In this volume, Kevin J. Anderson demonstrates at short lengths the consummate professionalism that has made him one of SF's most commercially successful novelists. As in Kristine Kathryn Rusch's recent retrospective from Golden Gryphon, Stories for an Enchanted Afternoon (Rusch and Anderson are good friends, and have contributed Introductions to each other's collections), the emphasis in Dogged Persistence is on stories clearly and competently set forth, stories without artifice or flamboyant elaboration. A connoisseur of style may well be disappointed; but plain telling has virtues of its own, and a writer with Anderson's carefully honed understanding of the formulas that make popular fiction work can compensate readily enough for any mundane ordinariness of diction, any linear flatness of technique. With dogged professional persistence, these stories act their roles well enough, provoking, entertaining, and chilling the reader (always the first factor in Anderson's consideration) very competently indeed.
The pieces in Dogged Persistence, only one of which approaches novella length, fall into three broad categories: Hard SF with a decidedly sinister edge; contemplative tales of time travel; and (in surprising numbers) carefully evocative historical fantasies.
As might be expected from the author of several X-Files novels, Anderson invests his Hard SF with a certain air of the supernatural, a suspicion, perhaps, that the archetypal menace of black magic has carried over to technology. Thus, "Fondest of Memories" may concern cloning and the extension of life through time dilation, but it is more basically about necromancy (the resurrection of a lost wife) and the reaching of a dead hand across the decades. "Reflections in a Magnetic Mirror", co-written with Doug Beason, involves experiments with nuclear fusion and the possibility of intelligent forms of plasma; but its subtext is of the blasphemous creation of life, a sin to be expiated. "Dogged Persistence", which in fact grew into an X-Files novel, has pitchfork-wielding peasants backed by the Inquisition (or what amount to such) hunting down the bearers of the secret of nanotechnology. "Dune: A Whisper of Caladan Seas", co-authored by Brian Herbert, is both the story of far-future soldiers imprisoned behind a rockfall and a mystical rendition of the merciful power of jongleurs' tales; its echo, "Prisoner of War", a melancholy sequel to a screenplay by Harlan Ellison, places superhumanly enhanced conscripts in a sort of Paradise, and the hollowness of Heaven and the implacability of Hell are the deep notes sounded. Only "Human, Martian--One, Two, Three" has some of the traditional cheerful practicality of Hard SF, and even there the shadow of Victor Frankenstein is not far off...
Anderson is clearly aware, then, of the spiritual and psychological freight of scientific innovation, and in his hands time travel becomes something of a venture inwards, a method to comprehend what one has been and therefore make oneself anew. Forget Temporal Adventuring; the past is a mirror of a quite intimate sort. Two interrelated stories, "Music Played on the Strings of Time" and "Tide Pools", explore the potential of stepping sideways in time, finding versions of the present that may have some small but marketable advantage denied one's own time-line. In both cases, this cynical exploitation of cognate universes has a profounder counterpart in self-discovery. "Entropy Ranch" quite amusingly sets Christian do-gooders up as the undoers of Acts of God, but satire on them is moderated by their feat of both saving and Saving the protagonist, who may become Somebody at last. "Much at Stake" (here an overlap with historical fantasy develops) deftly brings together Bela Lugosi, the most famous screen Dracula, and his perfectly factual counterpart, the mediaeval Wallachian warlord Vlad Tepes, he of the sanguinary mass-impalement proceedings; the fictional and the actual, the perceived and the observed, interact profitably for all concerned. Time travel is truly about memory and its integration, an acute point to make.
When Anderson handles history, he is alert both to its tragedy (lessons never learnt, as in his Hard SF) and to its status as something achieved, a fabric harmoniously woven (the desired state of his time-travellers). Russian social engineers, trying to reform the countryside by converting it into a landscape of penal colonies, find that the bludgeon changes nothing in "New Recruits", but the lesson is never assimilated for long; and "Canals in the Sand", a fantasy of how Percival Lowell might indeed have greeted Martians (H. G. Wells's variety, unfortunately) in the Sahara has a ghoulish air. So, for that matter does one contemporary fantasy story, "Drumbeats" (a collaboration with the rock drummer Neal Peart), which suggests (a little unwisely, perhaps) that the evil found in Africa is timeless; and the malicious exhalations of the stage have a similarly immortal quality in the Shakespearean period piece "Final Performance". But there's a genuine redemptive glow to "Much at Stake", to the Dickensian supernatural tale "The Ghost of Christmas Always", and even to the possibly illusory love of landbound women for the princes of the ocean in "Sea Dreams" (co-authored by Anderson's wife Rebecca Moesta); and the monstrosity of the Martians is the figurative inspiration of the non-science fictional H. G. Wells of "Scientific Romance", a corrective to the implied horror of "Canals in the Sand". In the end, the best summary of the thematic balance of Anderson's fantasy, and of his wider work, can be discerned in "The Old Man and the Cherry Tree", a vista at once of the feudal cruelty and of the serene transcendence inherent in the Japan of the Shogunate; annihilating death and liberating meaning stand side by side.
Dogged Persistence has an impressive integrity of its own, a certain plain power. It is a quite satisfactory counterpart to Stories to an Enchanted Afternoon, manifesting a not dissimilar candour and humanity.
(Order from: Golden Gryphon Press, 3002 Perkins Road, Urbana, IL 61802, USA, or visit www.goldengryphon.com)
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© Nick Gevers 9 June 2001