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The Perseids and Other Stories, Robert Charles Wilson, TOR, 2000, 224 pp.
After many accomplished and expertly-written novels, Wilson gifts us with a collection of short stories. Like his most recent novel, Bios, The Perseids and Other Stories is a slim volume but what it lacks in physical heft it possesses in all of the traits that matter. Well-written, witty, and centred on characters that are interesting and real -- this collection is a treat.
The Perseids and Other Stories opens with "The Fields of Abraham," a story set in the lives of immigrants in Toronto in 1911. Jacob makes his money teaching English to other, more-recent immigrants, and chess to anyone who wants to learn from him. But he is hard up for money and he has to take care of his sister Rachel, who has schizophrenia. No one in the time period knows how to properly identify Rachel's difficulty -- the diagnosis comes from Jacob's friend, Oscar Ziegler, who owns a bookstore and who has knowledge of many extraordinary things. The trope of the mysterious and/or powerful bookstore is one of the most over-used in the genre, but Wilson manages to put a fresh spin on it due to the plight of the characters.
"The Perseids" won the Aurora Award and was a finalist for the Nebula -- it's an excellent and extremely disturbing story. Michael is recovering from a divorce and not long after, he meets Robin while buying a telescope from the store where she works. They begin dating, and Robin introduces Michael to some of her weirder friends. As it turns out, there's a very good reason why Robin refuses to look through telescopes. "The Perseids" demonstrates Wilson's knack for phrases that flash vividly in the mind. Near the beginning of the story, Michael is talking about trying to do astronomy in the city:
"The Perseids" has another fabulous passage, and even wittier. Michael is thinking about his relationship with Robin:
Ha! How's that for dispassionate over-analysis...
"The Inner Inner City" tells the story of a group of well-educated friends who set themselves a Challenge once a year. This year a new person in the group by name of John Carver suggests the challenge of inventing a religion. Jeremy, the narrator of the story, gets caught up in the idea, and he begins to obsess about his new religion -- something to do with a map of the city and walking the streets late at night. It's never too clear to the other characters just what Jeremy's religion is or means. His relationship with his wife Michelle begins to suffer, and his friend Deirdre gets progressively more worried about him. Deirdre also becomes paranoid about John Carver, suspecting that he may not even be human. "The Inner Inner City" is an excellent twist on the genre of urban fantasy.
"The Observer" is the story of a 14 year old girl named Sandra. She is having "psychological" difficulties because of aliens who will not stop bothering her -- and of course none of the adults in her life will believe her. In the summer of 1953, her parents send her to live with her uncle Carter, who works at the newly constructed Mt. Palomar Observatory in California. Carter is not particularly thrilled to have a young teen girl around, nor is he thrilled that Sandra makes friends with Edwin Hubble. Hubble answers Sandra's plea for help in a desperate hour, and gives her some sage advice: "'One doesn't have to understand in order to look. One has to look, in order to understand'" (112).
"Protocols of Consumption" examines the intertwined cultures of drugs and psychiatry. Bob Zale is on lithium for his bi-polar mood disorder, and goes to Dr. Koate's biweekly group meetings at the ominously named F-Wing. He meets a neighbour of his, Mikey, who latches onto him. Mikey has many theories about what drugs (and chemicals in general) are doing to humans and to the earth. The chemical messages are messing up the order of things, according to Mikey, and the conclusion of the story seems to support this notion. Or at least the notion that reality is not exactly the same as its popular conception.
"Ulysses Sees the Moon in the Bedroom Window" is a chilling setpiece, designed to mess with your head with maximum effect. Science fiction has often considered what the next step in the evolution of intelligence might be like, and how more advanced beings might regard us. Wilson offers a new wrinkle on the old debate.
"Plato's Mirror" continues the trend in this collection of telling the story of a relationship that goes bad, in gritty, convincing detail. Donald is a writer, semi-famous for a book of pseudo-mystical inanity, Plato's Mirror. He is also more than little self-destructive in his personal life, and he even wrecks a second chance he gets during the course of the story. Not a pleasant story, but gripping all the same.
"Divided by Infinity" is another disturbing story. It's a bit longer than most of the other stories in The Perseids and Other Stories, apart from one or two, and it definitely feels like the longest because of all that happens. Bill Keller's wife Lorraine has just died, and Lorraine used to work at the bookstore owned by Oscar Ziegler. As a replacement for Lorraine, Oscar has hired Deirdre -- these are the most obvious connections between the stories in the book, apart from the more subtle ones provided by the common setting or link to Toronto. Oscar gives a book to Bill, a book that seems to explain many things beyond reality. The story takes a drastic turn near the end, and a mildly gory ending where the title comes literally true.
"Pearl Baby" closes out the collection, and it also concludes Deirdre's story. Deirdre inherited Oscar's bookstore when Oscar died in "Divided by Infinity." And now something stranger than previously seen in this bookstore is happening. Deirdre's fate is an appropriate way to end The Perseids and Other Stories. The search for transcendence common to science fiction becomes something much richer and stranger and filled with dread in Wilson's capable hands. The shock of the truly new is something, by definition, unimaginable, despite all of the genre's attempts at breaching the asymptote. Wilson can only take us as far as anyone else, but the journey is unique and wild and worth experiencing.
Last modified: June 27, 2000
Copyright © 2000 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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