New York, Tor, 2000, $22.95
in New York Review of Science Fiction 151, March 2001
A critic could get to dislike Robert Charles Wilson. You begin reading his first collection of short stories and by the time you’ve started on the second story themes and linkages are simply jumping out at you. As the third story opens you’re rubbing your hands with glee at the wonderful, insightful theories you are going to construct from all of this. Then, another few stories further on, you come to Wilson’s own Afterword, in which he gleefully points out all the things you’ve noticed, and the whole critical edifice starts to crumble around you.
Well, not all of it. These are interconnected stories. It’s not a fix-up, there is no attempt to weave a coherent narrative thread between tales, and even what Wilson calls the ‘real connective tissue’ changes its character and its function from appearance to appearance, but they share a setting and occasional characters. What Wilson does do is point out the obvious: that shuffled as they may be these are cards from the same deck. The setting is Toronto, a cosmopolitan city with not a lot to prove but nothing really going for it (only one story steps outside Canada to any significant degree). The common location, the stage upon which two or three of these dramas are played and one visited in two or three others, is a secondhand book shop. The owner of the shop, and one of the people who work form, also play important if generally secondary roles in these stories. So far, so obvious.
What Wilson doesn’t point out, but which provides an even more consistent character to these stories, is that they tend to focus upon young or youngish men who are tasting the bitter fruits of failure in one form or another, and who are lonely, obsessive and inward-turning in their nature. Time after time we are watching, or, more likely, seeing through the eyes of, men who are single, freshly divorced, or in a relationship which is failing for reasons they never quite understand. They generally strike up some relationship with a woman who is as strange as they are, but even if it has not crumbled to dust before the end of the story it is not destined to last. Obsession wins out over socialisation every time. In the title story, for instance, our skywatching ‘hero’ marks the turning of the year by the meteor showers he observes, yet fails to observe how distant he is becoming from the curious woman he is having an affair with. While in ‘The Inner Inner City’ the narrator creates a new religion mapped upon the unseen city, but as he obsessively traces the byways of a city no-one else can see, he fails to notice his wife leaving with someone else.
In the end, a number of these flawed men seem to be rewarded more by their obsessions than they ever are by striking up a relationship, so that it can be hard to work out whether Wilson intends these forays into a disturbed urban underworld to be tragedies or, in some way, celebrations of the individual. When the poor, chess-playing immigrant of ‘The Fields of Abraham’ sells his mentally disturbed sister to another man then finds, through Ziegler’s secondhand bookshop, a door to another world, we might normally assume that there has been an act of betrayal and Jacob is paying for it by the shutting-down of his horizons. Yet it is equally easy to read this as an opening up of amazing new possibilities, and Wilson somehow seems to want it both ways. ‘Divided By Infinity’, which also centres upon Ziegler’s bookshop, but a very different shop in a very different time, also offers a glimpse of amazing new possibilities, and also shuts them down just as effectively. If ‘The Fields of Abraham’ is a tragedy presented optimistically, ‘Divided By Infinity’ is a comedy of despair. For in Ziegler’s shop our newly-widowed protagonist discovers science fiction novels that should never have existed, and in this vague hint of multiple worlds he discovers something far more disturbing: he discovers his own immortality. Yet immortality is what he least wants, but as, significantly, Ziegler dies again (having died decades earlier in ‘The Fields of Abraham’), he finds it a curse he cannot escape.
‘The Fields of Abraham’ is one of three stories original to this collection. Another of these new stories, in many ways one of the slightest pieces in the book, is also the archetype for all the others. One of the things Wilson often does in these stories is raise an idea, then present enough ambiguous incidents to suggest that the idea may be true, or it may simply be that there are credulous or disturbed people who happen to believe it. ‘Ulysses sees the Moon in the Bedroom Window’ is one such story. In the course of a conversation between two old friends and the woman who is married to one and who might be on the verge of an affair with the second, it is suggested that if there are superior beings we might no more regard them as superior than a cat regards us as superior, though they might have as much influence upon our lives as we do upon a cat’s. It is a neat idea, convincingly argued, but nothing actually happens to prove the theory one way or the other. The fact that the putative affair never happens might support the notion, though it could just as easily be that this is a straightforward mainstream story that simply entertains a science fictional idea. Nevertheless the idea does cast a shadow, there is a brooding air of unseen and incomprehensible forces before which we are helpless and unknowing. Such forces may be alien or supernatural or psychological, but they are there, hanging darkly over the lonely, failed and obsessive lives of the men who tell these tales.
And though this is not a fix-up, the stories do have a cumulative impact. Good as it was, I remember that ‘Divided By Infinity’, for example, did not bowl me over nearly as much in Starlight 2, where it first appeared, as it did here where I was already familiar with Ziegler’s shop and with the questing, disillusioned men who habituate it. This impact is disturbing: reading M. John Harrison’s new collection, Travel Arrangements, immediately after this book I was struck by an unexpected similarity of mood, by the way that both writers use an accumulation of mundane detail and sad weather to portray their characters, floating in a world that is precisely realised yet which they never quite touch.