A warning to those who see Orson Scott Card's name on this book but who might be the wrong readers for this book: Card is best known for Ender's Game, which has many fans among younger readers and is studied in many schools. Card is a Latter-day Saint and has many fans who are Latter-day Saints or who simply prefer science fiction which reflects similar values and is generally free from explicit sex and language. But Card didn't write any of the stories in this anthology. A reader comfortable with Card's fiction will not necessarily be comfortable with the stories in Future on Fire. This anthology is intended for a mature contemporary science fiction audience. Many of these stories are definitely not for young people. Many adults who prefer fiction which is relatively free from objectional language and explicit material, such as by Isaac Asimov, C.S. Lewis, Kathy Tyers, J. R. R. Tolkien, etc. will also dislike many of these stories.
Card explains in the introduction that many of these stories made him uncomfortable and many reflect worldviews which he strongly disagrees with. He has included stories by writers who dislike him or his writing strongly. These stories also contain language and explicit material that one doesn't find in later works by Card. The first story "Rachel in Love" includes explicit sex (between chimpanzees, one of whom is the narrator). This story is followed by Swanwick and Gibson's "Dogfight," which includes rape, extensive drug use, and vulgar language. Connie Willis's "All My Darling Daughters" is about promiscuity and child rape. James Patrick Kelly's "Rat" is a brutal and violent story about a drug dealer. Perhaps worse, Robinson's "Down and Out in the Year 2000" is a sweet, sympathetic story about a drug dealer.
The criteria for inclusion in this anthology was that these are stories by talented, important science fiction writers who are producing innovative, challenging material. The stories and writers included do not reflect any particular theme or ideology or writing style. If you only want Orson Scott Card's perspectives, you can read this book for its general introduction about science fiction in the 1980s and for Card's introductions to each story. In many story introductions Card branches far from simply discussing the author or the story, and discusses other interesting topics, such as chauvanism in science fiction, cyberpunk, science fiction poetry, and collaborations.
Once again, this book is NOT for everybody. For serious science fiction fans or Card fans, Card's commentary alone is worth the price of the book. But to be taken to all kinds of fascinating and sometimes frightening and disturbing places, read the stories as well.
Story synopses are available below. Note that SOME CONTAIN SPOILERS.
Rachel in Love by Pat Murphy
Rachel's father was a scientist doing research on the brain who had developed a method to record brain patterns and overlay them onto an existing brain, a transplant of the mind, in effect. Rachel, in fact, is a chimpanzee who carries with her the memories and mind of the scientist's actual daughter, Rachel, who was killed in an automobile accident. Rachel realizes one morning that her father is dead, having passed away in his sleep from a heart attack. She does her best to proceed normally, but eventually police come to the house, followed later by people from a primate breeding center who tranquilize her and cage her in their center. All of the scientists and technicians treat Rachel as if she's not a person (nobody knows about the mind transfer), but a deaf janitor, with whom Rachel can communicate using American Sign Language, befriends her. His friendship, along with romance magazines that Rachel salvages from the garbage can and reads at night, soon have Rachel thinking she's in love with the janitor.
[The author has posted the full story online.]
Dogfight by Michael Swanwick and William Gibson
This is a cyberpunk tale of a drifter who happens upon game players in the rural South who compete in aerial dogfights using mentally controlled airplane simulations. The drifter steals the equipment needed to play the game, hooks up with a wealthy female college student who helps him obtain some cutting-edge technology to make him a better competitor (as well as some illegal drugs to hype up his reflexes), and proceeds to play his way up through the ranks of simulated dogfighters to challenge the champion. Kind of a mix between Rocky and Trainspotting. At one point the drifter rapes the young woman who has befriended him, nearly killing her. This helps him obtain drugs from her, which help him in his dogfight games. He apparently has no remorse for doing any of this, and suffers no negative consequences. So the protagonist is not exactly a "hero," or even particularly likeable. He defeats the local virtual dogfighting champion, a handicapped veteren who lives for the game. In the process he destroys yet another life. But his victory is hollow. Perhaps the drifter's nihilistic, self-centered amorality is meant to contrast with the relative comraderie exhibited by the townspeople he challenges in the games, who cheer for each other but not for him.
