The Outpost by Mike Resnick: The Fine Art of the Tall Tale and the Mystery of History
Reviewed by John Teehan
18 June 2001
"History will be kind to me for I intend to write it." --Sir Winston Churchill
Call it a future history in the making. Call it a future history already recorded.
Mike Resnick's latest work, The Outpost, is a novel that explores how we tell stories, both about ourselves and others. This is not just a collection of tall tales, but a novel celebrating the fine art of storytelling and the codifying of history. It's about interpretation and misinterpretation and what happens when ugly facts get in the way of a good story.
There are a lot of tall tales being served up at the Outpost. Where's that, you ask? Well, it's not down the street next to Callahan's. Nor is it in the middle of all the action like Munden's. Set in Resnick's popular "Birthright" universe, the Outpost is the sole establishment occupying an otherwise empty planet named Henry II situated at the innermost edges of the Inner Frontier. In The Outpost, mankind has spread across the galaxy: settling, colonizing, and often conquering along the way. At the center of the Milky Way sits an immense black hole around which the Inner Frontier -- far from the bureaucracies and laws of Man -- inspires the independent, adventurous types of individuals who often appear in Resnick stories such as Birthright: The Book of Man, Santiago, Soothsayer, Oracle, Prophet, and The Dark Lady. The Outpost itself is very reminiscent of the sort of watering hole one might have found in deepest, darkest Africa back when there was still a deepest, darkest Africa to go to -- with patrons just as colorful. As for the book itself, this is a guaranteed winner for anyone who loves science fiction and has been reading it since childhood. And it's a definite read for those just discovering everything a well-crafted universe has to offer.
For one thing, you've got more than plain folk sitting around telling "Just So" stories. These are the roughest, toughest, most notorious men and women you're ever likely to meet. Resnick fans will recognize the flavor of names such as Hurricane Smith, Catastrophe Baker, The Reverend Billy Karma, Cyborg De Milo, Three-Gun Max, Sinderella, Sitting Horse and Crazy Bull [sic], Nicodemus Mayflower, and the Earth Mother. There are a whole lot more, and everyone's got a tale -- each of which is carefully recorded by one Willie the Bard, the only long-term resident of the Outpost aside from its proprietor, Tomahawk, and the robot bartender, Reggie.
Outside in a system made up of binary stars named Plantagenet and Tudor, and eight planets all named Henry, an interstellar war rages. It's the perfect setup for a far-futuristic Decameron where living legends of the galaxy wait out the excitement happening far outside by swapping barbs, buying drinks, and telling stories. Mind you, every story is true, "except those that ain't." You should definitely expect a healthy dose of humor, but not in the Douglas Adams/Terry Pratchett vein. There's a bit of poking fun at the old pulp traditions, but the stories themselves remain fresh and unique. The reader is going to be hard-pressed to decide which he finds more fascinating -- the stories, the setting, or the characters.
The stories are well matched to their tellers. A mercenary, a hero, and a bounty hunter all tell the tale of a war they all happened to have been involved in, with three stories respectively titled "The General Who Hated His Private," "The Private Who Hated His General," and "The Sergeant Who Hated Everyone." Here we get a glimpse of Resnick's theme within with the novel: the same event can be told in many different ways with all of them being equally valid. That's not to say that The Outpost is weighed down with lecturing. There are many stories that are just plain fun to read, such as "Catastrophe Baker and the Dragon Queen" and "The Romantic Tale of Leather and Velvet O'Toole," as well as stories to touch the heart, like "The Short, Star-Crossed Career of Magic Abdul-Jordon" and "The Cyborg de Milo."
And just when the novel's pacing needs changing, the war outside approaches. Up until this point we know very little about the interstellar war other than its inevitable arrival at the doorstep of the Outpost. Who are the aliens? Why are they attacking? Is that even important? The call to arms arrives soon enough and the various heroes, villains, and adventurers of The Outpost find they can sit on their hands no longer and are soon blasting off into enemy fire. The next stories in the novel change in tone. Instead of hearing tall tales, we get to see what really happens when the heroes tackle the aliens in stories like "Little Mike Picasso and the Aliens," "Argyle and the Aliens," "Gravedigger Gaines and the Aliens," and "The Outpost and the Aliens."
Each character faces the mysterious and unknown beings invading the Republic in his own way. No one comes back unchanged. Some emerge victorious. Some not-so-victorious. Others don't emerge at all. But those who make it out alive each have a new story to tell. It's no wonder that the book is divided into three overall sections: Legend, Truth, and History.
Who determines history? Does that prize go to the winners alone? Or can the losers tell their stories and be recorded in the histories as winners? It all comes down to who survives to tell the tale, and how they decide to tell it. The novel's tone shifts again from the truth to history, and now the reader experiences "The Seventy-three-Hour Rasslin' Match," "The Battle of the Big Little Horn," and "The Sacrifice of Langtry Lily." There is much in The Outpost about how we, in the here-and-now, collect and retell our own histories to suit our desires. And there is certainly a moral to this novel. Once you've read the tales, the moral should become evident, but you would be best served by exploring this for yourself. That's the best kind of reading.
Mike Resnick has never failed to deliver a good, satisfying read and can always be counted on to serve up some good food for thought. The writing is alive and contemporary, although there are several inside SF references to delight experienced readers. The book can be read in a couple of sittings or savored slowly, tale by tale. However you choose to read The Outpost, be assured that by the end, you'll bask in the glow of a good story well told.
"I don't have much patience with the facts, and any writer is a congenital liar to begin with or he wouldn't take up writing. . . . I write to say No to death. . . . [A]n artist is a creature driven by demons. He don't usually know why they chose him and he's usually too busy to wonder why." --William Faulkner
John Teehan is a member of the Critters Workshop and founded RI_Fantastic, an online group for genre writers in southern New England. He makes a living as a typesetter/graphic designer, but claims the naked soul of a writer. This is his first professional sale and he is very pleased.