Remaking History and Other Stories

Kim Stanley Robinson is another author I like and haven’t read enough of.

So, I’ll continue the alternate history series with this collection.

I do have to say I put Robinson, definitely a political author, in the aesthetically pleasing, politically suspect category.

In the very unlikely (but not totally impossible) event that aliens nominate Robinson and me to come up with a constitution for global governance or the human race will be rendered extinct …. well, best to put your affairs in order if that happens.

Raw Feed (1998): Remaking History and Other Stories, Kim Stanley Robinson, 1991.remaking-history

Venice Drowned” — I’ve gotten the impression reading Robinson’s short stories, that if he could dispense with a plot, he would. This story confirms that opinion. It’s little more than a landscape story; here the landscape is a Venice even more submerged (after a great storm in 2040) than in our time. It’s a landscape being looted by rich tourists. This idea is an old one. It goes back to the first sf appearance of the Statue of Liberty and was better done (without the looting) in Norman Spinrad’s “The Lost Continent”. The plot doesn’t really go very far. At one point, Robinson seems to want to do a ghost story but steps back from that idea.

Mercurial” — This is a fun sf takeoff of Sherlock Holmes, featuring tall, Nordic Freya Grindavik as a decidedly amoral Holmes (though Holmes also was not above letting murderers go, though out of a sense of higher justice) solving the murder of one Malvolio Musgrave, who, like the eponymous character of Arthur Conan Doyle Holmes’ story “The Musgrave Ritual”, is a scheming, dishonest employee who meets his end on Mercury. The narrator is the unwilling crime solver Nathaniel who doesn’t appreciate Grindavik’s amorality. The case involves Mercury’s art world where original artists are oppressed by the weight of the past, and collecting the treasures of Earth is the rage. A clever art dealer figures out a way of passing off his own brilliant work as long lost Earth work – or, more accurately, he alters records to create the illusion his artworks were created by great Earth artists. Philip K. Dick scholar Robinson has a Dickian moment of his own (and makes a good point that reminds me of the discussion of historicity in Dick’s The Man in the High Castle) when Nathaniel protests that a beautiful painting isn’t a Claude Monet original. “So what” responds Freya. Robinson makes the valid point that beauty is beauty no matter the source. The forger is exiled to Pluto where he can create his own works free from the distractions of Mercury’s snobbish classicism. The marvelous city moving with Mercury’s terminator featured in Robinson’s Blue Mars makes its first appearance here though the stories are not set in the same universe.

Ridge Running” — Little more than an excuse to write landscape descriptions of the Sierra Nevadas. This story’s thin plot seems to rest on three old friends reasserting their old bonds on a hike. One is worried his work as a lawyer has made him physically weak. Another is recovering from a brain injury (the exact method of the recovery is what give this story its thin sf element).

The Disguise” — As a fan of Jacobean drama, I appreciated this story (perhaps written after Robinson, a doctorate of English, studied Jacobean drama?) with its sly take on the trappings of the genre: incest, revenge, and disguise perfunctory but peculiarly opaque to detection. Setting a murder mystery and hunt for a psychopath during the production of a newly discovered play (which gives Robinson a chance to sketch the plot and produce a few faux lines of Jacobean verse) was a neat idea. While this story was pretty tightly plotted, for Robinson, its ending was not totally unexpected (on the other hand I thought maybe it would turn out that the director had planted the narrator’s paranoia to give an authentic emotional underpinning to the story so I suppose he fooled me) and not really convincingly rationalized since the nature of memory implants and how they worked was not adequately explained. Still, the setting and plot interested me a lot.

The Lucky Strike” — An interesting alternate history that, unlike most short stories of the sub-genre, not only shows the moment history changed (in the mind of the Enola Gay’s pilot, Colonel Tibbets before he can drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima) and the effect of that change but also the effect one man’s actions can have on the chaos of history. I don’t like or believe Robinson’s postulate about how the events of his story would change history: Dewey is elected, the Korean War averted, an international test on nuclear weapons is passed and then nuclear disarmament occurs. Such seems implausible given human nature and national ambitions, particularly Soviet ambitions. I’m not sure I even believe Japan would have surrendered without the sudden death and destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But I did appreciate the moral struggle that protagonist Captain January undergoes before sabotaging, as bombardier, the A-bomb drop on Hiroshima. The moral questions he contemplates as an imaginative man are valid and serious. (Robinson, as a self-described “green socialist” likes Franklin Roosevelt but despises Truman). I just come to different conclusion. One nice thing about it is that it shows the hypocrisy and thoughtlessness of the scientists. January thinks his disobedience will be supported by the men who most know what the bomb is capable of doing to people. He is wrong. They refuse to acknowledge their culpability instead leaving the decision up to others. (Some of the Trinity scientists, in interviews I’ve seen, seem to have not thought about the Bomb’s use or that it was only ok to drop it on Nazis.) January, as the man responsible for precisely dropping the Bomb, refuses to participate. A good alternate history that does all that can be expected in the short form.