A Gift from the GrayLanders by Michael Bishop
Seven-year-old Cory and his mother move in with relatives after his parents split up. He is told to sleep in a damp, unfinished basement. Cory's overactive imagination and isolation convince him that underground creatures similar to ones he saw in an old movie are digging their way up into the basement, chiseling away at the cement walls and floor. The story is told entirely from a young boy's perspective, and the inconsiderate, sometimes cruel behavior of Cory's relatives, combined with his escalating fears of the underground creatures, make for a powerful, frightening tale. At one point Cory's fear overwhelms him to the point that he fetches some bright yellow orange paint from his uncle's garage and paints cheerful pictures of a sun, street lamps, pineapples, etc. all over the gray basement walls. When his uncle sees this he is so incensed that he locks Cory in the basement and shuts off the breaker so the light can't be turned on. It's a very disturbing scene eerily reminiscent of a key scene in Orson Scott Card's "West" (the first story in Folk of the Fringe). Things turn out far differently for Cory than in Card's story. Soon after being confined, Cory's basement captivity ends up protecting him from the devastation of a nuclear bomb, dropped in a U.S. conflict with Russia.
There are other stories in this anthology which are as powerful, imaginative, and well written as "A Gift from the GrayLanders." But this story accomplishes all these things, and more, without material likely to offend specific political, ethnic, religious, etc. groups. This is a story that could be read and appreciated by a particularly wide audience, even middle grade or young adult readers. This story makes it clear why Card describes Michael Bishop as a writer whose fiction displays not only uncommon artistic talent, but also a strong sense of truth and spirituality.
Fire Zone Emerald by Lucius Shepherd
Card's introduction to this story includes a very worthwhile discussion of chauvanism in science fiction, pointing out that throughout most of the genre's history, it has focused on educated white male Americans. This was largely because these were the people reading and writing s.f., but it left a lot of interesting stories untold, and many perspectives unexamined. Card credits Lucius Shepherd with bringing the Third World into science fiction, and describes some of why Shepherd's background qualified him to do so.
This story, "Fire Zone Emerald", doesn't completely correspond with Card's praise of Shepherd as a chronicler of the common Latin American's perspective. Although the story is set in Guatemala, the two main characters (the only ones with dialog) are Americans. This isn't a complaint, just an observation. It would have been interesting to read a story told from a Guatemalan's perspective, but I suppose I'll have to find some other Lucius Shepherd stories for that.
"Fire Zone Emerald" is a rather brutal battle story. All of the characters are soldiers and the language and violence is definitely R-rated. But it's easy to see how this story was chosen by Card, if his primary criteria was that a story be powerful and provocative. The story features an armored combat soldier named Edward Quinn whose unit has come to a remote part of the Guatemalan jungle to flush out Mathis -- an AWOL soldier who has gathered a small, violent group of followers. Quinn's unit was ambushed and the story starts out immediately after, as he realizes that he's the last one left and his quary know roughly where he is.
Quinn stakes out a strategic position on a tiny island in a nearby lake, as Mathis starts conversing with him over his armor's radio. Much of the story is nuts and bolts military action, but at its core is an unusual and disturbing tale of Mathis' obsession with a mysterious Lady who he claims inhabits the island. At first Quinn dismisses Mathis' claims as delusional. But Quinn himself becomes increasingly aware of. . . something on the island -- something both dangerous and seductive.
Down and Out in the Year 2000 by Kim Stanley Robinson
The title describes this story very well. Leroy is "down and out" in Washington, D.C., in the year 2000. The city is falling apart. National guard troops are permanently stationed at various monuments to hold the line (barely) against protestors. Buildings are falling apart, electricity seems scarce and many parts of the decaying city seem to have little or no police presence. While Leroy's girlfriend is bedridden with an ongoing flu or some undiagnosed illness, he tries to scramble for enough money to buy food. He sells drugs, grows marijuana (but somebody follows him to his hidden crops and destroys them), and plays "street music" on the kazoo. I'm not sure I saw any point to the story other than "Look how bad it will be if things don't change." This near future story seems very realistic and very depressing.
Angel Baby by Rachel Pollack
I found this story completely engrossing, partially because the narrative voice was so fresh and personable that I enjoyed reading it, and partially because I wanted to know what the heck was going on. The main character/narrator of this first-person story is a teenaged girl who is visited by what she can only label an angel. The event takes place in a parking lot, but apparently nobody else sees anything happen, although there are other people present. Afterwards the girl checks and finds that she is no longer a virgin, although she doesn't remember anything sexual happening with the angel. She mainly remembers his magnificent eyes and glorious angel language, which, for a short, transcendent time, she was able to speak.
