories of the "History Machine" peer over the shoulder of a historian watching the final confrontations of Rome and Carthage across a myriad of realities. "The Last Science Fiction Story of the 20th Century" layers simulations within simulations in a fascinating exploration of the creative tension between getting the details right and true originality. The writer seeks "to write past the event horizon of change! To find a way that no one knew about" while preventing "one's science fiction [from] becoming fantasy by default" (294).
In most of these stories, George Zebrowski manages that tension successfully. Swift Thoughts offers science fiction that is thought-provoking, elegant, and at times haunting. Zebrowski has included brief commentaries following the stories that present engaging insights into the writing process and the lives of the stories.
— Fill Dynes, SFRA Review, #258, May-June 2002