by Edward Bryant
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
An eclectic mix of eleven stories, plus one very short poem, originally printed in various publications from 1973-1981, collected under this title in '81. The image to the right is the paperback copy I first read, although this time around it was an e-book from ReAnimusPress. They offer formats for whatever reader you have, either .mobi for Kindle, or .epub for just about everything else, but you can also follow that link to get a new paperback through Amazon's CreateSpace division. The stories received a total of fifteen award nominations, with two Nebula wins, and the book came in fourth in that year's Locus Poll for Best Single Author Collection. They are not presented in publication order here, but that's the way I read them this time. I've always preferred to experience an author from their beginnings, the better to judge their improvement (hopefully) over the years. Bryant's introduction stresses that he was primarily a short story writer, with little interest in novels, and that continued throughout his career. None here are longer than novelette, one of his other ReAnimus titles is a novella, with his only novel the previously reviewed Phoenix Without Ashes, based on Harlan Ellison's original pilot script for The Starlost.
If you only had this collection to judge, it would be difficult to pin Bryant down as to type of genre he preferred. Several are science fiction, but they range from near-future technological innovations, to genetic manipulation and vivisection, to a wildly eccentric time-travel tale. Those that are fantasy are more subtle character explorations or mental ruminations, rather than otherworldly phenomena (with one exception), and that applies to a couple that might be more accurately described as horror. Death is a common theme, either mourning for a lost love, the guilt of personal responsibility, or the acceptance of its inevitability. It would be easy to assume Bryant had several guiding influences from women throughout his life (the book is dedicated to four different women, maybe teachers?). Only one story does not feature a strong, sympathetic woman, even if she is only presented through another character's memories. As to literary style, I think the best word to describe it is "precise." Vivid visual descriptions, never too flowery, just what was needed to set the scene. Realistic dialogue, including different dialects which changed the pace of speech, plus the way conversations overlap. If I had to criticize anything, there are a couple of narrative shifts that confused me enough to have to re-read a story right away, times when the proper order of events was unclear, or when it wasn't clear if the event actually happened or was only a daydream or random thought.
The title story comes first, but it was the fourth in order of original publication, so I started with "Shark" instead. It first appeared in the anthology Orbit 12 in 1973. It consists of three different timelines, with the opening paragraphs from the middle sequence. The "present day" scenes take place near Cape Pembroke on East Falkland Island. The protagonist had previously worked in marine biology, his most regrettable job being for the U.S. military training sharks for infiltration and demolition. One of his occasional lovers, obsessed with sharks, volunteered to have her brain transplanted into a shark. The experiment was a success...depending on your perspective. It garnered Bryant his first Nebula nomination, and was also a finalist for the Jupiter, an award no longer extant, but in the mid-70s it was presented by the Instructors of Science Fiction in Higher Education. "Hayes and the Heterogyne," a novelette from 1974, was in what would prove to be the second of only three issues of the periodical Vertex. It also appeared in the earlier collection, Cinnabar. It's probably my favorite from that book, and I didn't mind reading it again, but it doesn't really fit with the others here, in either style or content. Then again, it's not any more out of place than "The Hibakusha Gallery," which is also included in another collection I may get to soon, The Baku. I think I'll wait to talk about it since it has more in common with the other stories in that book, except I will say it must have been revised from the original, since real-life historical events that had not yet occurred in 1977 are mentioned.
The poem "Winslow Crater" and four of the stories appeared in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, but "Particle Theory" was in Analog, which surprises me almost as much as it did Bryant. He got a call from then editor Ben Bova, who said he wanted to buy it, but with revisions. Bryant was able to talk him into cutting just one paragraph instead of the nearly three pages originally requested. It resulted in complaints in letters to the editor, with at least one person cancelling their subscription. It is more personally oriented than the usual nuts-and-bolts SF you'd expect from Analog, with one of the major complaints being it made no sense for a man to have a woman doctor as his GP. Plus it centers on experimental cancer treatments...and loneliness, and regret, and the longing for a dead spouse. It may not have pleased Analog readers, but it impressed enough SFWA members to get a Nebula nomination, and it was also a finalist in the Locus voting for Best Novelette. His first Nebula winner was "Stone," from the February 1978 issue of F&SF, also a Hugo and Locus finalist. A man works a futuristic feedback loop for a singer so that she can experience the exhilaration she induces in her audience. She convinces him to help her create what will prove to be her most memorable performance. Bryant says it was inspired by a Janis Joplin concert he attended, plus another, one of her last, that he regrettably had to miss. The second Nebula winner was "giANTS" (Analog, August 1979), which also had Hugo and Locus nominations. It is more scientific than the previous Analog story, but just barely, since it is also a strong character piece, with an unrequited love story, or maybe it's just a longing for a sincere friendship between a man and a woman. The fact that the government is genetically modifying ants to increase their size does not lead to the conclusion you may expect.