The girl keeps these events in her heart, distancing herself from the rest of humanity for years, feeling that nothing else feels "real" or is very significant, waiting for the angel to return to impregnate her with his child. She's certain the angel will do so (her body was apparently not ready to carry the angel's child when she was first visited). As the girl graduates from high school, attends some college and drops out, and moves to New York to do secretarial work, she has some bad to passable relationships with women and men, including living with a woman who was visited by the same angel. At the end of the story, she is visited by the angel again. This visit leaves her angry at the angel, because he didn't once again grant her the ability to speak "angel language." The visit also leaves her pregnant. She delivers the child alone, seeing his tiny wings fall off and shrivel up immediately after his birth. She narrates this story a few years later, when her son is quite normal-looking, but has piercing, deep-seeing eyes that remind her of the angel.
The story contains some mature themes, including the two rapes by the angel as well as same-sex sexual relationships. But the story doesn't resort to vulgar language or overly explicit descriptions. Clearly there are parallels to the Biblical story of Mary, but there doesn't appear to be anything in the story that could be considered profane or sacrilegious. The angel seems very much like an alien, and there's nothing meant to be offensive to any particular religion.
I found this a very interesting story to read. I thought at some point I would know what this was all about. What is the reason behind the visit? What is the nature of the angel/alien/whatever? Why impregnate this particular person? What is the son for? Nothing at all was answered and one is left simply with a first person account of some very odd events and how they changed a life. These experiences, without understanding or reason, are convincingly told, and may be enough for some readers. I felt it was a good, but baffling story. But the same can be said about many of the stories in this collection.
The Neighbor's Wife by Susan Palwick
This is a poem, or as Card calls it, a story told in verse. It's only 24 lines long, but there's a lot packed into these few words. Describing the plot doesn't do justice to this piece of literature. Basically: A man's wife has recently died and he when he finds a six-legged, winged alien on his farm he nurses it back to health and teaches it to do some chores, thinking perhaps that it is his wife returned as an angel, although his neighbors know its just an alien. This is definitely not what one expects from contemporary poetry. Card's excellent and thorough introduction discusses narrative verse and s.f. poetry. I'm glad "The Neighbor's Wife" was included in this anthology, but that doesn't mean I'm going to be yearning for more s.f. poetry.
I Am the Burning Bush by Gregg Keizer
The only thing I disliked about it was the title, which didn't seem to fit the story well. "DeadMan" would have been a better title. Fans of the "Highlander" movies and the (much better) syndicated television show will find the many elements of this story very familiar, but that doesn't mean the story is derivative or unimaginative. The story is about a man who is effectively immortal. He can be killed countless time, in myriad ways, but he always returns quickly to life. This "DeadMan", as he calls himself, and four fellow astronauts were exposed to a mutated extraterrestrial virus during one mission. The "disease" causes their cells to regenerate so quickly after damage that they return to life after dying. Unfortunately (and quite unlike the Highlander mythos), the DeadMen's senses are mostly shut off except for a period of time after they die. So they kill themselves daily in order to feel more alive. They feel even more alive (although the medics don't know why) when they kill themselves in front of an audience. Another difference from Highlander "rules" is that, on rare occasions, to about one person in one hundred, they can transmit their disease by touch immediately after their death. Thus, others can become immortal as well, although those "second generation" immortals cannot transmit the condition. So desperate are people for this immortality, even with its sense-dulling price, that people pay to attend parties at which they touch the DeadMan, and then kill themselves, hoping that they will be one of the lucky few imbued with the immortality disease. The government even licenses these people as legally-allowed suicides. Most of the story simply reveals this premise, during the course of two parties. That's quite enough to make this a worthwhile read. There's a bit of additional plot involving a young woman named Lynx who tries to force the DeadMan to kill her because she can't do it herself. These events trigger some reactions by the DeadMan which reveal the extent to which his radically altered life has changed his psyche. It is not surprising that this original, disturbing tale has been anthologized twice after its first publication in Omni. This was one of my favorite stories in the anthology.
