Tor.com, August 2017
“The Martian in the Wood” by Stephen Baxter
Reviewed by Bob Blough
Tor.com for August begins with a delightful novelette by Stephen Baxter. Its genesis is recondite to say the least. Mr. Baxter has just published a sequel to H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds called The Massacre of Mankind. He has done this previously for another Wells novel – The Time Machine – producing The Time Ships, which is one of his finest novels. So this novelette, “A Martian in the Wood” is a part of the universe created for his new novel. Then the story is dedicated to another British author named Robert Holdstock whose literary legacy rests mostly on some glorious fantasy novels begun with The Mythago Wood. Mythago Wood is a wood in England untouched by time where fantastic events and archetypal figures appear. Baxter puts these two authors worlds together in a beautifully written pastiche.
In the story, the Martians have retreated from Earth but one has been seen in Holmburgh Wood by the heroine. Her brother has become obsessed with the woods and this fixation causes problems within the manor home and the surrounding villagers. Walter Jenkins (the narrator of The War of the Worlds) is asked to help and what they find is mind boggling. The story is literate–never missing a note in writing in the style of the time. The science is kept to what people in the early 20th century believed and all is explained quite marvelously.
The next novelette could not be more different. It is a new story by Greg Egan called “Uncanny Valley.” This is up-to-the minute SF just a pinch ahead of us at this time. Adam has been constructed as a second body for a dying screenwriter named Morris. He looks about 70% like Morris and has about the same amount of Morris’s memories and life skills implanted within him. When Morris dies and gives 100% of what he owns to this construct the children and grandchildren decide to fight it. These constructs are not considered to be people by the law so they have a good case. Adam is not so concerned with the money but he comes to realize that he does not have Morris’s talent for writing screenplays that would keep him alive. When he discovers that Morris deliberately hid a whole section of memories from him, he determines to find out what those memories are. In so doing we have the story. Adam is a personable and empathetic character. The tech is interesting and the human reason behind the hiding of these certain memories is very moving. This is excellent SF.
The fantasy story “The Library of Lost Things by Matthew Bright is a quite interesting take on the library that holds all the forgotten, lost and various drafts of books the world does not know. Thomas Hardy applies for the job as an indexer with a truly Dickensian character known simply as the Librarian and gets it because he presents himself as an unremarkable, uncurious person. He is not that at all, and what goes on in the library behind the back of the Librarian is a fascinating little tale involving Jean Genet, poems, and the various collectors of these lost works. Very nicely observed.
Kai Ashante Wilson has quickly become one of those authors that I must read. He has a different way of seeing things that he so precisely describes that I am able to truly see, in some ways, as he does. He writes from an anger that can be banked or let off its leash. The anger in “The Lamentation of Their Women” is frightening, in your face terrifying. It concerns the lives of black people in America and while it is a fantasy it is a crying out to all of us to see the truth as he presents it. It is the grim story of two people ensorcelled by ancient evil who begin a killing spree against the white cops of New York. This quote is the best way to relate some of the powerful writing in this novelette: “Why is it always us gotta have the sad story? Let me see some badass niggas who get away with nothing but stone cold murders. Then let me see some whitemamas and whitewives, cameras all up in they face weeping and wailing outside the church.” (Italics are the author’s.)
This is an agenda piece, but the characters are so truthfully written, the anger is so honest and deep that it gets past the agenda and reaches into the reader in a way that we are forced to look. It is not at all a pleasant read, but it is, I feel, an important one.
Cory Doctorow has an agenda too. He wants us to see what the status quo in this country is doing to the working class. In “Party Discipline” two besties are about to graduate from high school. The world is minutes ahead of our own and has continued along the lines of the moment–politically, economically and racially. Technology is better than it was but the rest is worse. Lenae and Shirelle decide to hold an illegal communist party. In this future, a communist party is an actual party with booze and dancing while the workers of a forced bankruptcy foreclosing hijack the foreclosed plant and use all the machines and remaining stock to create something needed by the less fortunate while having a rockin’ party! The plot follows from that.
I must admit that early Doctorow I like quite a bit (read Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town) but in the past 10 years or so I find his agenda getting in the way of his writing. In his early works he was a story-teller with an agenda and now he is an agenda holder within the semblance of story. If the story carried any sort of visceral punch, of anger or social justice (as in the Ashante story above) it would work as a story. Now it is a think piece. I know many will love this story and it may be chosen for some best of the year anthologies but even if I agree with the sermon, preaching is still preaching.