Tides From the New Worlds by Tobias S. Buckell
Reviewed by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
26 August 2009
A convincing review of this book may have already been written. When Christian Hoard reviewed the self-titled debut album by indie rock's Vampire Weekend for Rolling Stone magazine last year, he wrote: "They're four ex-Columbia University students with a suave sound that incorporates ska, New Wave and Afro-pop—interesting enough for listeners looking for variation among their buzz bands, though not nearly as interesting as some press would suggest. On their debut, Vampire Weekend mostly earn points the old-fashioned way: by writing likable songs you'll be glad to revisit next month." Substitute the four ex-Columbia students for one Grenada-born, Caribbean-island grown writer and change songs for short stories and you have an idea of what may be in store for you in Tobias S. Buckell's first story collection (he has four novels under his belt), Tides from The New Worlds. Not to push the analogy past the breaking point (who am I kidding?) but when Hoard writes that "For much of the album, Vampire Weekend keep things simple" (and I am not here promoting any derogatory connotations of the word "simple," which could easily be changed for "accessible") and concludes with the thought that a particular track is "warm and well-executed—just like most of their debut", these statements too could apply to Buckell's collection. And, in the last bit of analogizing, Vampire Weekend's album has an "African thing" going on, and Buckell's has a "Caribbean thing" going on.
As Mike Resnick notes in the collection's introduction, "He has an interesting background. He was raised in the Caribbean, and there was a strong flavor of it in some of his stories". Buckell frequently makes use of non-Western, non-European viewpoint characters and settings. As a result of his professionalism as a storyteller, this successfully lends a sense of variety and color to his work, rather than becoming heavy-handed—indeed, helps it achieve some of the cultural alternity that other writers strive for but never quite attain through extrapolated xeno-societies. There are a few rudely didactic moments. The collection's closer, "Toy Planes" (2005), for instance, does yell its message of equal-race-opportunity space venture a little loudly, making an already short piece feel slighter. And the environmentalism of the magic-realist "Smooth Talking" (2003) isn't as smoothly delivered as one might wish. But in general Buckell's stories, culturally informed and layered, are driven by plot, rather than character or concept; Story tends to be centerpiece. He is this sense a little like a mellowed, more pragmatic, hipper version of Octavia Butler.
That said, the cultural otherness doesn't become quite rich enough to position Buckell's works alongside what we might call the field's New Global practitioners, like Ian McDonald or Lavie Tidhar or Paolo Bacigalupi. Part of the reason for the difference, I think, is that for Buckell, dreadlocks, island-hopping and ship-centric stories all can be naturally tapped from his own experiences, rather than explicitly sought out as exotic. In this context, the juxtaposition of a first contact situation with Chinese poverty depicted in the collection's cyberpunk opener, "Fish Merchant" (2000), works well. Li Hao-Chang is too busy selling fish on the violent docks of Macau to pay attention to the news of extraterrestrial signals coming from deep space, and becomes enmeshed in computer-disc espionage with one of Buckell's most popular characters, Pepper. Hao-Chang's dreams of flight to America ring true, and the ending satisfies on an emotional level. The political dimensions and the social realism, though, are less intricately developed than in an another recent Chinese SF story that overlaps at least partially in theme, Maureen F. McHugh's "Special Economics" (2008). Another tale that mixes poverty with the future—in this case, a rickshaw puller on an orbital space station—is "In The Heart of Kalikuata" (2003). For all its gender-based perspective, I'm not sure that it couldn't work just as well if the genders were reversed; which means it is entertaining because of the character's plight, but it doesn't seem to raise any particular consciousness about gender experience.
Mash-up worlds and the recombination of genre tropes are prominent elements in Buckell's short fiction. "Io, Robot" (2007), whose title nods at Asimov's perennially classic stories, is perhaps the most successful of these, sharp and effective at least in part because Buckell allows his underlying vision to be more subversive than usual. Sam, a six-wheeled robot on Io, encounters two beings who claim to be human and who require his help. Sam is obligated to assist humans; but, as technology has progressed, and cybernetic extensions and other enhancements have become common, the question becomes: what is human? This story brings to mind Robert Sheckley's absurdist "The Cruel Equations" (1971). The launch point for both is an undermining of Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics. Both tales deconstruct the Laws' implicit assumption that robots will have the ability to identify humans—a necessary step for being able to obey their orders—in unusual situations.