Coming Back to Dixieland” — A not very well-paced or suspenseful story (we pretty much know the Hot Six will win the grant), and the story of miners being exploited by an evil corporation was implausibly antique and reminiscent of Robinson’s socialism. Still, since I don’t play any musical instruments or even know the language of music, I liked the alien reverie of musicians performing.

Stone Eggs” — A pointless story that, I suppose, was inspired by Robinson’s study of Phillip K. Dick. Here a runaway discovers a desert group of androids.

Black Air” — An historical fantasy set during the Spanish Armada. There seems to be some sort of heretical Christianity going on. I thought it was the Alumbradis but, researching the matter, I found it wasn’t.

The Part of Us that Loves” — A philosophic speculation on Christianity and miracles. A teenage girl and her friends ponder the account of Christ in the New Testament. Was he an alien? Are the stories true? (They are residents of Zion, Illinois, a Christian utopian community – Robinson has a fascination for utopian thought as befits a socialist – founded pretty much as claimed in the story in 1901.) A band concert threatened by vandalism is recovered in what may be a miracle or coincidence or a vindication of the faith the students place in their bandleader and religious instructor. It’s an odd story in construction and theme for sf. I wonder if the conclusion that Christ represents the best of us, “the part of us that loves”, stands for Robinson’s religious beliefs. The story ends with a two paragraph quote from the gospels.

The Translator” — Humorous story about a storekeeper and part time translator on a thinly settled planet averting, through bluff, lies, and deliberate mistranslation, a war between two alien races that threatens to destroy the surface of the world he lives on. Robinson does a good job creating incomprehensible alien dialogue and presenting the problems of translation.

Before I Wake” — Robinson takes the notion that the three mental states we spend our lives in – consciousness, sleep, and dreaming – are mysterious. Earth enters a new electromagnetic environment in space and the electrochemical processes of our brains are upset. People begin to spend ever more time in waking dreams. The story involves a group of researchers try to find a cure for this plague of dreaming which is destroying civilization, specifically a helmet that will negate the effects of the new electromagnetic surrounding Earth. One researcher, Winston, seems too sanguine about man’s ability to adapt to this new state, a view somewhat belied by buried cities and traffic accidents. At one point, he even argues superstitions beliefs about dreams transporting us literally to other worlds are true, that we live more fully in dreams. However, protagonist Abernathy, begins to agree with the notion that his life is more fully engaged in dreams, and he destroys Winston’s device to negate the new electromagnetic fields. Or, at least, that’s how I interpret this story which is marred by an ambiguous ending when Abernathy’s final deed may just be a dream prior to dying.

A History of the Twentieth Century, with Illustrations” — One of my all time favorite Robinson stories in which he combines the two areas he excels at: philosophizing about the study and meaning of history and the travelogue. Here the history is of the Orkney islands from prehistoric ruins to the 20th Century. (Robinson would make a fine travel writer if he abandons fiction. This story really isn’t, despite it’s initial appearance, in a shorter form, in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, science fiction, but, like Pamela Zoline’s “The Heat Death of the Universe”, it gains power by being read in the context of sf. Robinson opens the story with an epigram from Virginia Woolf questioning where truth can be found if not on the “shelves of the British Museum”. The point seems to be that history has truths to teach us. Robinson’s depressed narrator, commissioned to do a coffee table history of the 20th Century finds hope in the long history still evident in the Orknies’ landscape. Mankind will survive and thrive. The last two lines of the story, “He wrote, ‘I believe that man is good. I believe we stand at the dawn of a century that will be more peaceful and prosperous than any in history.’ Outside it was dark, and the wind howled.”, could be ironic given the bleakness of the 20th century detailed in the story. But I don’t think so. A socialist like Robinson has to be optimistic to genuinely think people are good. The story seems to say Man will endure, will thrive despite the seeming darkness around us, that we must face the future with optimism.

Remaking History” — A witty, enjoyable alternate history whose turning point is the political survival of Jimmy Carter after a successful mission to rescue the hostages in Teheran and the physical survival of John Lennon after his, here, attempted assassination. The story uses the movie recreation of the rescue raid to argue the old historiographical debate about whether history is the product of great men or collective social phenomena. Robinson argues that great leaders are important but that it is the collective actions of the masses that make them leaders; indeed, sometimes it is their seemingly trivial actions which make the very survival of those leaders possible (the example is given of the woman who saves John Lennon’s life). Robinson also points out that fictional characters can influence our actions as much as real leaders.

