Roberts, Gunn journey into fantasy

Science Fiction

October 10, 2004|By Gerald Jonas

Swiftly: Stories That Never Were and Might Not Be

by Adam Roberts. Night Shade Books.

247 pages. $27.

Adam Roberts, a senior reader in English at London University, puts his cleverness on display in this collection.

He sets the tone in the first story, Swiftly. In case you miss the allusion, the book begins with a glimpse of Lilliputians (actually "Blefuscans," from a neighboring island), hard at work in a 19th-century English "manufactory." Roberts's breathtakingly audacious conceit is that the little people of Gulliver's Travels have become slaves of the industrial revolution, prized for their unsurpassed skills in constructing "fancy machinery and cunning devices."

Roberts brings a Dickensian diction to his Swiftian tale that promises to tell us something about the timelessness of human greed. But he becomes distracted by the machinery of his own idea. In quick succession, we learn that the British Navy has all but wiped out the Brobdingnagians; that the French, allied with the remnants of this race of giants, are about to invade England, and that the battle will hinge on the ability of an antislavery reformer to slip a Lilliputian saboteur into British headquarters in the Tower of London.

In a story of 34 pages, these rapid-fire developments leave no time to contemplate the plight of the enslaved, much less to explore the state of mind of the slave owners and would-be emancipators. Indeed, so eager is Roberts to get to his surprise ending that he neglects to set it up properly. The revelation in the story's final paragraph is simply tacked on by the narrator without any effort to justify it in terms of event or character.

A similar premium on cleverness at the expense of narrative logic mars many of the other stories. The subtitle, which makes less sense the more you think about it, is emblematic of this strategy. Then, in a story, entitled "Eleanor," Roberts shows where his true strength lies. Returning to the pre-invasion England of the first tale, he focuses on the courtship and marriage between a slave-owning industrialist and a beautiful 16-year-old girl of scant means. By intertwining the personal tragedy of this mismatched couple with the tragic situation of the enslaved Lilliputians, Roberts redeems the promise of Swiftly in full. Instead of a surprise ending, we are left with a meditation on love, freedom and betrayal that is all the more powerful for reasserting conventional values in such an unconventional setting.

The Immortals

by James Gunn. Pocket Books.

320 pages. $12.

Through an unexplained mutation a man is born with blood that will never let him grow old. Short of a catastrophic accident, Marshall Cartwright will live forever, and, since the mutation is dominant, so will all his descendants. Furthermore -- and this is the McGuffin that drives the plot -- an infusion of Cartwright blood will reverse the effects of aging in others, but only temporarily. When the rich and powerful learn about this potential Fountain of Youth, Cartwright and his heirs become hunted commodities.

First published in 1962, The Immortals morphed into a television movie in 1969 and then into a short-lived TV series. But it began as a series of four closely linked short stories that originally appeared in science fiction magazines from 1955 through 1960. A fifth story was added for the current edition. The result of this ungainly hybrid is to draw attention to the changes in science fiction over the last half-century. This is only appropriate since Gunn, now professor emeritus of English at the University of Kansas, is the editor of The Road to Science Fiction, a multi-volume annotated anthology that offers an excellent introduction to the history of the genre.

Magazine science fiction of the 1950s placed a premium on clever premises. Only rarely were those premises worked out in plausible stories about believable people in authentic-seeming futures. Gunn's characters in The Immortals were clearly created to serve the needs of the plot. The projected future of an America whose social fabric has all but disintegrated feels thin and arbitrary; it is hard to imagine anything going on in this world outside the narrow spotlight of the narrative. Readers with fond memories of yesterday's science fiction will enjoy the deja vu quality of The Immortals. Others might use it as a yardstick to see how far the genre has come in wedding mind-opening premises to the time-honored virtues of literate fiction.

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