Odd little collection, this. I’m quite a fan of Kim Stanley Robinson. Like just about everyone else I know I’ve got those durned Mars books and I’ve wound my way through The Years of Rice and Salt, and there’s even a well thumbed and well loved copy of Escape From Kathmandu perched high on my ‘faves’ bookshelf, so I almost felt guilty whilst reading the first part of this anthology because, well, I didn’t really like it, you see.
Not only that, but I couldn’t really tell you why I didn’t like it. The stories were okay, but really, that was all. Okay. For a bloke whose work over the last decade or so has been a triumph of complexity the stories in this anthology seemed kind of simple. This isn’t to say that there were any duds amongst them, but as good as they were they felt like finger exercises done before the day’s ‘real’ work. It wasn’t until I got halfway through and ran across a story I’d read a couple of weeks beforehand while relaxing with a copy of an old Terry Carr-edited Universe anthology that I realised my mistake.
This ain’t a new book kids, it’s a re-release. It’s a Frankensteinian sewing together of two previous anthologies, 1991’s Remaking History and 1986’s The Planet On The Table, given new skin and a good dose of lightning to the bolts in its neck. The stories within stretch back as far as 1976.
If you were a David Bowie fan, how would you feel if you came across a bunch of old David Jones songs packaged as a brand new album? Or what if that Mariah Cary album turned out to be a Miami Sound Machine re-release? Okay, maybe that’s a bad example, but ask yourself this: is there any reason (not involving cashing in) that you can think of which would explain why Voyager would take two anthologies over a decade old and re-release them as a new book? Me neither.
That’s not to say the stories in the collection are bad. They’re not. Robinson has always been a good writer. It’s just that compared to the level he’s working at now, a story like “The Disguise,” written way back in 1977, stands as less of an indicator of current ability than a curio: look at what he was doing all those years ago. And while some of the stories are still strong (“Black Air” is an example, published in 1983), others have suffered with time and there are a couple, the title story included, that are so ephemerally speculative that they feel out of place and trip the reader up. There is an expectation of content that is not fulfilled.
That said, there are enough Robinson trademarks to make the anthology worthwhile as long as you realise that what you have in your hands is an historical document and not a new work. What has made Robinson stand apart from most of his contemporaries is his ability to write complex characters, and there are stories in here that display that power in concentrated form. The title story is one such, in fact it is little more: as I’ve noted above it’s speculative content is slight. Another powerful piece is the story “The Lucky Strike” from back in 1984. An alternative history of the dropping of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, it’s resonance lies not in the acts but in the powerful and contradictory emotions experienced by the crew of the back-up bomber Lucky Strike, thrown into the limelight when the Enola Gay and it’s crew is killed in a training run. Other standouts include “Black Air,” set in the time of the Spanish Armada, and “Venice Drowned,” a speculation on the future of great art in a post-disaster future.
Still, it’s hard to escape the feeling that what you are reading are vignettes of a greater talent yet to come. Overall the book is a curate’s egg, and less of a ‘Best Of’ collection than a primer toward the work that has made Robinson’s reputation. If Voyager had really wanted to release a truly enjoyable selection of his shorter, older works I’d have been happier if they’d released a new version of “Escape From Kathmandu:” my copy’s nearly knackered.