Vinland the Dream” — One of my favorite alternate histories. I like the idea of a many faceted hoax perpetrated by an anonymous party in the 19th Century to convince us the Vikings settled, briefly, North America. Robinson masterfully commands his literary, historical, and archaeological details However, I disagree with Robinson when he seems to endorse the notion that we should “judge all the stories from history” by “how much they spur our imagination” and not whether they’re true. (An argument sometimes used by religious apologists.)

Rainbow Bridge” —  I wonder how much of this fantasy involving a California suburban teenager visiting a Navaho reservation is semi-autobiographical. The story is an interesting travelogue but doesn’t have a really engaging plot. The fantasy element comes in with an Indian man that befriends the narrator and who may be a shaman.

Muir on Shasta” — This story reminded me of Petrarch’s famous voyage up a mountain. This story, the account of John Muir and a companion surviving a blizzard while descending Mt. Shasta, is also full of philosophical ruminations about being an atom in God’s body and existing in the thin zone between extremes. It was an exciting, thoughtful tale. There are no obvious fantasy elements so, unless it’s an alternate history (I don’t know much about Muir’s life), it’s not sf but then this is an author collection, and Robinson can include realistic fiction if he wants.

Glacier” — This story is based on the notion that even apocalyptic happenings can seem quite normal to a small child. Here the world is in a new ice age, the glaciers advancing south through America. Robinson has a thing for cold settings, one reason I like him.

A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions” — This is less a story than a philosophical essay, a collection of alternate histories (all centering around whether Hiroshima gets nuked in WWII), and an oblique sequel of sorts to Robinson’s “The Lucky Strike”. It’s also, in its way, the purest distillation of Robinson’s fictional concerns I’ve come across. It has virtually no plot and concerns itself with whether history can be studied like a science, whether it has laws. As in his Mars trilogy, Robinson borrows metaphors from physics (here quantum, chaotic, and particle) to examine history through a series of alternate histories. The great man–historical materialism debate is seen in light of particle wave theory. Chaos influences events. Perhaps history, though, revolves around laws that act like strange attractors. Ultimately, Robinson seems to opt for the moral and practical conclusion that we must act morally (he doesn’t regard nuking Hiroshima as moral.) and not pay a mind to chaos’ sensitivity to initial conditions we can’t know.

Down and Out in the Year 2000” — Slight story about poor people surviving in turn of the century Washington, DC.

Our Town” — This story reminded me a little of fellow socialist H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Both depict societies divided into two classes whose position in space depicts their position in the hierarchy. Instead of Eloi, Robinson has people engaged in a very long term project at literally undermining the pedestal arcologies where the rich artists, the protagonists of the story, live. Another interesting bit of class exploitation are the “living ectogenes”, human lifeforms manipulated physically, mentally, and emotionally to achieve the desire tableaux in a force field sculpture. One artist starts a scandalous relationship with an ectogene, normally regarded as disposable, and then parachutes off the arcologies to join the subversives below.

A Transect” — This story uses the interesting (and initially confusing) and simple technique of varying its two viewpoint characters without warning. The plot involves two people taking a train trip home. One is a disgruntled, unhappy paper salesman returning home from Montreal. The other is a black South African returning from detention after five years. Robinson does his usually good job of travelogue details in describing the journeys through America and South Africa and in characterization. Still, the point, besides the trite one that the American’s problems are nothing compared to Pieter’s, that his blessings are much greater, is not obvious.

The Lunatics” — This is even more implausible than Robinson’s similarly themed “Coming Back to Dixieland”. Both stories involve miners implausibly exploited (a la bad sf of the 50s) by ruthless corporations. Here, miners (convicts mindwiped) mine Promethium, one of those valuable, made up elements sf does now and then. It is a source of power for Earth civilization and mined in the complete blackness (that is quite improbable) of Luna’s interior. The Substance may be the nervous system of a lunar consciousness. A band of miner’s transforms themselves with the substance, go rogue, and literally undermine (more class struggle with metaphor made literal like Robinson’s “Our Town”) the rich civilization on the surface.

Zurich” — A travelogue of Zurich with magical realism thrown (white represents Swiss purity and order and, at story’s end, Zurich goes all white.) The best part of the story is efforts by the American narrator’s effort to get his apartment absolutely spotless for his landlord’s inspector.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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