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Wednesday 17 April 2002

Swift Thoughts, by George Zebrowski
(Golden Gryphon Press, April 2002)

Reviewed by Nick Gevers

Of the many short story collections that Golden Gryphon Press has published, George Zebrowski’s Swift Thoughts is both the most intellectually ambitious and the least likeable. It’s not that Zebrowski’s work lacks value: many of the stories here are keenly conceived and quite thought-provoking; they are the product of close scientific acquaintance and acute philosophical rumination. But there’s the rub. Deep thinking (swift thinking for that matter) is appetizing in fiction when presented with humor and grace, the spry pellucid wit of a Calvino or the bantering architectonics of a Thomas Pynchon; but when dry and pedantic, it is literary poison. Often in this book, the toxin alarm sounds. Profound but indigestible sermons abound. Zebrowski thinks himself into some nasty abstract corners, and is insufficiently swift to escape them with his storyteller’s mantle intact...

So as a set of thought exercises, Swift Thoughts is more than adequate; but readable it is not. In his introduction, Gregory Benford correctly identifies Zebrowski as a philosopher-author of the European school, rigorous, precise, laconic; the parallel he draws is with Stanislaw Lem. There are similarities (both are Polish, Zebrowski an expatriate), but Lem is a comic magician, while Zebrowski is textually dour. He manages humorous touches (as in “Stooges”, featuring an invasion by aliens impersonating Curly Howard), but these are so grudging as to be perfunctory. At its worst, Zebrowski’s writing is a diet of desiccated husks: “The Number of the Sand” is an inept lecture; “The Last Science Fiction Story of the 20th Century” a reflection on simulation and imagination is so dry that it’s the last science fiction story anyone should bother reading. Even when his stories fill out and acquire more human depth, Zebrowski labors, as in “In the Distance, and Ahead in Time”, one massive Hard SF longueur about back country conservatives facing the call of the Great Wide Yonder. Such tales are enough to make the head ache, and Zebrowski’s relentless blowing of his own trumpet in his name-dropping Author’s Notes does not enhance the experience. He mistakes opinion for art, and the cost is heavy.

But having said that Swift Thoughts is dull in general literary terms, it’s time to shift the critical paradigm. Perhaps these stories should, charitably, be understood on their own terms, as Hard SF in its purest form, a set of fictionalized philosophical essays, experimental propositions couched as fables for clarity, in the vein of Martin Gardner. Zebrowski’s characters are almost literally interchangeable: in fact, a standard trio named Bruno, Felix, and June pops up all the time, reusable cardboard cut-outs; but for consistency of comprehension and standpoint, this is not a bad technique. What interests Zebrowski is just such a reliability of focus, the certainty that lessons will be learnt scrupulously, on time, every time. So, disregarding their travails of packaging, what are the lessons being administered?

Centrally, there is the painful dilemma of posthumanity. Again and again, Zebrowski addresses the inevitability, or at least the overriding necessity, of the human species rising to a higher level of consciousness, a state beyond habitual war and genocide, and perhaps beyond the clutches of death itself. It's a common thesis, but Zebrowski is more emphatic than most SF writers of the traumatic pain of such a transition; unlike Greg Egan or Brian Stableford, he has no illusions that we will enjoy becoming posthuman and thus Other. Needless to say, this candor doesn’t exactly impart effervescent joy to Swift Thoughts, but there is something grimly admirable about Zebrowski’s clear-sightedness anyway. It comes in blow after cold blow: “The Word Sweep” pictures language itself turning against us, words falling like snow to the ground as our hubristic Babel approaches all over again; “Starcrossed” features posthuman-Icarean-lovers who sacrifice everything for a few shreds of obsolete intimacy; “The Eichmann Variations” imagines a far less ambiguous Allied victory in World War Two, followed by desperate attempts to overcome the heedless arrogance at the core of fascism; “This Life and Later Ones” postulates Hell as the environment of the first people to acquire digital immortality; “Godel’s Doom” insists we inhabit a flexible, amenable universe, and will have to rise to the challenge; “Sacred Fire” is the voice of the posthuman speaking its convictions directly, utopianism without reassurance. The cumulative force of these arguments is undeniable, whatever their deficits of affect; Zebrowski has a Wellsian cognitive fire, and it cannot be entirely restrained by his leadenness of diction.

So as one proceeds deeper into Swift Thoughts, where the better stories await, it becomes impossible not to respect the author’s lucubrated bleakness. Where he relinquishes his clipped brevity and condescends actually to tell a story, a melancholy elegance shudders into view. “Bridge of Silence” is a chilling, subtle take on human-alien communication. “The Idea Trap” is a vision of reified dreams that summarizes the condition of the artist with alarming effectiveness. “Behind the Night” is a touching variation on Zebrowski’s general posthuman theme, in which the enervated remnants of imperial America step aside, into the dangerous embrace of the new. “Shrinkers & Movers” even brings some wry levity to bear on the burning of bridges, in an amusing glimpse of private frustrations. These are fine stories. But they are still, ultimately, surrounded by a surfeit of dry-as-dust allegory, and Zebrowski’s basic authorial deficiencies overpower the reader’s regard for his diagrammatic Hard SF pretensions. “Swift Thoughts” is arid posthuman pomposity; “Wound the Wind” is more of the same, worthy didactic tedium; “Rope of Glass” is George Orwell minus any subtlety; “Augie” is as dryly insufferable as its adolescent AI title character. By the end of Swift Thoughts, Zebrowski’s lectures are fully understood (repetition does that to you), but this attentiveness has not been adequately rewarded.

It’s impossible to leave Swift Thoughts behind without a profound sense of frustration. The book’s thematic content is highly significant, and that deserves acknowledgement. Unfortunately, Zebrowski has succumbed to a paradox of his chosen medium. He desires to relay ideas with honed concision, and pares his stories down to the quintessence of their message; but when he tries thus to maximize signal against noise, his adoption of unsympathetic narrative compression introduces an unpleasant stylistic discordance, a fresh noise that renders the signal almost irrelevant. It’s a great relief that Golden Gryphon’s next book is by Ian Watson, who — as Zebrowski’s dedication of Swift Thoughts to Watson intimates — is another intellectual writer, but one whose heart is in his prose.

Nick Gevers, an editor at Cosmos Books, writes extensively on SF for a wide variety of publications. He produces two monthly columns for Locus, and his reviews and interviews have also recently appeared in the Washington Post Book World, Interzone (the March 2002 issue, which he co-edited), Foundation, SF Site, and Infinity Plus. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

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