Another classic theme tackled by Buckell in "Anakoinosis" (2005) is that of alien servitude. The story makes the point, quite forcefully, that if humans found servile aliens, destruction would ensue as a result of ceased technological innovations and reliance on external power. The tale's intriguing alien whiffets remind me of the symbiotic aliens that store memories in Benjamin Rosenbaum's "Embracing-the-New" (2004).
The first-person doctor of "The Shackles of Freedom" (2004), co-authored with Mike Resnick, tells of his experiences among the Amish of the planet New Pennsylvania. The story's central conflict is the doctor's imperative to heal versus the necessity of respecting a culture that rejects technological cures to easily treated diseases. Though absorbing and well-written, the SF element is slight, and this material has been explored before, in stories and TV shows. In particular, the Babylon 5 first-season episode "Believers" (1994), penned by David Gerrold, explores exactly the same dilemma, sans the romance.
A heady mix of alternate history and science fantasy, "In Orbite Medievali" (2000) turns the conceit of astronauts as modern-day successors to Christopher Columbus on its head by having Columbus sail off the edge of the world and literally become the first astronaut. This story could serve as a perfect sequel to Philip Jose Farmer's classic "Sail On! Sail On!" (1952), which ends precisely where Buckell's begins. The story "Tides" (2002) is Buckell's sibling rivalry, coming-of-age contribution to the SF conversation about societies driven by seasonal demands, a conversation which includes such classics as Asimov's "Nightfall" and Brian Aldiss' vast Helliconia trilogy. The most direct connection is to another work that literalizes the commingling of magic and a world governed by tides, Michael Swanwick's Stations of the Tide. Another story with palpable narrative forebears is "All Her Children Fought" (2001), which generates genuine pathos from the almost Terry Bissonian sparseness of its description of a "mother's" care of a very young boy about to be used as space pilot fodder. This story powerfully distills one of the most affective dimensions of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game.
One of the collection's strengths is the diversity of writing modes and fantastic sub-genres on display, though all of them exist within a distinctly non-post-modern enclave. Outside of the more traditionally SFnal ventures, Buckell shares with us everything from the fluffy future mythology of "Her" (2003), in which the world is a gigantic naked woman; to the heavily Gothic "Trinkets" (2001), in which George Petros in 1800s New England is haunted after receiving a Haitian package; to the dwarvish fantasy "Something In The Rock" (2007), which sees axe-bearing dwarf Grigor in an adventure that changes his perceptions of the world. Perhaps the most compelling of these supernatural tales is "Death's Dreadlocks" (2003), which gives makes Death physically manifest in a war-torn African country through the titular locks. The young protagonist Kuabi sets out to follow—and defeat—the source of the dreadlocks in a story whose strength resides in the immersive, pitch-perfect quality of the character's voices.
One of my favorites is the time-travel, history-informed "The Duel" (2006). It opens with a striking paragraph, one which neatly condenses the SF premise of "looking into the past":
It is a chilly February morning in 1807 in the room they are all looking into. Outside of 1807, the glass reflects the eager faces of the schoolchildren chaperones silently taking headcounts and ‘shushing' the troublemakers. Toad watches the group. One pig-tailed young specimen presses his nose against the one-way window and looks down. (p. 253)
Toad works in this Living History Museum, and a triangle involving the woman he loves and his best friend leads to a transposed version of the famous historical duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. The history setting is expertly researched, and while Toad isn't necessarily a sophisticated character, his anguish is well-developed and carries the story along at an intense psychological clip. It's a pleasure to see Buckell drive his narrative by the internal needs of his protagonist in this fashion.
Based on Buckell's introductory comments to the tales, he will likely continue to enjoy facing the rigors of the short form—and playing new arrangements of SF's power chords—for some time to come.
A couple of production notes to finish. Artist Brian W. Dow wrote a piece, available in the May 2009 issue of Clarkesworld Magazine, that details the creative process that led to the book's cover. If anyone thinks graphic artists always follow the same means of composition, they should check out Dow's article. Comparable thought has gone into the rest of the design: the collection is handsomely produced, in a limited, signed edition. But I think that's the wrong format for a book like this. Buckell's short fiction, though somewhat eclectic in backdrop and wide-ranging in genre, should find appeal with a wide readership, and that would be a win-win situation for the author and the short-fiction field.
To return to the analogy with which I started this review, the exclusivity of Buckell's pricey hardcover release would be akin to Vampire Weekend's album only existing as a collector's 5.1 Dolby Surround Digipack release. And that seems like the wrong way of getting your voice heard.