Pretty Boy Crossover by Pat Cadigan
This entire story is set in an ultra-hip night club. The main character is a "Pretty Boy," a sixteen-year-old hipster who loves to dance at the clubs and be admired for his boyish good looks. After an absence of some time he returns to the town's hottest club, Noise, where his former best friend (lover?) Bobby has been converted to a purely digital being. Bobby dances on a screen and can see and interact with the highly entertained clubbers. Bobby invites the Pretty Boy to undergo the conversion himself. But an interview in the back rooms with the technical people experimenting with this technology doesn't go so well. They push him to make the "crossover," but he's not convinced that giving up his body and becoming sentient data is such a great way to go. He leaves the club, and will probably neither go back nor ever again consider "crossing over." This decision makes this one of the most life-affirming, morally assertive stories in the anthology. The Pretty Boy may be self-centered, but at least he's not self-annihilating or dangerous to anybody else.
Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight by Ursula K. Le Guin
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this story. Glancing at the first page and seeing words like "Coyote" and "desert," I braced myself for an opaque, over-written rehash of Native American myth. But as I actually started to read the story, I found this was something very unusual and enthralling. I guarantee you've never read anything by Le Guin remotely like this, and you've probably never read anything by anybody like this story. Its uniqueness stems from many sources, including its plot, voice, and especially its setting, which combines an otherworldly realm reminiscent of the ancient Greek concept of heavenly "forms" with the grimy familiarity of the Southwestern desert and its wildlife. This is the setting that Myra, a young girl about eight years old, finds herself in after surviving a plane crash. Most of the story is about her entering and learning the nature of this realm, where beings who appear to be people, wearing jeans and making fires, are actually animals such as chipmunks, horses, chickadees, etc. But apparently they are not simply regular animals, but the animals, the prototypes ("forms"?) on which Earthly animals are based. Unfortunately, describing this story diminishes it, because the premise sounds so preposterous. Yet Le Guin's lyrical, earthy depiction of this seemingly illogical concept completely transports the reader to a very unfamiliar and unexpected reality.
All My Darling Daughters by Connie Willis
Willis portrays a future in which many people wish for their family line to be continued, but don't want the hassle of rearing children. Large sums of money buy an in vitro-fertilized child "raised" by law firms, using money placed in a trust. Octavia, the protagonist of this story is one such trust kid. As the story begins, she is also an intolerant, promiscuous, nihilistic, crude college student at an expensive private college built in an orbiting asteroid. On her first day back on campus she meets her new roommate: a shockingly innocent freshman who throws up on the bed, suffering nausea from the shuttle ride. Octavia finds herself in progressive amounts of trouble, with resulting restrictions, as she breaks rules, offends administrators, and generally doesn't care about anything except "jiggin'" (her word) with anything that moves. Unfortunately, all the men on campus seem to have returned to campus completely uninterested in servicing her, or anybody else. They are enthralled by little snake-like pets which they carry wrapped around their arms. Eventually, it becomes clear that this is very much a story about rape. The subtle message seems to be that promiscuity is closely connected to rape and child sexual abuse. This may seem like an obvious point to make, but the delivery here is artful, memorable, powerful. A less careful reading may simply shock the reader with the story's overt anti-male sense, driven home by the fact that virtually every male is portrayed as an unprincipled sexual predator and would-be rapist: fathers, boyfriends, classmates, professors, and administrators. But to dismiss the story because of this seeming black-and-white mentality would be to miss some of its underlying, less obvious substance. There are, in fact, layers of complexity here. For example, the story seems to be simultaneously feminist and strongly anti-feminist. But perhaps the most notable aspect of this story is its equal-opportunity offensiveness. It should offend men, women, conservatives, liberals, feminists, environmentalists, pet owners, young and old alike. This is a very angry piece, and it will probably surprise readers familiar with Willis' brighter, more balanced writing.
In the Realm of the Heart, In the World of the Knife by Wayne Wightman
I had never heard of Wayne Wightman before reading this story, but I plant to look for more of his work. "In the Realm of the Heart" is a powerful and memorable story which left my physically disturbed, yet did so through plot and character and intelligent ideas, not through crutches used by less mature writers such as gratuitous violence, language, sex, etc. In remarkably few pages, this story evokes the galactic expanse of Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" stories. It tells a timeless tale of Supervisor Stattor, who oversees twenty thousand worlds. Yet juxtaposed against the high concept political intrigue and mechanations of power the reader encounters constant reminders of Stattor's base human frailty. He is a man of magnificent power and mythical status, yet he is fixated on the pains of his aging, technologically propped-up body, his voracious lust for food and other creature comforts, and his total disregard for anything but his own desires, especially his desire for power.
