I’m mostly a sceptic of both short stories and short story collections. When reading short science fiction, I can’t help thinking that if the premise were truly worthwhile, the author would have developed it into a novel — or at least a novella. I’m perhaps revealing my own limitations rather than my preferences. Still, I’ve found that the most common descriptions of short story collections are “mixed bag” or “some are duds.” And because every word counts so much more in shorts, the prose too often is so much more… overwrought. Ironic or not, considering that science fiction is often carried by an interesting premise rather than interesting characters, some part of me still insists that its best ideas be delivered as novels.
So I was pleased to realize that Robert Charles Wilson’s The Perseids and Other Stories (2000) is pretty good. As always, Wilson’s writing is clear and concise, more powerful than the sum of its parts, perhaps due to the clever ideas that underpin his stories. In fact, I wouldn’t even describe this collection as a “mixed bag,” and this may be because the stories as a whole suggest that something larger than the individual stories is happening to the Toronto depicted in this collection.
Wilson’s strength as a science fiction novelist seems to be his ability to put “everyman” heroes in the middle of shifts that change the world. His hero in The Chronoliths, Scott, watches as the future invades the present, as does his hero in Last Year, Jesse, come to think of it. These heroes are not interchangeable; Jesse probably couldn’t be the hero of The Chronoliths. Still, Wilson tends to ground his novels with characters who observe the higher powers, the titans, and the geniuses. Here, however, Wilson’s heroes can be very bright but they still are duped. The hero of “The Fields of Abraham” is a linguist and an untrained chess prodigy trying to make ends meet, while the heroes of “The Inner Inner City” are all intellectuals trying to invent a new religion. Nevertheless, none of them understand what’s happening to the Earth, which is broadly being assaulted (or maybe helped in a way that we can’t appreciate?) by creatures beyond our comprehension. These heroes are given glimpses of what is happening, often realizing too late that something is amiss.
In addition to the suggestion of a shared narrative arc in these novels, I also enjoyed reading Canadian fiction set in an urban environment — even if the urban environment is Toronto. Wilson takes a moment to discuss in his afterword that “one of my ambitions was to write stories that reflected the Canadian urban experience, as opposed to extended meditations on ice, tundra, ‘the North,’ and so on.” On the one hand, I felt that even this statement was too grand for a country that once described its identity in this way: “as Canadian as can be expected, given the circumstances.” Then again, it is nice to see Canadian fiction that moves beyond water and trees and rocks. Also, the alien invasion does not always need to be explored from the point of view of New York, and the mirror world does not always have to be entered through a used bookstore in London.
The Perseids and Other Stories was published in July of 2001, though most of the stories included here were published previously in other publications. Wilson’s long-time fans may enjoy looking at how these stories speak to his other novels. The lobster creatures in “Divided By Infinity” recall the aliens in Blind Lake, the mysterious and incomprehensible aliens made of light in “The Perseids” recall the Hypotheticals in Spin, and the demons and angels that appear in “Plato’s Mirror” recall the creepy aliens in Darwinia. “Fields of Abraham” is set in the distant past, much like Last Year and Julian Comstock (note that the latter is technically set in a future that recalls the 19th century).
I’d still recommend most of Robert Charles Wilson’s novels ahead of this collection of short fiction, especially Spin, The Chronoliths, and The Affinities, but much of it is as strong as Blind Lake. For what it’s worth, my favourites here were “The Fields of Abraham,” “The Perseids,” “The Inner Inner City,” and “Ulysses Sees The Moon in the Bedroom Window.”