My first F&SF subscription began with the July 1979 issue. A month prior to that had Bryant's "Teeth Marks," which in spite of no award nominations is one of the best in this collection. It's hard to say if it's horror or fantasy, or perhaps just the ramblings of an emotionally disturbed man, skulking back to his childhood home after a political defeat. "Winslow Crater" is so minimalistic it's hard to even classify it as a poem. Just imagine the word meteor falling, falling, falling down the page, until it becomes a meteorite. "Precession" appeared in 1980's Interfaces, an original anthology edited by Ursula Le Guin and Virginia Kidd. It's one of the stories I had to re-read immediately, not only due to confusion, but also because of its mesmerizing prose. It's the type of story where you're not sure if you should be crying or laughing at the end. I definitely remember the novelette "Strata" from its first appearance in the August 1980 F&SF, and this was probably my fourth time reading it. It's still a powerful story, in my opinion the best in this collection. The strata explored are not only the geological formations of Wind River Canyon, near where Bryant grew up in Wyoming. It is also about the strata of our lives, the youthful hopes and dreams, the first glimmering of reality that puts a pause to those dreams, the pitfalls and failures, the concession to remorse and defeat, with one last surge of hope while trying to resurrect the past. Mix that with environmental concerns around the oil, gas, and coal companies ramping up their operations, the pushback from tribal communities, and what quite possibly could be spirits from eons past trying to protect their resting place. I'm not sure if it was genius or cruelty, or maybe cruel genius, for him to end it the way he did. In either case, I will never forget it.
"To See," from the 1980 anthology Berkley Showcase Volume 2, the next to last in original publication, was appropriately chosen to end the collection. It is another that could be considered fantasy, or it might be just a dream. A girl, or maybe it's a woman, maybe a very old woman, takes a journey through time, to the brink of death, then back through her life, all the way to her birth, even to what she believes is her own conception. Or maybe it's about the universe as a whole, expanding, and expanding, until it reaches its furthest limit, only to begin contracting, all the way down to the speculated Big Crunch, then to go through another creation and expansion, possibly never-ending. It's brilliant. All in only 12 pages. Last in chronology, but for some reason second in this book, is "The Thermals of August," from the May 1981 issue of F&SF. It's about futuristic hang gliding competitions in the thermal updrafts of Telluride. To avoid spoilers, I won't go into why it didn't seem right to place it that early in the book. If I had been the editor, I would have placed it in the ninth position, closing out the book with the three best stories, "Precession," "Strata," and then "To See."
In one of the first articles I wrote here, a general history of the genre directed to new readers, I said the 70s were my favorite decade, perhaps because, until recently, it was when I did the majority of my genre reading. I may not have realized it at the time, but I might have been echoing things Ed mentioned in his introduction to this collection. He talks about the state of the genre when he began in the late 60s, with the New Wave bringing in literary authors more concerned with style than science. Then that began to change with,
"...the 1970s as a decade of experimentation and consolidation, of innovation and a blending of diverse literary elements. In plainer words, the New Wave people were getting over their knee-jerk dread of all things scientific and technical, and beginning to exercise a natural curiosity about the workings of the physical universe. And the traditionalists discovered that their brilliant ideas were not defused by couching them in sophisticated prose."
Ed successfully blended the two outlooks from the beginning, both the wonders of science and the fragile humanity that has to cope with the scientific changes transforming their lives.
Sadly, Edward Bryant passed away a couple of years ago after a long bout with complications resulting from diabetes. I assume he's little known, mainly because he didn't write novels, but he was certainly cherished by those who did read his stories, as well as many writers whom he helped and encouraged through the Northern Colorado Writers Workshop. The two most prominent names that came out of that association are Dan Simmons and Connie Willis. Bryant strikes me as a man who was not afraid to embrace his emotional vulnerabilities, a man who considered that to be a strength, not a weakness. I think he would also have been inclined to consider himself a feminist, long before anyone thought to use that term to describe a man. I feel confident that no matter what type of story you prefer, there are at least two in this collection you'd enjoy. With the exception of the poem, I would rate the quality of these stories as good, to very good, all the way to excellent, among the best I've ever read. The e-book from ReAnimus, or Amazon, or Barnes & Noble, is very reasonably priced, just $3.99. I recommend it highly. I've ignored the ReAnimus titles for too long, and hope to explore the other eight Bryant books I have throughout the year. Plus, I need to track down other stories wherever I can find them. This Wikipedia page lists over 70 of his stories that were never collected after their initital publication, although just a short search this morning proves there are a few that should not be on that list. I'm looking forward to reading as many as I can find.
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