The Great Escape by Ian Watson

Golden Gryphon, 2002, 283pp, $23.95
reviewed in Vector 225, September-October 2002
 

Back in the early 1970s, when Ian Watson first burst upon the sf scene with a series of breathtakingly imaginative novels, it seemed that he was destined to be in the first rank of science fiction authors. Well Watson has continued to produce books and short stories at an astonishing pace since then, and they flare and flash with the same pyrotechnic wonder, but he has never quite fulfilled that early promise. With this new collection of stories (coming from an American small press that has littered the work with so many proof reading errors you wonder whether someone could have been out to sabotage the work) one begins to understand why that might be.

Watson has never been short of ideas, and there are enough vivid and startling notions crammed into this one book to keep any other writer in plots for an entire career. There are moments of awesome wonder – a group of ineffectual angels watching while demons stage a very, very slow escape from Hell; aliens announcing their presence by sending dead bodies plunging across space towards our sun – and there are moments when one can only scratch one’s head and puzzle how anyone could come up with this stuff – the twin brother of Jesus Christ being the first human to set foot on another planet! The trouble is, there are too many ideas.

In places where they are controlled, the ideas make for wonderful stories: ‘The Great Escape’ about the escape from Hell; ‘Caucus Winter’ about what happens when a quantum computer falls into the hands of American white supremacists; ‘Early, in the Evening’ about a small group of people having to relive a thousand years of history in one day, over and over again. All these, and a handful of others work superbly well, but they have one common characteristic: the central idea can be summed up very quickly but exploring it in depth opens up a host of unexpected ramifications. In contrast, there are too many other stories where the ideas are simply jammed together so that you don’t get a coherent whole but rather a disconnected sequence of images and fancies without a plot. The worst example is perhaps ‘Three-Legged Dog’ which leads off this collection. It begins as a sort of ghost story, transforms itself into a story about a personality recreated within a computer program, transforms itself yet again into someone exploring beyond the limits of a computer scenario, and finally transforms itself into a poet accessing the moment of inspiration of her poems. None of these sections quite belongs to any other, the resolution that (unsatisfactorily) ties off the final section fails to resolve any of the issues raised in the earlier sections, the rationale and motivation explored in one part of the story are simply forgotten when we move into the next. There are other stories with the same broken-backed structure. ‘The Amber Room’ is in part thriller and part supernatural horror; both parts are excellent in themselves, but neither belongs with the other. Other stories start well but run out of steam, because while the idea may be spectacular and original (most of Watson’s ideas are), it lacks a strong enough plot to drive the whole thing. ‘When Thought-Mail Failed’ is a fascinating idea about people who have always known instant communication with everyone else, when suddenly the system goes down; ‘The Descent’ is equally interesting in presenting a world in which people find themselves instantly and curiously transformed.  Unfortunately, neither ends up not going anywhere because Watson finds himself more interested in presenting the idea than in telling a story which explores that idea.

As a writer Ian Watson’s strength is that he is reliable, fertile, intelligent, surprising and original; but his tragedy is that he is not always very good as a simple storyteller.