reviewed by Zeke Teflon
Well, this is a first: I’m more enthusiastic about the front matter of a book than its contents. (This is not a slam on the stories in the book; it’s just a comment regarding how much I enjoyed Brin’s introductory essay.) More often than not, I skip the front matter, especially in sci-fi books, but in this case the title of Brin’s preface, “The Heresy of Science Fiction,” hooked me. As I read it, I found myself repeatedly muttering “Yes!” as Brin made one cogent point after another.
Here’s an example:
By far dominant in nearly all human societies has been a Look Back attitude . . . a nostalgic belief that the past contained at least one shining moment — or Golden Age — when people and their endeavors were better than today. . . . You find this thim in everything from the Bible to Tolkien to Crichton — a dour reflex that views change as synonymous with deterioration. The grouchiness of grandpas who proclaim that everything — even folks — had been finer in the past.
Compare this attitude to the uppity Look Ahead zeitgeist: That humanity is on a rough and difficult, but ultimately rewarding upward path. That past utopias were fables. That any utopias lie ahead of us, to be achieved . . .
[Science fiction] retains this notion. That it is possible — perhaps just barely — that our brightest days may lie ahead. Indeed, that is science fiction’s greatest trait, distinguishing it from almost all others genres. . . .
The new type of [science fiction] tragedy — a cautionary tale — may change your future decisions. . . . As millions who read Nineteen Eighty-Four vowed to fight Big Brother, and other millions who watched Soylent Green became fervent environmentalists.
In contrast, what is the implicit assumption in most fantasy tales, novels and films? Apparently, the form of government that ruled most human societies since the discovery of grain must always govern us. Royalty and lordly families. Priestly castes and solitary, secret, mages . . . the roll call of standarde characters going back at least four thousand years. . . .
But for all the courage and heroism shown by fantasy characters . . . what has happened by the end of these stories? Good may have triumphed over evil and the land’s people may be happier under Aragorn than they would have been under Sauron. But “under” is their only choice.
It would be easy to quote further illuminating passages, but I won’t — go out, buy this book, and read Brin’s essay.
The stories in Insistence of Vision cover a wide range chronologically, in form, and in subject matter. One commonality in almost all of them, though, is that they’re intended to make the reader think, not just put his or her mind in neutral and enjoy a good but pointless tale (such sci-fi tales being all too common).
Regarding content, the stories range from a claustrophobic tale of undersea dwellers surviving an alien invasion (“The Tumbledown of Cleopatra Abyss”), to a more optimistic “mash-up” (a cringe-inducing term, best avoided) retelling of War of the Worlds written in the style of Jules Verne. To an overtly political story about resistance to illegitimate authority, “Eloquent Elepents Pine Away for the Moon’s Crystal Forests.” As with almost all short story collections, the quality of the stories varies from high points such as “Eloquent Elepants” to a few others which could have been omitted with no loss, such as the cautionary tale about Von Neumann machines — a topic beaten to death decades ago.
But the high points are very real. Fans of Brin’s Uplift trilogies will be overjoyed that Brin has returned to that “universe” with a new novella, “The Other Side of the Hill,” that takes up where the final book of the second trilogy leaves off. In his comments following the piece, Brin hints that there’s more to come. One can only hope so.
One rather strange feature of Insistence of Vicion is that there’s no price printed on the back cover nor on the top of the front inside cover flap. This seems rather self-defeating, as most potential buyers will likely be put off by the lack of a visible cover price. (I was able to discern the price only because I know how to read the numbers above the bar code.)
Another strange feature is that there’s no list near the front of the book of where and when the stories originally appeared. This is a minor oddity, but it is odd.
Still, all things considered, I haven’t enjoyed a book of short stories by a single author so much since I read Terry Bisson’s collection, TVA Baby.
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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on both its sequel and an unrelated sci-fi novel.