Daniel H. Wilson has published a number of books, but I haven't read any of them thus far, so I opened this collection of short stories almost blind. The only writing I've read of his was a short story in an anthology he co-edited about video games, 'Press Start to Play'. I liked quite a lot of the stories in that book but wasn't that impressed with his. I'm still not, as 'God Mode' is here too, so I revisited it, but I did like some of its peers.
What surprised me is how similar a lot of them are. This is being marketed as science fiction but many of the stories are really general fiction with the addition of a robot character. Robots are everywhere here, not too much of a surprise given that Wilson has a PhD in robotics. Most stories are set in dystopian futures. And almost all are narrated with occasional dialogue. Finally, and perhaps inevitably for someone who works in robotics, there's one common question: what does it mean to be human?
The very first story explores that theme in an unusual way and different generations may see it differently. Nowadays, people may see it as an 'Edge of Tomorrow' type story, merely with a robot in the lead instead of a human being. We older folks may see it instead as a riff on 'The Terminator', with the robot as the good guy. It's very close to that standard robotic horror story but with the robot the most human and most endearing character.
Many of the other stories riff on the dividing line between human and robot. Most of them have robots as characters who have varying degrees of humanity. 'Jack, the Determined', for instance, is an intriguing tale of a robot who doesn't know he's a robot, and 'The Nostalgist' plays in that park as well. However, 'The Blue Afternoon That Lasted Forever' flips it around to focus on a human being who reasons like a robot.
As with most collections of short stories, the quality varies. I liked the ideas in a few of these stories, like 'Blood Memory' or 'Garden of Life' but didn't appreciate or even particularly understand where they went. Others, like 'Foul Weather' and 'God Mode', seemed to be extrapolated from a single obvious starting point and did little more with their concepts. One line is the spur for the former: 'Foul weather breeds foul deeds'. If you imagine what something based on that might be like, you've probably come up with what he wrote.
However, a number of other stories impressed me immensely.
'The Nostalgist' was surely my favourite. It's an amazing and very immersive story that does a lot more than simply play with an idea. Its characters are deep and resonant and the story they're given to inhabit adds to that in a surprisingly touching way. I'd really like to see this one adapted into a short film by an independent filmmaker who understands why it's so powerful.
Not far behind 'The Nostalgist' is 'The Executor', less deep but still a very interesting future noir revolving around an internecine war over a trillion dollar legacy. It's fiercely original and enjoyably paranoid and it could also be turned into a magnificent short film by the right filmmaker. I should add that most of these stories don't feel particularly cinematic but these two occupy that agreeable crossroads between action and philosophy that eastern European filmmakers love so much.
I'll call out one more story for special praise but add that it's one of two to fit within a universe that Wilson has already established elsewhere. It's 'One for Sorrow' and it's subtitled 'A Clockwork Dynasty Story'. As a short story, it's a haunting and evocative piece, unusually for this book set in the past, way back in 1756. It's clearly much more though, and I'd like to dig deeper into Wilson's Clockwork Dynasty writing to find out what.
In case you're wondering, the other is 'Parasite: A Robopocalypse Story' and I was less impressed with this on. It may be the most quintessential 'are we human?' story here, set in another dark dystopia of perpetual war, but I'm less likely to follow up with Wilson's other Robopocalypse work.
'One for Sorrow' sits in between a couple of long stories, 'All Kinds of Proof' and 'Special Automatic', that highlight that Wilson can write at a longer length than the rest of these shorter pieces needed. Both certainly have a lot more substance than the earlier stories, though they rank among the least science fiction of the bunch, epitomising that 'general fiction plus a robot' concept I mentioned earlier. I liked both of them and I also appreciated their choice of lead characters.
Overall, this is an odd collection because the stories mostly follow the same conventions but not so closely to theme the book. The title does refer to a theme rather than a story, but it's a loose one. As I've already highlighted, there are closer aspects tying these stories than that.
As collections go, this is fairly typical: some great stories that make us want to explore the author's longer work, but some weak stories that make us think twice about that. It's a relatively safe one though, with few stories experimenting. Perhaps only the almost dialogue free 'Helmet' counts as an experiment, but that's a little bit of a stretch.
I enjoyed the book, mostly, but it probably wouldn't have inspired me to seek out Wilson's novels, had it not been for 'One for Sorrow'. That one makes me want to dig deeper. Maybe, once I do, I'll want to explore further. ~~ Hal C F Astell