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This is the Year Zero, Andrew Weiner, Pottersfield, 1998, 192 pp.

Science fiction is often built around a set of tropes, building blocks like alien encounters or reality breakdowns, and these tropes sometimes verge on cliché and are in desperate need of reinvigoration. Weiner's short story collection, This is the Year Zero, provides thirteen opportunities for this literate and intelligent writer to breathe new life into old conventions. The stories in this collection deal mostly with alien encounters, as it turns out, but Weiner never repeats himself. This is the Year Zero is well worth reading.

My favourite story is the seven-page piece, "The Alien in the Lake." The story is similar in tone and effect to "Not in Front of the Virgin" by Mary Woodbury from Divine Realms -- in both stories, long-awaited phenomena happen to protagonists who react differently than others. In Weiner's story, an alien comes to Earth and does not follow the well-known script for such things. Allow me to quote a few paragraphs from the last section of the story (with perhaps a few spoilers, but the charm of the story is in the prose not the plot):

"Why, they wondered, could the alien not have come to New York, or some other major metropolis, to have intelligent and meaningful discourse with the country's finest minds, to take in the ballet and opera and dine in the best restaurants?

"Why had he chosen instead to shack up with an ageing blond bimbo, to watch ducks and hum along with Willie Nelson tunes and finally get himself gunned down by her wretched excuse for a husband?" (29)

It's a good question, of course, but Weiner accurately points out how ludicrous it is to expect certain things from a sentient being that is indeed alien to us.

Other stories in This is the Year Zero deal with alien encounters. The opening story in the collection, "Messenger", is told by a freelance journalist who has written a great deal about Edwin Boone, the richest man in the world and a prolific inventor. The story takes place seven years after Boone's apparent death, and the journalist is wondering if he has just been contacted by Boone.

"In Dreams" is the story of a scientist named Phil Baker who studies dreams. An astronaut, Zoe Jensen, has just returned from a trip to Tau Ceti, the first such trip by a human crew, and seeks out Baker in secret because she is suffering from a strange recurring dream. Soon the dream is spreading to everyone on Earth. "In Dreams" is a study of transcendence, similar to Childhood's End I suppose, in the way that the next step in the evolution of human consciousness is a source of fear for us normal humans.

"A New Man" is a somewhat jumbled story that forms an amusing variation on The Stepford Wives, by way of alien abduction of men.

The title story of this collection also deals with an alien encounter. It's a short piece, and even more devastating and ambiguous than "In Dreams." Here the transcendence is even more washed out by the day-by-day details of the destruction of the way humans have always lived.

"The New Frequencies" is a story about music. A rock journalist is investigating a band named Plan Ten, mostly due to accusations from watchdog groups that Plan Ten's music will induce social disorder and must be stopped. But where are the ideas for Plan Ten's music coming from? Might the watchdog groups be right?

A little more overtly about aliens, "On Becoming an Alien" is a short piece about an alien scout. The scout's decision about Earth forms the conclusion of the story, and unfortunately for humanity, the scout was manhandled by police and sent to an insane asylum.

"Streak" is a funny riff on the question of why aliens might visit Earth. It's also a baseball story, and the two come together in an amusing way.

"Going to Meet the Alien" closes the collection, and here we read about a crew of people voyaging through midspace to visit the senders of a message. But the aliens don't react to human arrival as the humans were expecting. Weiner again drives home the point that human concerns might not match up in any way with the concerns of other intelligences in the galaxy.

The remaining stories in This is the Year Zero are also well written. "The Map" was collected in Crossing the Line. "The Purple Pill" and "One More Time" deal with breakdowns in reality, in a manner worthy of Philip K. Dick. "The Disappearance Artist" is an interesting type of fable about the misuse of talent and the way that hype can destroy sense of perspective. I enjoyed Weiner's stories. He's a canny writer, with a sensibility that turns the genre a few degrees off its accepted course and we're all the richer for that.


Last modified: April 27, 2001

Copyright © 2001 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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