In contrast to this fascinating galactic dictator, the story introduces Usko, an idealistic woman who was Stattor's most loyal supporter in the days twenty years ago when their movement seized power. Stattor had Usko imprisoned nearly twenty years ago, and now releases her. Multiple surprises await the reader relating to how Usko feels about her imprisonment, why Stattor sent her to prison, and why he now offers her freedom. Colliding worldviews and exquisitely twisted personalities make this story's ending jarring, impossible to anticipate, yet satisfyingly appropriate.
Rat by James Patrick Kelly
"Rat" is about a drug dealer returning from overseas with a supply of very illegal and very valuable "dust." Most of the plot features Rat's tumultuous burst through customs and his trip from the terminal through New York to his apartment, all the while pursued by potentially deadly federal agents and a "spook" sent by the drug supplier to keep an eye on him. The events here are not as important as the depiction of future New York City as a hellish, dangerous place characterized by escalating levels of technology and violence used by government, criminals, and private citizens.
A distinguishing feature of this cyberpunk tale is that Rat is literally a rat, a real rodent, although he has human-level intelligence. He is only 26 inches tall when he stands upright on his hind legs. Yet, throughout the story, nobody pays any special attention to the fact that Rat is a rat. This is apparently an utterly mundane fact, no more worthy of notice than a man wearing an earring. Think of this as "Stuart Little" meets "Miami Vice" meets Kafka. Or maybe not. Whatever the inspiration, it is an odd and disorienting experience to read about this rat scampering frenetically (and taking a cab) through such a brutal urban landscape. Although the story's protagonist is a drug dealer, the story's harsh depiction of the results of drug use -- to individuals and to society -- imbue "Rat" with a strong anti-drug sentiment.
Vestibular Man by Felix C. Gotschalk
This is a bildungsroman set in the year 2800. Derek is a military conscript from New Orleans (now called "Old Orleans") who finds himself in boot camp training to be a warrior. His drill sergeant is a 97% "biome," a powerful cyborg, and Derek considers him less than human because so much of his body has been replaced with mechanical parts, and much of his mind has been overlayed with computer programs. Derek becomes fixated on the idea of figuring out how to defeat his cyborg drill sergeant, who seems unstoppable in a fight. Derek seems a little odd himself. Although apparently a natural, organic human being, he is constantly thinking about his own equilibrium and the movement and position of his cochlear fluid. His awareness of his own organic body is detailed and strange. "Vestibular Man" is pure military bildungsroman -- treading through the well-worn standard plot points of a new-recruits-at-boot-camp story. But Derek's "vestibular" identity, his jingoistic rejection of biomes, along with the frighteningly cyberneticized nature of the drill sergeant, give this sub-genre a fresh and jarring twist.
Green Days in Brunei by Bruce Sterling
This is the longest story in the anthology, and seems to be a story that, in contrast with many of the others, is more broadly appealing and less controversial. Nevertheless, it is a very interesting and enjoyable story, perhaps the most charming one in this collection dominated by darker fiction. Bruce Sterling's Brunei of approximately forty years in the future is a compelling and plausible place. Much of the delight that comes from reading this story comes from the exquisite attention Sterling has given to milieu creation. Even without an s.f. twist it is apparent that the tiny country of Brunei, located on the tip of Borneo, is a wonderfully alien place. Combine this with an imagined backlash in the country against the world's omnipresent Net and technologies, and Sterling's Brunei becomes a fascinating place to visit. It's even a fun place, and the time spent there, although only vicariously, was surprisingly relaxing. The protagonist, a Chinese-Canadian computer programmer named Turner Choi, is frustrated by the country's backward pace. But I kept thinking he should relax a little and enjoy himself more. That's what everybody else is doing in this country which has isolated itself from the world infonets, banned television, but enjoys watching cinema in small community groups, barters for goods and frowns on people locking their doors.
Aside from the setting, the characters in "Green Days" are also fun to meet. Most stories of similar length would only have one or two characters who seem so thoroughly individualized and alive as Sterling's cast. There are more than a dozen characters who "light up the screen" with a presence so convincing that one feels they have a full life beyond the few paragraphs dedicated to them. The characters and setting combine masterfully so that one subconsciously envisions a living, breathing city functioning just off stage.
As the "Green" part of this story's title might indicate, there is an environmental message behind the story. It's a valuable, but not a preachy story. The sustainable lifestyle exemplified by Brunei has Buddhist underpinnings, combined with Malay sensibilities and Mormon-esque kampongs.
Oh, and "Green Days" is also a love story -- a very good love story, PG-rated and focused not on salaciousness but on the development of an interesting relationship.